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Updated: 2016-10-23T00:00:00-04:00


Is Donald Trump Trying to Prove Feminists Right About Rape Culture?


Since the script writers for the lowbrow comedy-drama called "2016" are fond of bizarre twists and turns, no one knows for sure whether Donald Trump's quest for the White House will be undone for good by the 11-year-old candid audio in which he brags about his sexual advances toward women. Nonetheless, it is clear that the so-called "pussy tape"—in which Trump tells then-Access Hollywood host Billy Bush that his star status allows him to "do anything" to pretty women, including "grab them by the pussy"—has dealt a serious blow to Teflon Donald, until then largely unscathed by unsavory incidents. Is this a sign of changing attitudes toward sexual misconduct—specifically, feminist-driven refusal to tolerate behavior once brushed off as "boys will be boys" but now unequivocally seen as assaultive and misogynistic? The response to Trump's repulsive comments has been undoubtedly affected by the prominence of gender issues in this election and the fact that it follows a resurgence of feminist activism intensely focused on sexual violence. But as the experience of earlier generations shows, the cultural winds can shift in unpredictable ways. Pussygate (who could have imagined the ways in which Trump would enrich our political vocabulary?) has inevitably elicited comparisons to the scandals surrounding Bill Clinton in the 1990s. That Hillary Clinton is now Trump's Democratic rival for the presidency just makes the parallels all the more relevant. Bill Clinton survived the scandals—both the revelation of the affair with Gennifer Flowers during his 1992 campaign and the later claims of sexual harassment and assault as well as the disclosure of the affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Whether this attests to the benighted sexual politics of the 1990s, frequently portrayed these days as a pre-feminist Dark Ages, is another matter. It's easy to forget that the early 1990s were another major feminist moment. That was when Anita Hill's testimony at the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings turned into a "national teach-in" on sexual harassment, the 1992 elections became the "Year of the Woman," moderate Republican Bob Packwood was undone as a serial harasser, and the trials of William Kennedy Smith, Mike Tyson, and O.J. Simpson generated intense discussions of acquaintance rape and domestic violence. Even the modern-day conversation about campus rape is large a replay of a 1990s debate that landed on the cover of Time magazine. Clinton weathered the storm for several reasons. For one, his only proven improprieties involved consensual adultery. But no less importantly, feminists—including First Lady Hillary Clinton—stood by him. Women's movement veteran Gloria Steinem even claimed that an unwanted advance, however lewd and aggressive, was not sexual harassment if its initiator took "no" for an answer. (This was dubbed the "one free grope" defense, likely not available to Trump.) At the time, I wrote that feminist hypocrisy on the Clinton scandals was helping undo the excesses of ideological zeal which had sought to purge the workplace of all sexuality and treat accusations of sexual wrongdoing as proof of guilt. Fast-forward to the Trump candidacy and Pussygate. Like Clinton, Trump has faced several allegations of sexual assault, none proven, and has a known history of adultery; unlike Clinton, he has also talked publicly about bedding married women. The "pussy tape" contains what can be read as a confession to sexual assault—though, in my view, it sounds more like sexual trash talk. (Trump's actual behavior to soap actress Arianne Zucker on the same tape is quite different from the aggressive moves he brags about). Even so, it's a fairly vile kind of trash talk. Had Clinton been caught on tape bragging that his status as a politician allows him to grope women with impunity, it would very likely have turned public opinion against him—and killed his chances if released pre-election. Yet it also makes a difference that no feminists, progressives, or mainstream journalists are likely to defend Trump o[...]

Canadian University Student Convicted of Rape, But Was the Judge Biased Against Men?


Concerns that the crusade against "rape culture" is creating an accusation-equals-guilt mindset in sexual assault cases have been mostly aimed at colleges. It's campuses that employ extralegal tribunals to settle rape disputes—tribunals where the accused often do not have the right to an attorney, to cross-examine their accusers, or to examine the evidence against them. But the latest contentious rape case comes from a real court—albeit in Canada, where feminist activism has been much more successful in influencing the justice system than in the United States. On July 21, Mustafa Ururyar, a 29-year-old York University graduate student, was found guilty of sexually assaulting fellow grad student Mandi Gray, 28. The verdict was handed down by Ontario Court Judge Marvin Zuker in a non-jury trial. The alleged rape—and I say "alleged," because after reading the 180-page judgment I see no grounds for a finding of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt—happened in the early morning hours of January 31, 2015. The case is a classic he sad/she said. Ururyar and Gray, who had been casually involved for two weeks—he told her he was in an open long-distance relationship with his girlfriend—had spent the evening drinking with friends. It was Gray who had invited Ururyar to join them with a text that said, "Come drink and then we can have hot sex." When they were leaving the bar around 2:30 a.m., Ururyar asked another woman in their group to come with him and Gray to his apartment, but she refused and left in a taxicab. At that point, Gray's and Ururyar's accounts sharply diverge. Gray claimed that Ururyar suddenly became angry and verbally abusive, blaming her for not helping persuade the woman to come over for a threesome. Though shocked and upset, Gray said that she still went with Ururyar to his apartment since she was drunk and feeling too "vulnerable" to take a cab home by herself. She said that he continued shouting and berating her during their walk and then at his apartment, finally telling her, "This is the last time ever that I'm going to fuck you and you're going to like it." Then, Gray said, he forced her to perform oral sex and raped her vaginally, and she was too scared and psychologically shattered to protest. Ururyar's version was very different. He said that Gray flirted with him all evening and that he even told her to stop touching him when she groped his thigh, twice. He admitted wanting a threesome, supposedly because he had heard from a friend that Gray was interested, but denied insulting or berating Gray. He also said that back at his apartment after they got into bed, he told Gray he wanted to end their relationship and mentioned being annoyed by her behavior at the bar. He said that Gray began to cry and he comforted her, and that she then initiated sex. There was no independent evidence to strongly support either account. Both Ururyar and Gray had sent ambiguous messages referring to the night's events. Gray texted Ururyar the next day saying, "Last night was really fucked up" and he replied, "Okay." She also texted a female friend asking, "If you don't consent to sex, but you don't not consent, I don't know what is that?" to which the friend replied, "That's rape." Five days later, Ururyar sent Gray an apology, unaware that she had already gone to the police. He wrote: "I am sorry things went as they did. I shouldn't have said and done some of the things I did. I was upset and felt wronged by you but that does not excuse my own mistakes." Gray's story may well be substantively true. If so, ururyar's actions certainly amount to sexual assault. Submission out of fear is not consent, and even if Ururyar made no over threats, his behavior as described by Gray sounds threatening and coercive enough. Her earlier sexual offer is irrelevant to her state of mind at that point. But ururyar's story, too, is entirely believable. You don't even have to think that Gray was lying out of vindictive spite, which is what the defense suggested. Gray might simply have reinterpreted [...]

