I’m a Pittsburgh Steelers fan. A fair weather one—I don’t start paying much attention until the playoffs—but lifelong, and when I give my attention to a game, I’m there all the way. My body reacts as if it’s the one straining and slamming. My tape measure’s out—just ram your shoulders forward one . . . more . . . yard. My mind spits questions about players’ mental states. It’s cathartic to get that far out of myself. So goddamn it I was angry at Ben Roethlisberger when the grumblings about his sexual assault charges started up again around playoff time. Why you killing my buzz, Ben?

I sought only the most basic information before turning away—a bar in Georgia, a bathroom, a college student, a lot of alcohol and a raft of bodyguards who might or might not have blocked a door, but charges were dropped, just as they’d been the year before when an incident had been reported in Nevada. And what was that one about again? Oh, never mind.

On the one hand, my hesitation was characteristic: I don’t follow celebrity scandals; I’ve clicked not a link about Charlie Sheen. On the other hand, I do tend to get obsessive about sexual assault stories that don’t involve the NFL. There was the dust-up when Keith Oberman and Michael Moore appeared to shrug off the rape allegations against Julian Assange. There was the gang rape of a fifteen-year-old girl outside her school homecoming dance. For these events and others, my initial reluctance—because who wants to spend their days thinking about rape?—gave way to frenzied clicking. I read everything I could get my hands on, hunted down small news items, scrolled through hundreds of comments in an effort to understand or to bear witness, I wasn’t sure which, and I got angry and brittle and nauseated in the process. I’m a woman who’s broken a lot of rules in the course of pursuing independence and played closely by a lot of others because I’ve been aware of how vulnerable that made me. I’m a woman who’s been afraid. The discussion around assault—especially of the she’s-lying or she-was-asking-for-it variety, and they’re almost all of that variety—can make my heart shake as if even now I were walking down a dark street or laying awake in a bed where I had chosen to sleep alone behind flimsily locked doors after talking too long to, or maybe just strolling past, a man. I’ve never been raped, but I’ve asked myself again and again whether that’s because I’ve been smart, or lucky.

To compensate for my own ill-informed unease about Roethlisberger, I gave loud voice to complaints about him at the dinner table. I wanted a pound of flesh from my husband—there’s nothing fair weather about his fandom—and I wanted, mostly I wanted, him to let me off the hook. And that’s what he did.

Football players are assholes, he said. The Nevada thing always looked really shaky, and the Georgia charges . . . it’s hard to say, but they were dropped a year ago. He was suspended for them. But he’s an asshole. The Rooneys are on him. The fans are off him. You don’t see many Roethlisberger jerseys anymore. It’s all Palamalou.

Troy Palamalu. A soft-spoken, philanthropic family man. Have you seen his beautiful hair flying like a badge of all that’s noble as he sails across a whole line to hold them at the two? It’s all well and good for feminists who don’t like football to call for a ban, but for those of us who do, can’t we watch it with our eyes open? And the Nevada charges—those ones at least—they were pretty thin. Women do go bat shit over celebrities.

Friends of ours came over for dinner this playoff season—Packers fans and fellow flag-football coaches. The Roethlisberger thing came up (guess who couldn’t quit picking that scab?) and we got into the discussion of what it must be like to be these guys. We talked about the aura that surrounds even the fourth grade football star at our kids’ school. The way a lifetime of such intense grooming and fawning and pressure—not the mention the blows to the head—must mutate players’ sense of self long before they make it to the pros, the way their career affects everyone around them. Of course they’re assholes. They’d have to be almost superhuman—like Troy Palamalu—not to be.

I like to swim in the grey area of almost any dirty pool, and when my friend posed the question of why the hell would a girl go into a bathroom with big, drunk Ben Roethlisberger, I was up for some discussion about how stupid women can be, especially when it comes to the mix of fame and men and money. (For the record, I’ve done some more clicking as I’ve been writing this, and it’s not at all clear that the Georgia accuser agreed to go into a bathroom with Roethlisberger.) We talked about our culture, how sexed up it is, how even clothes for little girls are provocative. How at four years old girls are already wearing short shorts with writing across the butt when they should be wearing smock dresses until they’re ten. But when I caught myself nodding as if there were some causal link between the selection in the Target girls’ department and rape culture, I took a few steps back.

Being stupid doesn’t mean that a woman deserves to get raped, I said.

No. It doesn’t, my friend agreed. And we were quiet for a moment. The men in the room had been quiet for a while.

Then my friend, who’s from Green Bay, ventured that Packers players couldn’t get away with such boorish behavior. Their coach is very religious; they live in such a small town; they all go to same churches as everyone else.

Maybe you’re right, I said doubtfully. Maybe she’s right, I thought, and I tried to kindle a flicker of hope. And then I thought about all the preachers and priests accused of sexual abuse and the statistics about how the states with the highest number of churchgoers are also those with the highest pornography usage, and I wondered about what keeps anyone clean when rules don’t seem to apply to them, and I wondered why we need so many rules, and why rule-followers themselves buck so hard against the laws they lay down. What is our nature?

