November 18, 2008

Jezebels With A Cause

By: Helen Rittelmeyer

Whoever was in charge of deciding what to call each generation of feminism knew what she was doing when she settled on the metaphor of waves: Do what you will, they just keep coming.

One sign that the Third Wave is washed up came last June when two young writers shocked their movement elders by carrying the revolution too far. These young women took the worst of the media firestorm that followed, but both sides should realize that, in the usual storyline, scandalizing the establishment is the scene that comes right before the new wave’s take-over.

The trouble started last July when Lizz Winstead hosted Moe Tkacik and Tracie Egan on her Internet talk show “Thinking and Drinking.” Winstead is a humorist who had a hand in the creations of both the Daily Show and Air America; Tkacik and Egan are writers for the Gawker consortium’s un-PC feminist blog, Jezebel. (Tkacik has since been laid off.) The show included exchanges on controversial issues like date rape and condom use. An excerpt:

Moe: Pulling out always works for me.


Moe: I guess the third guy I ever had sex with date raped me. I got very mad at him, but I wasn’t gonna f*cking like turn him in to the police and f*cking go through sh*t.

Lizz: Why not? You see, that’s the problem, why not? I’m just curious.

Moe: Because it was a load of trouble and I had better things to do, like drinking more. 


Moe: One thing that I would say about this particular guy, and then I want to be done with it, is that this guy, I always felt safe around him even after he date raped me. I always wanted to be like, Oh, you should know that you did the wrong thing . . .

Lizz [interrupting]: You’re digging yourself into a huge hole darling, really, I gotta be honest. You were not safe with him. He raped you. I can’t let the story go on any more.

The following week Winstead wrote a Huffington Post editorial condemning Tkacik and Egan’s on-air behavior, setting off a controversy over who owns feminism.

To tell the story of what happened on the night of the interview, it is necessary to pick a side or channel Rashômon. Either Winstead blindsided Tkacik and Egan with harder questions than they had been given to expect, or Tkacik and Egan were so irresponsibly drunk by the time they went on the air that no line of questioning could have led anywhere good. Either Winstead is a victim-blaming scold for insisting that Tkacik should be angrier than she is about having been date raped in college, or Tkacik is a selfish anti-feminist for letting the guy off with nothing but a reproach over the next morning’s eggs and coffee. The Jezebel girls set a bad example by being so cavalier about their glamorous, unsafe, sex-drugs-and-indie-rock lifestyle; that, or they were just taking a stand against repression and slut-shaming.

In the days that followed, few feminists defended Tkacik and Egan, and those who did pled for lenience on the grounds that the pair’s irreverent style shouldn’t be taken too seriously. After all, Jezebel has headlines like “Sex Without Condoms is Actually Better than Diamonds, People!” and “Dad Who Waxes Daughter’s Bikini Area Returns to Tyra.” Two of their writers made flippant comments? Dog bites man. “I thought this thing was supposed to be a comedy show,” explained Egan on her own blog. “I mean, to our friends, it was just Moe and Tracie being Moe and Tracie—drunk, irreverent, drunk.”

It’s a shame that their defenders picked up this line of reasoning, because the flap over Tkacik and Egan’s comments could have been an opportunity to give Jezebelism a dramatic debut as a movement worth taking seriously, a new wave of feminism finally come of age. Watching the video, it’s hard not to interpret the tension between the two sides as the ambition of a couple of young Turks coming up against the anxiety of a fading generation confronted with its rebellious protégés.

What exactly is Jezebelism? Winstead’s editorial gives us the uncharitable version: Jezebelism means advocating the pull-out method, shrugging off sexual assault, and blogging about one’s riotous sex life without warning readers that there are risks involved. It’s selfish, dangerous, irresponsible, and a radical departure from the cooperative solidarity that marked the women’s movement in the 20th century.

But there’s another way to think about Tkacik and Egan’s brand of feminism that makes it sound less like a radical departure from Third Wave feminism and more like its inevitable consequence. Consider the most controversial part of the interview, Winstead and Tkacik’s exchange about date rape:

Tracie: People are always saying it’s not safe to go home with strange men, blah blah blah, like Mister Goodbar, whatever…

Moe: What’s gonna happen?

Lizz: You could get raped.

