“Man-Size,” the Rolling Stone Scandal and Oh Yeah! Why I Write

Song of the week: PJ Harvey’s “Man-Size,” from her 1993 album Rid of Me, replayed on the radio as I was working through a touch of simmering rage about being a woman.

Why so ragey?

“Man-Size” came on as I drove through the neighborhood where I lived as a young woman, 20 years old, at the height of the PC movement. This is where I had my first apartment, my first job, my first “real life.” It’s where I first heard PJ Harvey and Liz Phair.

It’s where it sank in for the first time that, were I to be assaulted, I was supposed to call the same cops who ogled my breasts when I crossed the street in front of them, the cops who took more than 20 minutes to arrive when I called and said the couple next door were beating the shit out of each other.

It’s also where I used to sit in dark cars, in living rooms, or on the phone with young men whom I kinda or really loved, nice guys who were deeply hesitant about sex because they listened to their other friends and their moms and the Riot Grrrl movement, and their eyes had been opened to male privilege, which wasn’t a term we used, but we were questioning how masculinity and femininity and violence played into the rituals of sex in our world, to the point where I remember several of them even questioning whether their good-hearted hesitancy meant they were gay, which was their business, but given that they’re all married to women now, perhaps wasn’t the actual thing.

Shrugging off the Rolling Stone scandal

Last week, news broke about a 2014 story in Rolling Stone magazine that reported a purported gang rape that allegedly took place in a frat house at the University of Virginia.

You probably know the details. In the fall, Rolling Stone published a lengthy story about a woman who said she had been gang-raped in a fraternity house at UVA. Last week, an independent report by the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism detailed the many ways Columbia has disproven the Rolling Stone story. In the meantime, the story went viral. Columbia reports nearly 2.7 million hits on the (false) tale.

Until that day in the car, I’d been a bit blasé about the Columbia report. Maybe rolling my eyes—another false report, another botched reporting job. Underneath the eye rolling, I shrugged, because obviously, even if this story isn’t true, rape is a problem on campus. Everyone knows that, right?

Yet in the one Facebook conversation I engaged in about the case, the level of discourse got depressing. Men argued against evidence existing about any “rape culture” on campus. One person acknowledged that women are “sexually harassed” on campus, although I’d argue that sexual harassment is so daily for #YesAllWomen that it barely leaves a conscious mark—unlike rape and other forms of assault. A couple of men and a woman concerned for her sons suggested people stop using the term “rape culture” because it’s imprecise.

The implication is that if this story was inaccurate, perhaps many reports of rape are invented. Maybe “implication” is too strong. It’s more a sense, like a riptide below the conversation (and here I’ll say, caveat emptor, because conversational riptides are even less precise than catchphrases with cultural currency, like “rape culture”).

Let’s follow this logic to its natural conclusion, allow the riptide to carry us far from shore and into the depths of our cultural unconscious. Tsk-tsking away the Rolling Stone story with logic, and debating how the reporter should be disciplined because this story wasn’t true, is comforting. That debate lets us pull out of the riptide and paddle away, parallel to shore, exhausted but relieved to be safe, confident this was an isolated or nearly isolated incident.

That’s fine. It’s important to talk about journalism in that way.

But what about women? What about the people who haven’t made up these stories? What if they are real? What if they don’t go away? What if nobody wants to hear them, and so they are silenced, and we give up on this problem and go back to saying bad things happen when people drink or boys will be boys or this whole thing is overblown?

Not man-size

That’s why “Man-Size” this week, in this context, hit me in a visceral way.

Despite women’s concerns being in fact human concerns (remember my old guy friends and their discomfort about sex?), some people are quick to try to logic away these concerns—presto!

This means one thing, and this is what made me choke up when I heard Harvey’s 22-year-old song (Good lord! 22! Older than I was when I first heard it!):

Women still aren’t man-size.

Still! In 2015! We’re still small. (This too confounds me on a personal level—being small—because in another metric of women’s perceived worth, clothing size, I’ve been too big since I was twelve, except for a brief period when I was so lonely I could not eat.) Non-man-sized women are something to be brushed off.

Women’s not being man-sized makes people say pish-posh, rape culture, the term has no meaning. It is a simplistic term, I’ll grant you. Yet people have seized on the term because “rape culture” encompasses, in one phrase, the maelstrom of assault, social and cultural pressure, focus on women’s attire and behavior, the pressures and biological and mental confusion of intoxication, and the power dynamic on and off campus that makes this adolescent period a time that scars a lot of women (and sometimes men).

Evidence vs. anecdote

In the thread that rankled me so, a criminal defense attorney wrote that he is “skeptical of a public safety emergency that has no statistics behind the assumptions used to ‘solve’ the problem.” His point is well taken, and he’s talking about his own work on another emergency, but there are stats—both studied and unstudied—reflecting the scars that concern me.