Defending Atticus Finch


There is a bitter irony in the fact that the final year in the life of legendary novelist Harper Lee, who died last week at 89, was marked by what many saw as her hero’s inglorious downfall. Lee’s second book, Go Set a Watchman—a sort-of-sequel, sort-of-first-draft to her 1960 classic, To Kill a Mockingbird—showed the revered Atticus Finch, a white lawyer who stood up to racial injustice in the 1930s South, as a cantankerous old bigot defending segregation twenty years later. Many were appalled; but others applauded. That reaction was summed up in the title of a New York Times op-ed by University of Miami law professor Osamudia James: "Now We Can Finally Say Goodbye to the White Savior Myth of Atticus." On the feminist blog Jezebel, writer Catherine Nichols asserted that without the corrective of Watchman, Mockingbird is a "shameful" and "racist" book, and Atticus is a virtuous white patriarch who believes in being kind to blacks (and women) and keeping them in their place. The campaign to knock Atticus off his pedestal started long before Watchman. Both Mockingbird and its hero have been criticized for naïve and simplistic moralism and for perpetuating the idea that a white man’s individual goodness and benevolence is an adequate answer to pervasive racial oppression. But the naysayers are wrong. To Kill a Mockingbird will endure as Lee’s legacy, and its morality is far less naïve and more complex than the critiques allow. Atticus, too, will endure, as a good, flawed—and yes, often heroic—man who does not always have the right answers but always tries to live by his conscience. It is quite true that, as Malcolm Gladwell argued in a 2009 essay in The New Yorker, Atticus does not challenge the system that relegates blacks to second-class status; he simply tries to do his best to ensure that they are treated decently within that system. (Or, as Nichols puts it more scathingly, he believes in "powerful white people being very polite.") At times he minimizes societal bigotry; memorably, he waves off the Ku Klux Klan in Maycomb County as a basically harmless "political organization" whose members could be shamed into dispersing when the Jewish store owner they were harassing reminded them that "he’d sold ’em the very sheets on their backs." At times, he also seems to treat racism as lower-class vulgarity or a bizarre mental affliction: he chides the eight-year-old narrator, "Scout," for using a racial slur because "it’s common" and expresses bafflement that "reasonable people go stark raving mad when anything involving a Negro comes up." But while this is Atticus’s perspective, it’s certainly not the novel’s perspective—and it may not even be Atticus’s perspective eventually. We see, for example, that many of Maycomb’s "fine folk" are just as bigoted as the "white trash": the schoolteachers, the prosecutor, the Finches’ next-door neighbor Mrs. Dubose, the ladies in the missionary circle of Scout’s aunt Alexandra. What’s more, toward the end of the book, after Tom Robinson, the black man Atticus defends on a charge of raping a white woman, is wrongly convicted, Atticus has a conversation with his children in which he makes it very clear that racism is deeply entrenched in their culture: "In our courts, when it’s a white man’s word against a black man’s, the white man always wins. They’re ugly, but those are the facts of life." While he still goes on to frame the issue in terms of individual character—a white man is "trash," no matter what his background, if he mistreats a black man—he clearly sees the bigger picture: "Don’t fool yourselves—it’s all adding up and one of these days we’re going to pay the bill for it." This is not a man who, as his detractors claim, is comfortable with white supremacy as long as he can be nice to black folk. Later on, when Tom is shot dead during a doomed prison escape attempt while awaiting appeal, public opinion in Maycomb regards this as "typical" of how feckless an[...]

Common Sense and Liberal Values Prevail in Twitter Harassment Case


On January 22, a three-year legal drama that made few headlines but was closely watched by those with an interest in free-speech and online-harassment issues came to an end in a Toronto courtroom. Gregory Alan Elliott,* a 55-year-old graphic artist, was found not guilty of criminal harassment toward feminist activists Stephanie Guthrie and Heather Reilly. The trial judge took pains to stress that he felt the women were truthful and did feel harassed. But he also concluded that their perception of harassment was not reasonable, since it was based on the assumption that Elliott had no valid points to make or opinions to defend.  Breitbart News columnist Allum Bokhari called the case's outcome the "Stalingrad" of the online speech wars, a key victory in the resistance to would-be censors and authoritarians. Vice columnist Sarah Ratchford deplored it as sending the message that "harassing women online is not a crime" and making the Internet "an even uglier place for Canadian women." There is no question in my mind that the real issue in this case is the dangerous drift toward criminalizing political speech, often in the name of protecting women. Elliott’s defenders may have oversimplified the facts at times—claiming that he was facing charges merely for disagreeing with feminists on Twitter. But here was a man with no criminal record facing six months in jail for tweets which, by the admission of the police officer handling the case, were neither threatening nor sexually harassing—and were part of mutual sniping. One of Elliott’s offending comments, "Heather’s fat ass gets fatter," was a response to Reilly urging other women to block him and using the hashtag #GAEhole. Elliott and Guthrie first became acquainted in April 2012, when he volunteered to design a logo and poster, for free, for Guthrie's Women in Toronto Politics (WiTopoli) project. Elliott says he was genuinely enthusiastic about this at the time. The pair met for dinner and got along fine, but after some email discussions Guthrie told Elliott that her group had decided to go with another artist. Guthrie later told the police that Elliott was "very angry" about this, but in fact, he sent her a friendly note which expressed the hope for future collaboration and signed it, "Love, Greg." (On the stand, Guthrie testified that she thought the email had a "seething undertone.") She also said she’d gotten a "creepy" vibe from Elliott when they met, particularly because of his repeated offers to give her a ride. Nonetheless, the two interacted amicably by email and on Twitter until July, when Elliott took issue with Guthrie’s Twitter witch-hunt against another man. That man was 24-year-old Ontario resident Bendilin Spurr, creator of an infamous online game in which players could virtually punch feminist videogame critic Anita Sarkeesian until her face looked bruised and bloodied. (Spurr had previously made a similar game targeting Jack Thompson, a conservative Christian crusader against videogame violence.) Having tracked down Spurr’s Twitter account, Guthrie decided to, in her words, "sic the Internet on him." She not only publicly attacked him but tweeted information about his game to his local newspaper and sent out a general warning addressed to employers in Spurr's area. Elliott objected to Guthrie's antics, suggesting that the retaliation was as repulsive as the face-punch game itself, and got embroiled in a heated Twitter argument with Guthrie and her supporters. After he tweeted that Guthrie’s campaign was simply "revenge" which could conceivably drive Spurr to suicide, Guthrie replied, "I’ve had it with you" and blocked Elliott. Her friend and fellow activist Reilly later did the same. Four months later, Elliott was under arrest for criminal harassment. His detractors say that during those months, he relentlessly hounded Guthrie and Reilly on Twitter to the point where they feared for their safety. He made derogatory remarks about them, posted in [...]