Moe: That’s happening too, but you live through that.

Lizz: Sometimes you don’t. 

Moe: That’s true if they have weapons.

The public debate over date rape—how it should be defined and how it should be prosecuted—has ground to a standstill. Say that a woman should know better than to go to a man’s apartment alone when she knows him to be sexually interested in her, and you will be accused of saying that victims of rape were asking for it. Say that a woman should be able to get stumbling drunk on a date without any worry that things will proceed further than she wants, and you will be accused of encouraging irresponsible behavior and ignoring human nature. City Journal’s Heather Mac Donald suffered considerable backlash against an article she wrote on the inflation of campus rape statistics. (Jezebel’s take: “If only young women were at the library studying on Saturday nights, Mac Donald seems to be saying, then this rape nonsense wouldn’t be such a problem!”) Camille Paglia’s public crucifixion at the hands of liberal feminists is legendary. On the ground, ordinary women continue to be confused about whether their own regrettable encounters qualify as rape, and these ambiguous nights continue in sufficient number to furnish Tom Wolfe with material.

In one particularly confusing controversy that came to national attention this past January, a Lewis & Clark College sophomore sent an evening text message to an old flame, arranged to come to his room, stripped naked, and voluntarily got into his bed, at which point, in her words, oral sex “started happening.” At some point in this declension, the woman began pushing against her bedmate’s torso, a gesture he disregarded. The entire L & C campus was invited to consider the question of whether or not the young man in this story was a rapist after the sophomore started a Facebook group calling him one.

Tkacik’s attitude cuts the Gordian knot of these dilemmas by making date rape not much worse than any other kind of regrettable sex. It qualifies as a crime insofar as it is intercourse without consent, but the psychological consequences need not be any more severe than the aftermath of a fender-bender. By treating the experience like water off a duck’s back, Tkacik turned victimhood into empowerment; she took what could have been a symbolic representation of men’s ownership of women’s bodies and robbed it of its symbolism. Men rape because they want power, and stoicism like Tkacik’s takes that power away. As she put it in a 2007 entry, “When a guy demeans you in a drunken state, it is more likely to stick with you and haunt you if you give anything resembling a shit about his opinion.” In the same post, she described her own date rape as “one drunken regrettable night. One of so, so many more to come.” Clearly, for a calibrated mind, it is possible for date rape to have no extraordinary psychological effects.

Those who are skeptical that women can get over date rape so easily should remember that Tkacik isn’t describing how women should feel, only how she does feel. Far from being psychologically impossible, just getting over it seemed to her like the intuitive thing to do. I would imagine that such resilience is within the grasp of any young woman whose sexual code is sufficiently modern. If there is only a slight difference between the guy you’d have intercourse with and the guy you’d only have other kinds of sex with—in other words, if intercourse is simply not that big of a deal—then the nuances of “consent” are just so many angels dancing on pinheads.

I’m not sure that either side would appreciate the comparison, but Winstead’s position in the present debate is similar to the dilemma social conservatives were forced to confront ten years ago. Advocates of chastity once argued that women simply couldn’t handle years of impermanent and emotionally hazardous flings. They might put up a front of sexual fearlessness in the name of liberation, but an innate female need for commitment and real intimacy would inevitably resurface. Subsequent generations devastated this argument by proving that one can lead a life of sexual adventure and emerge psychologically stable. Conservatives were forced to switch their party line from “Women can’t” to “Women can, but they shouldn’t.”

In much the same way, Third Wave feminism asserts that date rape is a dangerous tool used by men in order to claim control of women’s bodies, a violation of self-ownership that any woman should find dehumanizing and devastating. Then came a new generation, one more willing to entertain the idea that, when a man takes an already sexual encounter one specific step too far, it’s a violation of self-ownership only to the extent that stealing a woman’s copy of The Feminine Mystique is a violation of book-ownership: criminal, but nothing to get into therapy over. Women like Tkacik more than entertain the idea; they live it. For a woman to respond to “You could get raped” with “That’s happening too, but you live through that” indicates a casual attitude towards date rape that past generations of feminists would have found unthinkable—but only as unthinkable as another generation once found the idea of a spiritually fulfilling promiscuity.