For instance, here is a sampling from the National Sexual Violence Resource Center:

  • The percentage of completed or attempted rape victimization among women in higher educational institutions may be between 20% and 25% over the course of a college career. (The Sexual Victimization of College Women. National Institute of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2000)
  • Eighteen percent [of the sample] experienced an attempted (13%) and/or completed (13%) sexual assault since entering college. (The Campus Sexual Assault (CSA) Study. National Institute of Justice, 2007)
  • In one study, one in 20 (4.7%) women reported being raped in college since the beginning of the year—a period of approximately 7 months . . .. (Correlates of Rape While Intoxicated in a National Sample of College Women. Journal of Studies on Alcohol, 2004)

I hate to add that last study, because some people use “while intoxicated” to discredit assaults. The problem of intoxication leading to questionable sexual decisions on everyone’s part is a big ol’ can of worms. I’m also not going to pretend women don’t make stupid decisions. (Viz.: my college roommate begging two friends to retrieve her if she didn’t come home from a frat party, then refusing [clad in the boxer shorts of the boy she was cheating on her boyfriend with] to leave with us. /end friendship)

I believe, too, in the power of anecdotal evidence, maybe because I’m a writer; maybe because I believe in the truth—all kinds of truths—of the human heart.

In the wake of the Rolling Stone article, my social networks lit up with women saying, essentially, “I’m not surprised, because I saw/experienced/heard about way too many sexual assaults on campus at [insert basically any college name here].” Or how about this one?

  • Fewer than 5% of completed or attempted rapes against college women were reported to law enforcement. However, in 2/3rds of the incidents the victim did tell another person, usually a friend, not family or school officials. (The Sexual Victimization of College Women. National Institute of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2000)

Five percent reported to the cops. Sixty-six percent reported to a friend.

This jibes with my experience. I can count eight female friends I was particularly close to during high school and college. One was sexually assaulted in high school. Two were raped at college, and another was physically assaulted by a date. That’s 50 percent. Yet only one was involved in a legal situation.

Does that mean only she counts? Do we take the number down to “only” 12 percent of my close friends (one in eight) being assaulted?

What about me? I’ve never been assaulted. But there was the time I got called a tease and the guy informed me he was holding back from doing what I didn’t want him to do, so that doesn’t count. There was the time I wasn’t sure I’d agreed to what I was doing but figured I’d made my bed and so I’d lie in it (so to speak). There were, of course, licked lips while staring and unwanted pats on the butt. There were dozens of guys I didn’t give the time of day because they seemed like traditional guys, and I didn’t trust traditional guys. There were all the times crossing the street and raising my chin and carrying mace and bursting with anger that I stuffed back into me because there’s no point in being angry about what just is. I was careful, always wary, shrouding myself in layers and a tough attitude, and this kept me safe, and it kept me from ever being able to be myself, truly. I’m so used to the shell, it’s still hard to crack it, even now that I’m long-married and growing more and more physically invisible in my middle age, and so I’m rarely threatened.

Isn’t this a rape culture? It feels like one. And it has a cost, a cost to women and a cost to men whom women learn not to trust.

Do these things count or not count? Do my friends’ unofficially reported injuries vanish like the woman at the end of Harvey’s song, when she sings, “Silence my lady head / Get girl out of my head / Douse hair with gasoline / Set it light and set it free”? How do we get free, besides lighting ourselves on fire?

My one friend who joined a legal action is tremendously brave, because saying what happened to her has resulted in bullying and questioning. (How many people who report a robbery or an attempted murder face a general reaction of “That probably didn’t really happen”? More than I know?) But the other situations are not invalid because they’re not in a record book.

To me, they do exist in a record. They exist in the ones they tell, and in the private healing that goes on within a person who knows what happened and knows how some people feel about it and gets big anyway.

And that’s why I write

Sometimes these things make me so angry, I want to right all the wrongs. Sometimes, I’ve wondered why I didn’t go to law school, but this debate has reminded me why I do what I do (or try to do, anyway).

I’m conflating a bunch of stuff here, in a most unfactual way. Apples and oranges, one disproven case, statistics, anecdotes, and a song.

But I’m not a journalist or a lawyer. I’m not constrained to excluding everything but the facts. I’m a writer, a memoirist. As I often say, my greatest interest is subjective human experience, and that’s what I worry gets lost in the statistics.

Absolutely, I wish Rolling Stone had gotten it right. Most of all, because by getting it wrong, they’ve given a lot of people the chance to whisper pish-posh and swim away into the sunset.

Meanwhile, I’m thankful. Thankful to have been a confidant for the quiet 38 percent of my friends. Thankful to have the chance to tell their stories and mine. Thankful for one old song that helped crystallize my thoughts and helped me honor women—and men—who are paddling against the tide, getting stronger whether people are comfortable with that or not.

Plus, listen to that guitar!


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