The Crucible, Now at a Campus Near You


The centennial of the great American playwright Arthur Miller, born in New York on October 17, 1915, has been noted in articles and recognized with commemorative events and editions. For all the tributes, Miller (who died ten years ago) seems more a relic than a living voice on today's cultural scene; his earnest old-style liberal leftism alienates both conservatives and modern-day progressives obsessed with racial and sexual identities.  Yet one of his most famous works, The Crucible—a mostly fact-based dramatic account of the 17th century Salem witch trials—is startlingly relevant to today's culture wars, in ways that Miller himself might have recognized. Everyone knows that Miller's 1952 play was his response to McCarthyism, with the witchcraft hysteria an allegory for the anti-communist panic. (The latter, unlike the former, was grounded in a real danger; but, contrary to some recent claims on the right, McCarthyite paranoia that swept up many innocent people in its wide net was quite real as well.) In 1996, when Miller wrote a screenplay adaptation for the film version of The Crucible, many saw a metaphor for the day-care sexual abuse panic that had swept the country a few years earlier, with men and women arrested on suspicion of lurid acts and Satanic rituals.  When I recently watched a webcast of the compelling 2014 production of The Crucible at London's Old Vic theater, I was struck by the parallels to another panic we are witnessing now: the one over "rape culture" and, in particular, the "campus rape epidemic." "Believe the victim"—the mantra of today's feminist anti-rape movement—is a remarkably prominent theme in Miller's play. At one point, Deputy Governor Danforth, who presides over the trials, notes that unlike "an ordinary crime," witchcraft is by its nature invisible: "Therefore, who may possibly be witness to it? The witch and the victim. None other. Now we cannot hope the witch will accuse herself; granted? Therefore, we must rely upon her victims—and they do testify." Today, advocates for "survivors" of sexual violence argue that since such crimes virtually always take place in private, especially when victim and offender know each other,  it is imperative to believe those who come forward with accusations.  Of course, "believe the children" was also the mantra of the child abuse trials of the 1980s and early 1990s. But in those cases, the children themselves were a somewhat passive presence, more victims of adult manipulation than active accusers. Not so the girls of The Crucible, whom Miller made older than their 10- and 11-year-old historical counterparts—more young women than children. (Danforth and other adult authority figures in the play often refer to them as "children"; but today's anti-rape advocates, too, often use language that infantilizes young people and young women in particular, sometimes explicitly insisting that college "kids" are not really adults.)  When the Salem girls' veracity is questioned and Danforth asks their ringleader, Abigail Williams, if her visions could be false, Abby responds with self-righteous outrage: "Why, this—this—is a base question, sir. I have been hurt, Mr. Danforth; I have seen my blood runnin' out! I have been near to murdered every day because I done my duty pointing out the Devil's people—and this is my reward? To be mistrusted, denied, questioned…" As Danforth backs down, assuring Abigail that he doesn't mistrust her, she warns, "Let you beware, Mr. Danforth. Think you to be so mighty that the power of Hell may not turn your wits?" The McCarthy era has no direct parallels to this fetishizing of victimhood or this demand for absolute trust in accusations. But there are uncanny echoes here of today's crusading "survivors" who cry "victim-blaming" when questioned and lament that mistrust retraumatizes and silences victims of sexual assault. "If we use proof in rape cases, we fall into the p[...]

