I would like to thank Emily Yoffe for her article The Best Rape Prevention: Tell College Women to Stop Getting So Wasted, in which she spends more than 2,700 words explaining young women’s “responsibility” when it comes to preventing their own rapes. Not because I like it – it’s infuriating – but because it serves as a perfect example of a particularly insidious form of concern trolling. Let’s call this sub-species of troll, who criticizes women’s behavior in the guise of being concerned for their well-being, a “responsibility troll.”
The responsibility troll has a problem: he or she has a lot of thoughts about the way Women Ought to Behave, but knows that it’s socially unacceptable to insist directly on double standards for men and women. Luckily, however, our society is totally fine with restricting women’s lives if it’s for their own good (or, sometimes, for their children’s). Problem solved!
The responsibility troll won’t say that it’s not ladylike for women to drink the way men do – but she wants you to be aware that studies show that women who get drunk are more likely to get raped. The responsibility troll knows you think your right to choose is important, but he feels you ought to know that studies show that women who have abortions end up sad ladies who are full of regret. The responsibility troll doesn’t tell women that they should prioritize their babies over their careers – but does feel a need to point out that studies show that exclusive breast-feeding is best for the infant. Studies show, you know. The responsibility troll loves studies.
Responsibility trolls mimic the markings of genuinely helpful friends, so it can be difficult to distinguish them on first glance. However, if you know the signs, you’ll be able to easily spot these trolls in the wild.
1. It’s not your fault you do dumb things. You can’t be expected to know any better. (Because you’re dumb and the responsibility troll hasn’t told you what to do yet.)
The responsibility troll can rarely resist insulting the people he or she is supposedly trying to help. Emily Yoffe, for instance, refers to college women as “naïve” and “inexperienced,” repeatedly references their lack of “responsibility,” and suggests that they won’t know intoxication increases their vulnerability to sexual assault unless they are specifically trained on that subject – preferably via a program that includes older students describing the horror of their own assaults. Genuinely concerned friends won’t start from the assumption that you’re a moron, so if this happens to you, you’re probably dealing with a responsibility troll.
2. Double Standards = Double the Fun!
The responsibility troll loves double standards. Except, he or she will hasten to point out, they aren’t really double standards – it’s just that women should address woman problems, and men should address man problems. See? Fair!
Getting raped, for instance – that’s a woman problem if ever there was one. (You would never know, from listening to a responsibility troll, that men can be raped too.) That’s why Yoffe tells her daughter to remember that “it’s her responsibility to take steps to protect herself” from sexual assault.
Being falsely accused of rape, on the other hand, is a man problem. Yoffe tells her hypothetical son that “it’s in his self-interest not to be the drunken frat boy who finds himself accused of raping a drunken classmate.” (No mention of anything the imaginary lad might do to prevent rape, such as intervening if he sees an acquaintance trying to take advantage of an inebriated woman. That would be asking a man to solve a woman problem, and therefore unjust.) Personal responsibility!
3. It’s not that it’s your fault, it’s just that you have to take responsibility for your choices, and if you had made different choices, this would never have happened.
The responsibility troll can’t imagine any effective way to solve woman problems except via improvements in women’s behavior. It’s all about “personal responsibility,” remember? That’s why, to a responsibility troll, the victim’s intoxication is the most relevant part of this particular story:
“As she dealt with her shame and guilt, she talked to friends about that night, and the real story emerged. She was so intoxicated that her friends were worried about her when she stumbled out of the bar disoriented and without her shoes. They said they saw her being led away by the male classmate who was not drunk. She came to understand that she had been raped. “Since I realized it wasn’t my fault, I crawled out of a deep, dark hole,” she says. She also knew he’d done it before. “He had this reputation if you were going to be drunk around him, he was probably going to have sex with you.”
