SPOTLIGHT: James Taranto Will Tell You When You’ve Been Raped

spotlight_thumbHere’s what I wanted to write about today: I wanted to write about how one of the unseen consequences of all the bickering in Congress is the continued expansion of the President’s ability to wage war on his own prerogative. That was the plan. But thanks to Wall Street Journal columnist James Taranto, I’m going to have to write about rape. Again.

If you haven’t heard about it and want to catch up, you can find his Monday piece here (at least until the WSJ puts it neatly behind its paywall.) If you haven’t read it, I’ll do what I can to recap his argument.

Basically, Taranto argues that when alcohol is involved, we can think of sexual assault the way we think of drunk driving. If two intoxicated drivers get in different cars and crash into each other, then they’re both equally responsible. So, Taranto reasons, if two people get drunk and get into a sex together, shouldn’t they both also be equally responsible? We don’t decide which of the drivers was to blame based on their gender, and we shouldn’t decide that the man in a drunken liaison is a rapist while the woman is a victim based on their genders.

Taranto worries that this “double standard” in how we treat men and women is a miscarriage of justice.

I worry that Taranto might be an idiot.

First, let me tell you a little about James Taranto – or, rather, about Mr. Taranto’s charming views about sex in contemporary America. Mr. Taranto is worried that our society systematically “criminalize[s] male sexuality” and that the wave of rapes in the military are a “political crisis”. He describes marriage as an arrangement with the main social purpose of having “men [give] up their freedom for the benefit of women and children.” He thinks that there’s a “war on men” that started with the advent of contemporary feminism in the 1960s, which is (of course) “a totalitarian mindset”. If you want to see a video of Mr. Taranto saying all of these things to fellow WSJ editor Mary Kissel, you may do so here.

Also, James Taranto would like us to call him “Tyrannosaurus Sex.”

Pictured: Tyrannosaurus Sex in its natural environment.

Pictured: Tyrannosaurus Sex in its natural environment.

Why am I telling you all of this? Am I just poisoning the well? No, I’m trying to put Mr. Taranto in context, since he seems to go so far out of his way to talk about sexual assault out of context. If Mr. Taranto wants to highlight the potential danger that there is for misunderstanding and Monday morning regrets when two drunk college students stumble away into the night, then fine. Maybe next week I’ll write about the danger that you might contract flesh-eating bacteria if you scrape your knee on the sidewalk.

Here are some numbers, which I’ve talked about in a prior post:

If you are a woman who has gone to college, there is a 1-in-4 chance that you will be the victim of a rape or attempted rape. If you are a woman who has not gone to college, that number drops – but only to 1-in-6. Overwhelmingly, rapes are perpetrated by someone the victim knows. Most of the time, they are not reported to the police. When they are reported, most are not prosecuted. False reports happen, but they are rare.


What isn’t rare is the systematic disinterest that women face when reporting rape. This woman was assaulted by her boyfriend, and when she spoke up, her university threatened her with expulsion. In Detroit, more than 10,000 rape kits were ‘forgotten’, and the city is only now getting around to testing them – but even in jurisdictions that haven’t declared bankruptcy, the backlog of rape kits can stretch into the thousands. Nationwide, estimates put the number of sexual assaults that lead to prison time at around 3%.

Mr. Taranto is right about rape reports being subjected to a different standard, but that standard seems to be that it is taken less seriously than other violent crimes. How callous and myopic do you have to be to believe that the real tragedy here is not how our society ignores rape, but rather that men aren’t given carte blanche to pursue their sexual conquests?

There’s another disturbing undercurrent in Mr. Taranto’s argument, which ignores the thorny issue of consent. First, as a matter of law, a person who is intoxicated cannot give consent. Yes, this can get weird. Just as it can get weird that two underage teenagers also can’t consent to their liaisons, but we don’t respond to that by doing away with age-of-consent laws. The role of prosecutors and the courts is to make sure that these legal standards are applied in a way that serves justice. That doesn’t always happen, but I don’t see a rash of men going to prison over and against the objections of their partners.

Am I saying that it has never happened? I’m sure it has, but you don’t base policy on the rare and extreme exception.

But here’s the thing that I don’t feel Mr. Taranto is willing to accept: if you’re going to have sex with someone, then you have to affirmatively have their consent. That’s the legal and the moral standard. It isn’t OK to go around having sex with people until they affirmatively stop you. That’s why the laws are written the way they are.

And is it true that gender plays a role in how those laws are applied? Yes. Mr. Taranto calls this an unfair double-standard, which is ironic in the extreme because he’s so fond of telling us that men and women aren’t really equal to begin with. You’d think he’d be all for treating them differently. But, never mind – my questions is this: do I really need to explain to Mr. Taranto how men and women are differently equipped to enter into a sexual encounter? Do I need to explain to him how much easier it is for men to protect their right of consent than it is for women? How unlikely it is that a woman could rape a man who is intoxicated to the point of losing consciousness?

Surely, I don’t. No, not to Mr. Tyrannosaurus Sex.

Follow Pedro on Twitter @IamPedroA.

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