Culture Warriors Invade Sci-Fi/Fantasy


The latest pitched battle in science fiction is not between space pirates and alien monsters but between fandom factions, with the Hugo Awards as the battlefield. Depending on where you stand, this fight pits either forces of progress against reactionary barbarians or the elitist establishment against anti-authoritarian rebels. The progressive elites have decisively won this round; but was it a pyrrhic victory? One thing is certain: this culture war is here to stay. The Hugos are science fiction's Oscars, selected by fans—anyone who pays the $40 World Science Fiction Convention membership fee is eligible to nominate and vote—and presented at the annual WorldCon. Earlier this year, a large share of the nominations was captured by the so-called "Sad Puppies" slate, organized by a group of writers opposed to what they saw as a politically correct domination of the Hugos. It was the culmination of an effort that began in 2013. (The group's name is an in-joke born from a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty Ad featuring dejected-looking doggies and a quip that "puppy-related sadness" was caused by "boring message-fic winning awards.") When the nominations were unveiled in April, the science fiction fandom and much of the popular culture media had a meltdown. The Puppies were accused of "gaming the system" by voting as a bloc—and portrayed as a right-wing "white boys' club" reacting to the growing prominence of female, nonwhite, progressive voices in the field. At the 73rd WorldCon on August 22, the empire struck back. Not one Puppy nominee won a Hugo.  In five all-Puppy categories, the top choice was "No Award," just as progressive sci-fi bloggers had recommended. At the presentation, each "No Award" was met with applause and cheers, which Puppy supporters saw as unseemly gloating at sticking it to "WrongFans." Of course, the "Puppy Kickers" (as the Puppies called them) and their mainstream media backers  saw it very differently: as a defeat for ballot-stuffing reactionaries and a victory for both quality and diversity. So who are the Sad Puppies and what do they want? In a post-awards blog post, Puppy leader Larry Correia wrote that he started the campaign because he believed the Hugos had come to represent "tiny, insular, politically motivated cliques" that gave awards to their friends and rewarded "correct" identities and politics rather than talent. Is this, as the Puppies' detractors suggest, all about straight white males trying to protect their turf from interlopers like the women who snagged nearly two-thirds of the Hugo nominations for fiction in 2012? The Puppies' fiction picks were indisputably male-dominated, with only three female authors out of 17; yet some of the group's most dedicated members are women such as writers Sarah Hoyt, Amanda Green, and Cedar Sanderson. (The latter two were Puppy nominees for Best Fan Writer, which recognizes sci-fi related nonfiction work for nonpaying or low-paying magazines or websites.) And Hoyt told me in our email interview last spring that her personal worst example of the Hugos' political corruption was a 2013 win for a white male: the Best Novel award to "Redshirts" by John Scalzi, a satirical riff on "Star Trek." Hoyt, who dismisses the novel as "bad fanfic," thought the award was blatant cronyism on behalf of Scalzi, a recent president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America and one of the fandom's high priests of "social justice" ideology. Then there are the politicized "message" stories. Thus, last year's Best Novel Hugo went to "Ancillary Justice" by Ann Leckie, whose protagonist belongs to a futuristic human civilization with no concept of gender distinctions and with "she" as the universal pronoun. The Best Story winner, "The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere" by John Chu, dealt with a Chinese-American man's struggles with coming out as gay.  (The "fantasy" part was a clunky plot de[...]

Bomb Threat Disrupts SPJ Airplay #GamerGate Debate


We're coming up on the first anniversary of GamerGate, the online phenomenon variously described as a consumer revolt against unethical videogame journalism, an Internet mob targeting women in technology, a white male hate and harassment group, and a resistance movement against authoritarian "social justice warriors." During this year, there has been a steady stream of articles announcing the end of #GamerGate—literally from day one, when the hashtag's first appearance was greeted with several stories on gaming and pop culture websites heralding the "death of gamers" as a culture. And yet last Saturday, both gamers and GamerGate were very much alive at a remarkable event held as part of the 2015 regional conference of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) in Miami: Airplay, a two-session panel presenting the pro-GamerGate side of the story to the media. I was one of the Airplay panelists. (Transparency time: while I received no fee, money for my expenses was raised through crowdfunding, primarily by GamerGaters who agreed to help defray the costs of the panel.) There was insightful and interesting discussion. There were contentious moments. And it all ended, just like the GamerGate meetup in Washington, DC in May, with a bomb threat and an evacuation that cut the event short. No one knows for sure who was behind the bomb threat. Responsibility has been publicly claimed by a member of an Internet troll nest that has been described as "aligned" with GamerGate by the movement's critics but that GamerGaters themselves generally regard as hostile. (The same shadowy group had previously harassed people on both sides of GamerGate, including a leading GamerGate blogger, "The Ralph Retort.")   But even assuming that GamerGate's ideological enemies had nothing to do with disrupting Airplay, they certainly tried hard to stop it. Airplay's organizer, SPJ regional chapter president Michael Koretzky—who had decided to host the event after engaging with GamerGate members on Twitter—detailed some of those efforts on his blog.  Emails sent to SPJ accused Koretzky of providing a forum to people who had "a history of threatening people online" and even of endangering "support organizations for victims of abuse." Koretzky also says he received several emails with "vague threats" to his career. Koretzky, a veteran journalist and ornery First Amendment champion, went ahead with Airplay—though his initial plans for a debate format were foiled by the fact that no GamerGate critics would agree to participate. Instead, the non-GamerGate side was represented by three "neutrals": journalists Lynn Walsh of NBC 7 San Diego and Ren LaForme of the Poynter Institute, and game developer Derek Smart. The pro-GamerGate lineup had dissident feminist Christina Hoff Sommers, Breitbart gadfly Milo Yiannopolous, Washington Examiner's Ashe Schow, Breitbart's token leftist (yes, really!) Allum Bokhari, and games writer Mark Ceb. Mindful of the bomb threat in DC, Koretzky took numerous precautions to ensure that the premises—Koubek Center on the Miami-Dade College campus—were secure. The initial plan was that if a bomb threat were called in, it would clearly be a fake and the panel could continue—with the option for anyone to leave if they wanted to do so. The morning session proceeded without a glitch, other than several  participants getting "doxxed" (i.e. having their home addresses and/or telephone numbers posted) in the comments on the livestream; as a result, the comments were disabled for the second session. As everyone returned from lunch, Koretzky announced that there had been a bomb threat and that the panel would proceed as planned. No one left and the two-hour session got underway; but about forty minutes before it was scheduled to end, the police arrived with orders to evacuate the entire building. As we wandered out into the tropical heat, joined by per[...]