That’s right: this perpetrator was apparently a known sexual predator. The rapes this man had committed in the past had not led to his ostracization from their social group, so he was still around, trolling for victims. This victim’s friends, who were sober enough to realize what was going on at the time and remember it later, failed to intervene when they saw this known rapist leading away their inebriated companion. And yet Yoffe focuses on the victim’s behavior. Personal responsibility!
To the responsibility troll, the solution is always more personal responsibility – preferably on the part of women. Later in her article, Yoffe spends several paragraphs bewailing the non-rape-related dangers that binge drinking poses to students of both sexes, but then brightly offers a solution: “If female college students start moderating their drinking as a way of looking out for their own self-interest – and looking out for your own self-interest should be a primary feminist principle – I hope their restraint trickles down to the men.” (Emphasis mine, because of wow.) Apparently, it’s not even worth considering asking men to act differently until women’s behavior is perfect – at which point we should just cross our fingers that the runoff of from all that feminine rectitude will have magical dude-improving powers.
Readers attempting to spot a responsibility troll in the wild will do well to remember that no one who actually cares about you will suggest that you rely on “trickle-down” anything. Such statements are a sign that you’ve fallen into the clutches of either a responsibility troll, or a Reaganite Republican. Either way, it’s time to make your escape.
4. Pat Riarchy? Didn’t he play first base for the Yankees?
The responsibility troll is very, very uncomfortable examining any role that patriarchy, racism, or other such societal-level issues might play in the problem at hand – or the degree to which his or her trolling might be reinforcing those same harmful norms. The responsibility troll will make the obligatory references to societal obligations in order to defend herself against snarky bloggers like yours truly, but they’ll be tossed off in a cursory fashion, and usually followed immediately by the word “but.”
For instance: “[o]f course, perpetrators should be caught and punished. But when you are dealing with intoxication and sex, there are the built-in complications of incomplete memories and differing interpretations of intent and consent.”
“Built-in complications?” Wonder what those could be.
The source Yoffe cites – a guide to prosecuting alcohol-facilitate rape issued by the National District Attorneys’ Association – contains an extensive discussion of the ways in which social disapproval of women’s drinking makes it difficult to prosecute rapists. For instance, “jurors may view a voluntarily intoxicated victim with skepticism or dislike, and may assume that she put herself in danger with her behavior.” (Apparently responsibility trolls serve on juries, too.)
Articles like Yoffe’s bolster those harmful beliefs, but she doesn’t engage with them. Instead, she compares the difficulties of prosecuting rape-by-intoxication cases – in which the victim’s intoxication must be proven – to the relative simplicity of prosecuting DUIs, in which the perpetrator’s drunkenness is at issue. By doing so, she manages not only to subtly equate being the victim of rape to being the perpetrator of a DUI, but also to completely miss the fact that her own source says that such judgmental attitudes are one of the reasons why alcohol-facilitated assaults are so difficult to prosecute in the first place.
5. Who cares about the facts? Personal responsibility!
The claims made by the study-spouting responsibility troll are often at some variance from the facts on the ground. For instance, as Yoffe’s colleague Amanda Hess pointed out in her excellent response to Yoffe’s article, statistics suggest rates of rape and female binge drinking are actually negatively correlated with each other: the Justice Department’s national crime victimization study shows that there has been a precipitous fall in the number of rapes per capita since 1979, while rates of binge drinking among women spiked in the 1990s and have remained steady ever since.* And it’s also quite odd that Yoffe responded to claims that a 14-year-old high school student was assaulted by her teenaged schoolmate by criticizing the choices of … college students? It’s almost as if the responsibility troll is just looking for any excuse to make a trollish point.
All joking aside, though, this kind of thing does real harm. It shames victims. It supports norms that demand that women choose between their freedom and their safety. And it distracts from strategies that might actually lower the incidence of sexual assault. It needs to stop.
* The pedantic nerd in me notes that I have not examined the methodology of those two studies, and so can’t say if it’s reasonable to match their results against each other in this way. That being said, I haven’t seen any evidence that the correlation goes the other way, as Yoffe seems to be claiming.