That's What She Said.

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Rape Meme

I finally bothered addressing my haters on the Double X but I know the purists among you will want to read the unabridged version:

Linda Hirshman is a celebrated author, lawyer and philosophy professor. Lizz Winstead is a comedian and political satirist who co-founded the infallible Daily Show. I am a financial journalist who a few years ago was driven by financial necessity into the Hobbsean field of stay-at-home punditry known as professional blogging. That someone with my resume would be capable of (almost completely inadvertently) capturing the interest of individuals fitting the first two descriptions is one of the few perks of submitting oneself to the draining, malodorous conditions of my industry. I should be totally stoked to have gotten myself into a flame war with two persons of such distinction. And in any other case, over any other issue, I am sure I would be. But that’s just the issue: what the hell is the issue?

If there ever was an underlying philosophical debate to this feud it has certainly been lost over the course of its convoluted history, which began last June, when Hirshman wrote a column for the Washington Post Outlook section bemoaning support of Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton among white women of my generation. The Post website commissioned me to author a rebuttal to Hirshman’s screed. The gist of her argument was that my generation had “somewhat ignobly” abandoned the feminist politics of self-interest in favor of policies more interested in serving humanity. I suggested this might be because we care about people other than our partners in demography, she mocked me for the “blogger’s disease” of emoting, but by October she was praising Obama for taking up “the daunting task of explaining to Americans why they should once again care for one another.” If there was any substance to this debate, Hirshman has already conceded the victory to “The Great Political Theorist Maureen Tkacik.”

But internet wars are nothing if not severely substance-resistant, and “events” as I have thus far recounted them comprise a tiny fraction of the millions of page views and tens of thousands of inflammatory comments this war would generate when Winstead read my column, as any substance averse internet addict may know.

Now, I do not know how exactly I wound up agreeing to appear on Thinking and Drinking, a small New York comedy production hosted by Winstead under the rubric of something aptly called “Shoot The Messenger Productions.” The thing was mostly coordinated by my friend and Jezebel colleague Tracie Egan, who is also named in Hirshman’s indictment of Jezebel and had been invited to the show by one of Winstead’s producers, who professed to be a daily reader of the site. The producer told us she and Winstead felt Jezebel represented a new class of emerging media outlets that “got it,” and wanted to interview us about sex, pop culture and politics; Tracie said the latter was my beat and the two of us agreed to handle the show together. All I know is that the Hirshman rebuttal seemed to be my only piece of writing Winstead had read, and by the time she brought it up a much bigger and less coherent battle was well underway.

Here’s what happened: I showed up skittish after a day at the blog, was handed two beers and instructed to get drunk; imbibed them while watching a political comedy show and waiting anxiously for Tracie to arrive; before long we were onstage joking about sex. Winstead asked Tracie if she believed abortion was an ideal form of contraception; Tracie said the pullout method was a lot less painful; Winstead offered that she’d had a sufficient number of abortions to be warrant the pet name “Terminator 3” and reminisced about a more promiscuous era during which she offered sex to men as a quid pro quo for their assistance moving boxes in the morning; I told a charming story about my mother assuming my toothbrush was a vibrator; suddenly Winstead wanted to know how we balanced our “sexual freedom” with the fact that “it’s not always safe to just have a free, 100% total sexual life.” Then I offered, god knows why, that during a more promiscuous era I had in fact gone home with a guy when I’d been locked out of my house and fallen victim to date rape; Winstead refilled our wine cups a few more times and demanded to know why I hadn’t reported the incident to police, and in a clumsy and drink-addled and characteristically idiotic attempt to inject humor back into the conversation, I replied that I’d had “better things to do, like drinking more,” a comment that Winstead would highlight in a furious post on her Huffington Post blog the following week.

From there my statements would go on to scandalize pundits right and left, professional and troll. On the PBS program “To The Contrary”, the Heritage Foundation’s Genevieve Wood would concur with Women’s Campaign Forum president Ilana Goldman’s assessment that my performance “reflect[ed] badly on women as a class.” Subdued but never vanquished by such competing memes as the collapse of the global financial system and the historic election of Hirshman’s care advocate in chief, the conflict would flare up again in December, when New York magazine would use it to peg a trend piece on women and drinking in a passage Leonard Lopate would repeat in horror on his eponymous radio show later that month.