'Sexist' Scientist Tim Hunt: The Real Story


Remember Tim Hunt, the Nobel Prize-winning British biochemist mocked and vilified on Twitter and in the media after he reportedly told a gathering of women scientists that "girls" in the lab are a nuisance because they are lovesick crybabies, and suggested sex-segregated labs as the solution? Remember how we were told that this shocking incident reveals still-entrenched sexism in the world of science? Well, now that the dust has cleared and the story has faded from the American press, there’s a postscript that amounts to: Never mind. It turns out that, just as Hunt has claimed, the 72-year-old scientist’s comments during a luncheon at a science journalism conference in Korea in June were an awkward self-deprecating joke—greeted with laughter (not the reported "stony silence") by a mostly female audience. The "Tim Hunt, misogynist scientist” narrative has been falling apart piece by piece over the past month; last week, it was finished off by a snippet of audio recorded by a female attendee and made public by The Times. Attention should now tturn to the real scandal: irresponsible journalism magnified by social media frenzy. It all started with a June 8 tweet from City University London journalism professor Connie St. Louis, lamenting that the luncheon at the World Conference of Science Journalists had been "ruined by sexist speaker Tim Hunt." According to St. Louis, Hunt announced that he had "a reputation as a male chauvinist" and continued, "Let me tell you about my trouble with girls. Three things happen when they are in the lab: you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticize them they cry.” Then, she wrote, he compounded it by advocating "single-sex labs" but adding that "he doesn’t want to stand in the way of women." Twitter exploded in outrage, and the story quickly got picked up by major media around the world, with such headlines as, "Nobel winner: Women in labs 'fall in love with you ... you criticize them, they cry'" and "Sir Tim Hunt's sexist remarks: With lab rats like him, is it any wonder there’s a shortage of women in science?" St. Louis’s account, corroborated by two prominent American science journalists—former New York Times columnist Deborah Blum and Retraction Watch blogger Ivan Oransky—was roundly treated as fact. To make it worse, Hunt was said to have stood by his comments in an interview to BBC Radio even as he apologized for causing offense. It was not long before the story was updated with news of Hunt’s resignation from his honorary post at University College London and from several prestigious science boards and committees. Even after The Guardian ran a sympathetic interview with Hunt and his scientist wife Mary Collins, who defended him against charges of sexism—as did several other female scientists—most of the coverage stuck to the party line. Blum stepped in to rebut Hunt’s assertion that he had been "hung out to dry" over an unfortunate joke; she claimed that she asked him the day after the luncheon if he had been joking, and that he simply reiterated his point ("he did think it was hard to collaborate with women because they are too emotional") and told her he had been "trying to be honest about the problems." St. Louis penned an essay for The Guardian portraying the sympathy for Hunt as "an outcry from the establishment" in a "typical pattern of oppression" and telling his supporters, "mainly men," to stop defending him. That narrative took a major hit on June 24 when The Times obtained information that a European Commission report on the conference, based on the notes of a European Union official who attended the luncheon, gave a very different account of what happened. The report summarized Hunt’s remarks as follows: It’s strange that such a chauvinist monster like me has been asked to speak to women scientists. Let m[...]

The Social Media Shaming of Pax Dickinson


Public shaming and professional retaliation, or even destruction, for unpopular speech seems to have become a regular feature of life—but also a subject of growing concern. Most notably, in the past month, scientists, politicians, and others have rallied to the defense of British biochemist and Nobel laureate Sir Tim Hunt, whose ill-conceived joke about women in science at a conference sparked a Twitter storm and ended his academic career. The pitfalls of social media shaming were recently explored by British journalist Jon Ronson in the acclaimed book "So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed," which examines such notorious incidents as the Twitter mobbing of public relations rep Justine Sacco in December 2013 over a racially insensitive joke. But before Hunt, before Sacco, before the ouster of Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich over his opposition to same-sex marriage, there was another drama of career-killing Internet outrage: the undoing of Business Insider Chief Technology Officer Pax Dickinson. It is a story that raises troubling questions about speech and consequences. Unlike Sacco or Hunt, ruined by a single misinterpreted moment of levity—or Eich, penalized for what had been only recently a mainstream viewpoint—Dickinson had a long history of outrageous Twitter comments that were a mix of deliberate provocation and controversial opinions. His precipitous downfall began when those tweets caught the attention of a writer for Valleywag/Gawker, who described Dickinson as "your new tech bro nightmare." I followed the Dickinson debacle in September 2013. While I shared his critical view of feminism in tech, which often seems to be less about advancing women than fostering grievance, dispatches from the field made Dickinson sound like a genuine male chauvinist. (One of his much-quoted tweets said, "Tech managers spend as much time worrying about how to hire talented female developers as they do worrying about how to hire a unicorn," which seems to imply that female talent is mythical.) While such opinions certainly shouldn’t be punished or censored by the government, there are certainly good reasons for a company not to want a top executive who publicly voices them—from bad public relations to potential discrimination suits. I was, therefore, somewhat wary at first when another journalist contacted me with an offer to speak to Dickinson for a possible feature on his professional exile. After several email exchanges, I ended up meeting with him for a long interview at his New Jersey home and speaking to several women who had worked with him in the past. I came away convinced that there was much more to this story than the mainstream media narrative of a sexist "tech bro" getting his comeuppance. Even if Dickinson was in part the victim of his own recklessness, what happened to him was another chapter in the annals of self-righteous online outrage that mobs first and asks questions later. A lifelong computer geek who dropped out of college after one year to work for his father’s business, taught himself Web development, and rose from help desk technician to highly sought-after tech industry executive, Dickinson, now 42, freely admits that he has always enjoyed being "somewhat trolly" in social media—both expressing strong opinions and being deliberately provocative. In part, this was also related to the fact that for a long time, his following was limited to a small circle of people who knew him and were familiar with his style. Some of the comments that would later get Dickinson branded sexist and racist were clearly meant as provocative humor, and sometimes arguably as mockery of sexism and racism.  One particularly infamous July 2010 tweet—"In Passion Of The Christ 2, Jesus gets raped by a pack of n*****s. It's his own fault for dress[...]