When Tkacik publicly stated that she felt perfectly comfortable continuing to spend time with the man who had date raped her, it was a minor revolution. Feminists like Winstead now have to admit that invincibility through indifference is possible, and must instead take up the task of explaining why it is nevertheless undesirable. It’s hard for them to argue that their old-fashioned stance is more pleasant to believe; as Tkacik put it in the interview, “It’s ridiculous to be like, ‘You can never know, and you have to be on guard at all times!’ It’s like the War on Terror.” As for making a moral case, they have retreated from the grounds for making such an argument. The strain of feminism that currently predominates celebrates choice and asserts that every woman has a right to choose whichever professional, moral, and sexual lifestyle she prefers. And what’s not to prefer in Jezebelism?

That, perhaps, is the most important question: Even if we admit that one corollary of a hyperactive sex life can be the ability to make date rape an emotional non-issue, why should we regard Tkacik and Egan as model citizens and not sad little girls? Aren’t there costs associated with their brand of empowerment? The answer here depends on one’s priorities, and the priorities of modern feminism give them no excuse not to lionize the Jezebel girls. Tkacik’s blithe resilience puts teeth in the feminist refusal to be made a victim, a claim that was always hard to believe when the non-victim proceeded to stand behind campus Cotton Mathers as they inflated statistics and shouted for expulsions. Third Wave feminists have said that women should be able to pursue sex as aggressively as men do, but it’s Jezebelism that makes this ambition possible. Tkacik and Egan can afford to be sexually liberated because even the worst version of a bad night on the town is something they can breeze past in a day or two. Also, by refusing to get hysterical about date rape, Tkacik and Egan have banished the last disguised remnants of the West’s anxiety about female purity; there has always been something of antique “purity” in feminism’s worries about “violation.”

Ultimately, to adopt Tkacik’s philosophy of sex is to open oneself up to pleasure and cut oneself off from pain. Third Wavers might like to paint it as one choice among many, but, with advantages like these, it’s an obviously preferable one. I can understand how someone with a moral opposition to the other aspects of a Jezebel-style sex life might reject such empowerment, but it’s hard to see why anyone without such concerns would object. Before the interview turned to date rape and pulling out, Winstead told a story about how her group of college friends used to find men the night before moving apartments and sleep with them in order to get help moving furniture. This doesn’t undermine her argument that sex without consent should be illegal, but it makes it difficult for her to say straight-faced that gray rape should be an emotional catastrophe.

There are other reasons to suspect that Jezebelism will prove an irresistible path. Consider feminism’s attitude towards promiscuity. The option of engaging in sex before marriage is not as optional as it was made to seem, and not just because of men’s changed expectations. Ask a Third Waver to speculate on why a woman might embrace chastity, and her first answers are likely to be psychological, not moral. Any feminist who pays lip service to chastity as a valid choice but condemns as patriarchal the most common motivations for chaste living—religion, fear of sex as something too powerful to be controlled, modesty, and a commitment to female virtue—cannot really be said to hold chastity and promiscuity in equal esteem. Feminism’s perfect world isn’t one in which some women choose a Dionysian sex life and others choose a conservative one, but rather one in which no woman chooses a conservative sex life for any religious, moral, or psychological reason that can be attributed to patriarchal structures—in other words, for any religious, moral, or psychological reason.

Similarly, I can think of reasons to reject the kind of inner strength that comes from not taking date rape very seriously, but none of them are very feminist-friendly. One might say that it devalues intercourse, but giving sexual license the same moral credibility as sexual restraint has already accomplished that. One might say that it encourages risky behavior, but insisting on a human right to get trashed at a frat party in perfect safety has already accomplished that. It is important to convince men that date rape is morally unacceptable, but there are plenty of things that are understood to be morally off-limits and also understood to be something less than emotionally devastating.

Either sex is mundane or it isn’t. If it is mundane, then it doesn’t make sense to get so riled about men who seize marginally more intimacy than they were offered. If it isn’t mundane, then feminism will have to undo two decades’ work and resurrect words like “slut.” If Winstead had listened more closely to what Tkacik and Egan were saying during her interview with them, she would have heard the protest chants of her generation repeated as the commonplaces of today. She may have found their opinions shocking, but they are only the inevitable consequence of her own generation’s battles.