But it was Hirshman who bravely courted charges of “overness” when she carried this meme into the current year, nearly to its first anniversary, in honor of the debut of the website Double X.

I turned on my computer one morning last summer, and there was a YouTube clip of two women, manifestly drunk, discussing why one of them could not be bothered to call the police when she was raped.

Fucking this again??, I thought, and pondered finally defending myself on a blog or something. I had not bothered to formally defend myself regarding the issue — and yeah, drinking was among the activities that seemed more worthwhile — beyond placing an irritated call to Lopate in December. What, I asked him, did you think I meant when I said that? Did it strike you as serious?

"It sounded awful to me, I gotta tell you Moe," he said. "It said to me I’m willing to put myself in a dangerous situation again."

Oh Jesus, but okay. I offered him a few contextual details: it was uttered during a comedy show. Called Thinking & Drinking. In response to a disarmingly serious (and I have been told inappropriate, but whatever) question. Concerning something that had happened ten years earlier. To a younger, former self I get to joke about now because I am old enough to have trustworthy sex partners to whom to turn when I lose my keys.

The New York writer offered that she felt the comment had been “tongue-in-cheek.” Suddenly Lopate got it. “It was in the same kind of spirit that when people used to ask me when I was a smoker if I knew about cancer, and I would say, ‘please don’t make me nervous, I’m going to need another cigarette,’ and I thought that was witty at the time,” he said. Exactly!

"Now I think I was being an idiot, but that’s a whole other matter."

"People make short-term decisions all the time that counteract their long-term interests!" I said, eyeing the pack of Parliaments on my coffee table longingly. "I mean, that is just life.

Next caller.

Which is, of course, part of the answer to Hirshman’s (rhetorical?) question: “How can women supposedly acting freely and powerfully keep turning up tales of vulnerability — repulsive sexual partners, pregnancy, STDs, even rape?” Yes, drinking is fun, and sex feels better without a condom. I can come up with some pretty good evolutionary biology-based explanations as to why these things are true, but human biology never seems to quite keep pace with the aspirations of its civilization. Our long-term and short-term desires are locked in permanent conflict with one another, and then you die.

Which brings me to the bigger obvious explanation for why supposedly free women persist in being vulnerable all the time, which can also be summarized by a popular beachwear slogan known as “shit happens.”

In truth I didn’t report my date rapist for a whole slew of reasons other than the opportunity cost of all the lost boozing hours. Because I remembered events only well enough to find them more insulting than traumatizing. Because I chewed him out in the morning and told everyone I knew and thought that would be more productive. And after I chewed him out and things calmed down he asked me about my job at the local newspaper, where at the time I covered murders and drug busts and violent, non-date rapes committed by sociopathic serial rapists who preyed on crack addicted hookers whose mangled bodies eventually turned up in state parks. Which was another thing I was busy with that summer, logging enough in various outposts of the Philadelphia criminal justice system to know much better than my date rapist the odds that such a case would hold up in a 20-mile radius of a grand jury: zero.

I could have said that to Winstead, and added that there are probably more productive ways to shame douchebag fratboys than volunteering to testify in court about something rather unmemorable that happened while you were passed out drunk, because fundamentally I felt then and still feel that the problem of douchebags cannot be solved in courtrooms. The problem of douchebags is that they are so divorced from the reality of the world outside their frat houses that they lack any conception whatsoever of what sort of shit is really happening. I did not believe the problem with my date rapist was something you would find in the DSM because it seemed to be fundamentally less a deliberate act but a sin of omission, a disregard of the lives or desires of anyone but himself that happened one drunk night to enable him to tell himself, “Nah, she’s just saying no.” So I told him about this housewife I knew who ministered to junkies in the worst slums of the citiy, and how American drug policy is so totally fucked up it is willing to pay three or four times the cost of rehab to incarcerate addicts and petty drug criminals when white collar fraudsters like Michael Milken had campus buildings named after them, etc. etc.. And I lit up a cigarette and he told me not to smoke because his father had had lung cancer.

And in retrospect it is funny that he would castigate me for smoking (and on the basis of his father’s having succumbed to a major health hazard that was not exactly some secret, hello Lopate) so soon after “victimizing” me. But my first impulse, and maybe this is a woman thing, was to feel lucky for my own dad’s good health and remember how shit happens to everyone, all the time, and how much worse it could be. I never ended up quitting, though. Maybe Hirshman can get a column out of that.

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