As Another Accusation Bites the Dust, Columbia Rape Saga Takes New Turn


This week's graduation at Columbia University caps the bizarre, often sordid saga involving the two most famous members of the Class of 2015: Emma Sulkowicz, the activist who protested the school's alleged mishandling of her alleged rape by carrying a mattress around campus, and Jean-Paul Nungesser, the German scholarship student she accuses of raping her. On Tuesday, Sulkowicz carried her mattress across the stage at Class Day, despite half-hearted attempts by Columbia officials to enforce a regulation against bringing "large objects" into the ceremonial area—and despite the fact that the "mattress performance" was for a senior visual arts thesis she had already completed. Her activism was also lauded (with no mention of her name) by two commencement speakers, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power. This isn't quite the end of the story: Nungesser is suing Columbia, university president Lee Bollinger, and Sulkowicz's thesis supervisor for allowing him to be subjected to "gender-based harassment" which severely damaged his educational experience and future prospects, even though a campus panel found him not culpable on the sexual assault charge. Meanwhile, there is new information related to one of this story's many strange twists: another sexual assault complaint brought against Nungesser late last year by a male classmate. The charge was made public in February, on the heels of my article in The Daily Beast questioning the pro-Sulkowicz narrative. Now, I have learned that after a hearing in late April, Nungesser was found "not responsible" in this latest case—altogether, the fourth time he has been cleared of a sexual assault charge at Columbia. When Sulkowicz first went public a year ago, the fact that her alleged attacker was still on campus and had never been subjected to any formal sanctions despite being accused of sexual assault by three different women helped fuel the outrage. Yet the latest investigation strongly supports Nungesser's claim, made in media interviews and in his lawsuit, that the multiple complaints were not independent of each other and may have been part of a vendetta stemming from the original charge by Sulkowicz.  Several days after my Daily Beast piece, which featured not only Nungesser's account of his relationship with Sulkowicz but social media messages tending to support his version, the feminist blog Jezebel ran a purported rebuttal titled "How to Make an Accused Rapist Look Good." Much of the story, by Jezebel editor Erin Gloria Ryan, dealt with Sulkowicz's not entirely convincing explanation of her friendly messages to Nungesser days after what she says was a terrifyingly violent rape. But the piece also contained a new revelation meant to bolster the claim that Nungesser was a serial sexual predator: the existence of a hitherto unknown male victim, identified by the pseudonym "Adam." Adam, who also graduates this week, told Jezebel that "he was close friends with Paul during his freshman year in 2011" and that "one fall night, in the midst of an emotional conversation in Paul's dorm room...Paul pushed him onto his bed and sexually assaulted him." He claimed that after much self-doubt and internal struggle, he finally reported this incident, first to a student society to which both he and Nungesser belonged and then in a formal complaint to the university in the fall of 2014. Adam rather melodramatically lamented that my Daily Beast piece "invalidates and completely erases [his] experience." It should be noted that, as accuser and accused in a sexual misconduct case, both Adam and Nungesser had presumably received the usual instructions from the university to "make all reasonable efforts to maintain the confidentiality/privacy of the involved parties." About three weeks prior to graduation,[...]

Pamela Geller is a Terrible Poster Child for Free Speech—and Against Islamist Extremism


Here's what I think about activist Pamela Geller's recent "Draw the Prophet" contest in Garland, Texas, where two wannabe jihadists were killed trying to carry out a terror attack: Geller had every right to organize that contest, and she should not be chided for supposedly abusing that right. When extremists use deadly violence against speech that offends them, tut-tutting "just because you can do it doesn't mean it's a good idea" is unseemly and misguided. I also believe that, as I argued in The Daily Beast, Geller and her associate Robert Spencer are terrible poster children not only for free speech, but for combating Islamist extremism—because they routinely blur the lines not only between "anti-jihadism" and a war on Islam, but between criticism of Islam and Muslim-bashing. I don't believe Mohammed cartoons are an attack on Muslims, and I actually thought the contest winner made an excellent point. However, as I documented, Geller and Spencer have spent years stoking anti-Muslim hysteria. I'm not fond of the term "Islamophobia," which lumps together criticism of a religion and hatred toward its adherents; but "bigotry," in this case, is not too strong a term. In their "rebuttal" on, Geller and Spencer call my article "vicious and dishonest." Without turning this into a point-by-point exchange, some of their charges must be addressed. I have no interest in polemics over whether, as Geller and Spencer claim, reformation in Islam is a quixotic project ruled out by Islamic doctrine and scripture. People who have deeply studied Islam and political Islamism, and can hardly be accused of naïveté—such as historian Bernard Lewis or Middle East analyst Reuel Marc Gerecht—disagree. Even as strong a critic of Islam as Ayaan Hirsi Ali has come to believe reform is possible. Geller and Spencer cite liberal Muslim Thomas Haidon, who back in 2005 agreed with Spencer that a reformist movement cannot succeed unless it offers "coherent and irrefutable evidence" that its version of Islam is "the 'correct Islam.'" They do not mention that in the next sentence, Haidon lists several Islamic scholars who he believes have done just that. Nor do they acknowledge his warning against "destructive commentary" that undermine reform "by attacking Muslim reformers as 'stupid,' naïve and useless"—the kind of commentary that is their stock in trade. That aside, the Geller/Spencer piece offers a striking example of why Spencer, the duo's putative scholar, is simply not trustworthy as an expert. Defending Spencer's claim that the relative tolerance toward Jews in medieval Islam (compared to Christian Europe) is a politically correct myth, Geller and Spencer quote the 12th Century Jewish philosopher Maimonides—who "lived for a time in Muslim Spain and then fled that supposedly tolerant and pluralistic land"—on the mistreatment of Jews by "the nation of Ishmael." The passage they cite, which refers to specific instances of persecution, is the subject of considerable debate among scholars as far as its context and interpretation. But what's not in dispute is that when Maimonides left Spain after a fanatical Muslim sect came to power, he headed to other Muslim countries: Morocco, present-day Israel, and finally Egypt, where he eventually became the Sultan's personal physician. His actual view of Christianity and Islam, and of the Jews' relationship to both, was complex and on the whole probably more favorable to Islam. These are, to say the least, misleading omissions. Geller and Spencer accuse me of omissions of my own when it comes to Spencer's sympathetic statements about moderate Muslims. Yes, in more than a decade of blogposts on Spencer's site, JihadWatch, one can find such occasional lip service—nearly always in the context of stressing [...]

Bomb Threat Targets GamerGate Meetup (Hear From Somebody Who Was There)


Ever since its birth eight months ago, GamerGate, the online gamers' movement that calls itself a revolt against corrupt journalism and oppressive political correctness, has been assailed as a misogynist mob out to terrorize female videogame developers and feminist critics—a narrative picked up by most of the mainstream media and even dramatized on Law & Order: SVU. The "Gaters," meanwhile, have always claimed that they were being unfairly painted as harassers when they themselves were frequent targets of harassment and threats in the culture war over gaming. And now, GamerGate's first American meetup in Washington, DC this past weekend has ended in a bomb scare—after an attempt to bully the venue into canceling the event.  As one of the few journalists who gave GamerGate positive coverage last year, I had been invited to attend the Friday night gathering, organized by scholar and dissident feminist Christina Hoff Sommers and Breitbart columnist Milo Yiannopoulos. That afternoon, Sommers emailed me to say that Local 16, the restaurant hosting #GGinDC, was being bombarded—as it were—with angry messages via phone, email, and Twitter. At the center of this kerfuffle was Arthur Chu, the controversial former Jeopardy! champion, writer, and self-styled GamerGate nemesis. (When not warring against GamerGate, Chu can be found smearing Charlie Hebdo as a racist rag, inveighing against the debunking of fake statistics that help righteous causes, or musing that as a feminism-loving dude, he sometimes wants to "join all men arm-in-arm & then run off a cliff and drag the whole gender into the sea.") Shortly after noon on Friday, Chu tweeted at Local 16 about an "Internet hate speech movement" meeting on its premises; then, he sent an email, later publicized by Yiannopoulos, haranguing the owners about hosting a "right wing hate group" and "letting anti-feminists gather to celebrate the harassment and intimidation of women in tech." When the management didn't budge and Sommers's tweet about Chu's efforts sparked a backlash, Chu posted a petulant response: "Whatever, it's ending tonight with them meeting up there." Some GamerGaters took this as a bizarre threat, though I assume he meant simply that the issue would be over. On my way to Local 16 shortly after the gathering's official 9:30 starting time, I braced myself for a protest; but the scene was remarkably peaceful.  That is, until a little after midnight, when the revelry was interrupted by a sudden announcement from a staffer that everyone was being asked to evacuate the building. The guests were reassured that this was simply a "fire drill"; but the explanation seemed rather fishy, especially when I was not allowed to retrieve my jacket from the meeting's second-floor main room before heading downstairs. (Fortunately, a friendly gamer rescued it for me.) There were police officers outside, but no sign of firefighters. When I got back to my hotel room and checked Twitter, there was chatter about a bomb scare; apparently, there had been a tweet threatening to detonate "multiple bombs" if the #GGinDC meeting was not evacuated. On Sunday, Washington, DC's Metropolitan Police Department confirmed that it had received information from the FBI about the Twitter threat and had contacted the management, which made the decision to to have the premises cleared and checked for hazardous materials (none were found). According to the MPD, "the incident remains under investigation." Yiannopoulos has described the incident as a "bomb threat from feminists," which certainly sounds like a rush to judgment; meanwhile, Chu has been lamenting the unfair blowback against him. There is a definite element of poetic justice here, since GamerGaters have repeatedly insisted that [...]

The UVA Fiasco and 'Believe the Survivor' Syndrome


The inglorious saga of Rolling Stone's article on "rape culture" at the University of Virginia, "A Rape on Campus," published to great acclaim last November and mostly debunked less than three weeks later, has seen its (hopefully) final chapter: the Columbia Journalism Review postmortem dissecting the story and its origins.  The report documents egregious failings by journalist Sabrina Rubin Erdely and multiple editors, including perfunctory fact-checking and reliance on a single source—the alleged victim, Jackie—for the central narrative of a brutal fraternity gang rape. Rolling Stone, which commissioned and published the report, has come under fire for treating the fiasco as an isolated error rather than an institutional problem in need of a fix. The magazine's leadership has also been lambasted for not only shifting much of the blame to Jackie herself, but blaming the editorial decision to skip basic fact-checking on excessive deference to a young woman believed to be the victim of a horrific assault.  It is quite true that the explanation smacks of a self-serving excuse and that the shoddy journalism in the UVA rape story was part of a larger problem. But this problem is not confined to Rolling Stone. It is pervasive in media coverage of campus rape—and is very much connected to the belief, held by many anti-rape activists, that personal accounts of (alleged) sexual violence should be treated as sacrosanct. Before the Rolling Stone story imploded but when Erdely was already being criticized for failing to seek comment from the alleged rapists, the left-of-center media monitoring site Media Matters pointed to several articles on campus rape in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Slate which also failed to meet that standard. But this is less a defense of Erdely—whose reporting, we now know, was indefensible—than an indictment of her colleagues. Take the coverage of Columbia University student Emma Sulkowicz, the internationally famous activist who carries her mattress on campus to protest the school's failure to expel the man she accuses of rape. When Sulkowicz was featured in a New York Times cover story last May, with a troubling story of a violent attack by a fellow student and a botched university investigation that ended with a ruling in the man's favor—despite two other accusations of sexual assault against him—her alleged assailant remained a nameless, faceless shadow menace. (One of the story's authors, Richard Pérez-Peña, later said he did not know the man's identity at the time.) It was more than seven months later, in December—perhaps not coincidentally, after the collapse of the Rolling Stone story—that the Times gave Paul Nungesser, who had been identified by The Columbia Spectator several months earlier, a chance to tell his side. That was also the first time the paper disclosed that the multiple charges against him may not have been independently made: Sulkowicz and the other two women had been in contact and had talked to each other about their history with Nungesser prior to filing charges. In February, a story I reported for The Daily Beast raised further questions, revealing that Sulkowicz had remained in close and friendly contact with Nungesser for three months after the alleged rape (as confirmed by Facebook messages). Advocates have countered that victims of sexual trauma may act in ways that seem irrational. Sulkowicz's messages don't necessarily exonerate Nungesser; but the new details certainly paint a far more complex picture than the early coverage suggested. The willingness to treat uncorroborated narratives of victimization as fact may be partly due to sensationalism. But it also reflects a climate in which any sugge[...]

Why Can't We Call the UVA Case a Hoax?


Four months after Rolling Stone magazine published a shocking—and soon discredited—account of a fraternity gang rape at the University of Virginia, the Charlottesville police department has released the results of its investigation into the alleged assault. It comes as no surprise that "no substantive basis" was found for the claim by a student known as "Jackie" that she was raped by seven men at a fraternity party as a UVA freshman in September 2012. What's striking is to what lengths both the police and many in the news media have gone to tiptoe around the obvious fact that the tale was a hoax by a serial liar. This dance of denial suggests that in the current ideological climate, it is nearly impossible to declare any allegation of rape to be definitely false.  At the press conference, Charlottesville Police Chief Timothy J. Longo stressed that the department's conclusion "doesn't mean something terrible didn't happen to Jackie" and that the investigation is not closed but only suspended until new evidence emerges. It is, of course, nearly impossible to prove a negative. Short of a surveillance tape documenting Jackie's every movement, one cannot know for certain that she was never sexually assaulted at UVA. But the evidence against her is damning. It's not simply that there was no party at Phi Kappa Psi, the fraternity named by Jackie, anywhere near the time when she said she was attacked. It's not simply that her account changed from forced oral sex to vaginal rape and from five assailants to seven, or that her friends saw no sign of her injuries after the alleged assault. What clinches the case is the overwhelming proof that "Drew," Jackie's date who supposedly orchestrated her rape, was Jackie's own invention. Back in the fall of 2012, Jackie's friends knew "Drew" as "Haven Monahan," an upperclassman who supposedly wanted to date her and with whom she encouraged them to exchange emails and text messages. However, an investigation by The Washington Post and other media last December found that "Haven's" messages were fake; the phone numbers he used were registered to online services that allow texting via the Internet and redirecting calls, while his photo matches a former high school classmate of Jackie's who lives in a different state. No "Haven Monahan" exists on the UVA campus or, apparently, anywhere in the United States (at least outside romance novels). The catfishing scheme seems to have been a ploy to get the attention of a male friend on whom Jackie had a crush—the same friend she called for help after the alleged assault. Is it possible that someone sexually assaulted Jackie on the night when she claimed to be going out with her fictional suitor? Theoretically, yes. But it's also clear that her credibility is as non-existent as "Haven Monahan." Moreover, the police investigation has debunked another one of Jackie's claims: that in spring 2014, when she was already an anti-rape activist, some men harassed her in the street off-campus and threw a bottle that hit her face and (improbably) broke. Jackie said that her roommate picked glass out of a cut on her face; but the roommate disputes this and describes the injury as a scrape, likely from a fall. Jackie also said she called her mother immediately after that attack, but phone records show no such call. Despite all this, Chief Longo wouldn't call Jackie's story a false allegation and even referred to her as "this survivor" (though amending it to the more neutral "or this complaining party"). Meanwhile, in the CNN report on the March 23 press conference, anchor Brooke Baldwin, correspondent Sara Ganim and legal analyst Sunny Hostin were tripping over each other to assert that "we have [...]

Flawed Narratives, Perfect Victims, and the Columbia Rape Allegations


In recent months, Emma Sulkowicz (pictured), the Columbia University senior who carries her mattress around campus as a protest against the university's non-expulsion of her alleged rapist (and an art project for her senior thesis) has been hailed as a heroine in the battle against campus sexual assault. Last week, The Daily Beast published my article about the case—based mainly on interviews with the alleged rapist, Paul Nungesser, and materials he provided—which raises serious questions about the pro-Sulkowicz narrative, partly because of her friendly behavior toward Nungesser for weeks after the alleged rape. The response from the rape-culture feminist camp has been to argue that there's no "right" way to deal with sexual assault, generating a #TheresNoPerfectVictim Twitter hashtag. But it's a straw (wo)man argument. Yes, of course victims deal with trauma in different, often startling ways. However, "no perfect victim" doesn't mean that anything an alleged rape victim says or does, no matter how it defies common sense, reason and human experience, must be rationalized as "that's what some victims do!"  in deference to the commandment, "Believe the survivor." I should add that when I first read the New York Times account last May of Sulkowicz's claim that the university badly botched its investigation of her complaint, I thought she probably had a legitimate grievance. She was alleging a violent rape by a man who had been reported for sexual assault by two other women but had always managed to beat the rap. (At the time, my main reaction was that such cases need to be handled by real cops and courts, not campus "gender equity" bureaucrats and pseudo-judicial panels.) But as I read more details of the story, those details raised more and more questions. At this point, I cannot, of course, definitively state that the allegations against Nungesser are false. But there is more than enough doubt of his guilt to warrant exoneration not only in a criminal case—it's safe to say that no grand jury in the land would indict him, unless it was made up of gender studies majors—but under the low "preponderance of the evidence" standard by which Columbia adjudicates sexual misconduct complaints.   Remarkably, the panel which heard Sulkowicz's charges cleared Nungesser even though he was apparently not allowed to present strong evidence in his favor: his Facebook communications with Sulkowicz in the weeks following the alleged rape. Just two days after Nungesser supposedly brutalized her, Sulkowicz responded enthusiastically to his invitation to a party, writing that "we need to have some real time where we can talk about life and thingz (sic)." A few days later, she contacted him to suggest they "hang out" before or after the meeting of a literary society to which both belonged, adding, "whatever I want to see yoyououoyou." (There's much more in the Daily Beast story, including screenshots of the messages—confirmed as authentic by Sulkowicz herself.) The other two complaints, filed shortly after Sulkowicz's charge and clearly influenced by it, turned out to be riddled with problems as well (many of them evident in the very first detailed report on the case, published in January 2013 in Columbia's online student magazine, Bwog, and highly sympathetic to the accusers). One woman, Nungesser's former girlfriend, accused him of emotional and sexual abuse which she did not regard as such until long after their breakup—and did not decide to report until Sulkowicz approached her to discuss Nungesser. (Her complaint was eventually dismissed, partly because she stopped cooperating with the investigation.) The other, Nungesser's housemat[...]