Just a few days after the dinner, my eye alighted on news item recounting allegations of sexual misconduct against members of the Packers. They’d been participating in a charity golf tournament in the Wisconsin Dells, land of family water parks and theme restaurants, when two women claimed to have been raped by them. Charges were dropped after the women changed their initial story, although the consensus seems to be that sex of some kind was had.

I didn’t forward the link to my friend. I was fighting my told-you-so obnoxiousness, but I also understood all too well her impulse to give her players the benefit of the doubt—most of us want to think we’re exempt. The world’s going to hell, but not my country, not my congressmen, not my neighborhood, not my man, my men, my boy, my boys.

To function fully, we almost have to believe that. When the story of the fifteen-year-old girl’s gang rape broke, about one out of every four or five commenters in the local paper lambasted the victim for having gone into the school’s darkened courtyard with her classmate in the first place, which is where the attack took place. What kind of girl goes off to imbibe alcohol alone with a boy? But what kind of world do we live in when a high school student is supposed to look around her classroom and see every male in it as a potential rapist? In my fits of compulsively searching for information about sexual assault, I’ve read about various universities whose rape prevention programs consist mostly of cautioning women to watch each others’ drinks when they’re at parties and to never walk alone at night or deviate from the campus’s blue-lighted paths. What kind of culture expects women to socialize in environments where they’re so likely to be drugged they have to keep their hand over their cup as they talk to a guy with whom they might be hoping to get lucky? We have to believe that the attitude that gives rise to the gang rape of a school girl, that accepts running rough shod over a woman’s hesitation as if any kind of resistance is a linebacker blocking a first down, is one that doesn’t permeate our own immediate world, where we work and play and fuck and fall in love and raise our daughters and sons.

Green Bay beat The Steelers in last months’ Super Bowl, of course, so news feeds are no longer flashing as many updates about players’ sexual misconduct. But the Roethlisberger issue’s been on my mind because I’ve been fixated on the recent story of the eleven-year-old girl gang raped in Texas by eighteen men and boys and by the outrage over The New York Times’ reporting of it. The backlash against the Times concerns its framing of the story, and in the debate about whether the writer is blaming the victim or just reporting on locals who are, here’s an oft-mentioned quote:

“Residents in the neighborhood where the abandoned trailer stands — known as the Quarters — said the victim had been visiting various friends there for months. They said she dressed older than her age, wearing makeup and fashions more appropriate to a woman in her 20s. She would hang out with teenage boys at a playground, some said.”

I’ve read so much about the incident in the past week that even if I could formulate some insightful thoughts, it’d be hard for me to write about my reactions without inadvertently plagiarizing. Still, I have to say this: So, according to some of the town’s residents, the girl dressed like a woman in her twenties. That makes it understandable that boys and men would gang rape her? Because it’s OK to gang rape twenty year olds? Because it’s . . . what?

She was eleven.

Yeah, I’m not ready to write about it.

But I’ve been staring at the train wreck since the article appeared. The people quoted are distancing themselves from the girl—she’s not like my daughter; I’m not like her mother—and sympathizing with their favorite team—their sons, friends, students. I don’t want to narrowly equate dropped charges against some NFL players with the documented gang rape of a child, but the two things are on the same continuum. I see them as part of the same lesson to be studied about people’s—my—reaction to things we don’t want to believe.

I had a dream when I was in college that’s recurred in various forms since. I was in a bedroom of a house, and I knew that in the next room a woman was being raped. Instead of bursting through the door and trying to disrupt the crime, I went downstairs, where a party was raging, and shrilly tried to rally a group of men to go up and into the room with me. Hysterical, I physically tried to push the men up the stairs when they weren’t moving fast enough, but I remember staying firmly behind the broad back I had my hands on. I remember being glad a guy was in front of me. When I recounted the dream to a friend, she said: I think many men give tacit approval to rape, and that’s what you were responding to. I was relieved at her analysis, which took a page from the women’s studies classes we were both enrolled in, but I felt it was off. My biggest sense upon awakening was that I had failed to some extent, that under the guise of rallying help, I’d been mostly self-protective.

We have to all work together on this one, though: How about we teach boys not to rape? How about we acknowledge that, yeah, you know what, life does have a lot of grey areas. We should talk about those. And if you have your penis out and something looks like a grey area? Guess what. It’s probably not one.

Last night, when my son’s eye caught on an article about the Roethlisberger accusations that I had open on my computer, I slapped my laptop’s cover down: That’s not for you to read, I said.

My son is nine, which I feel is too young for this discussion.

And that girl is fucking eleven.

* * *

If you want more discussion on the Texas rape and the media response, Jezebel’s covered the whole thing well, starting here.

Roxane Gay has an impassioned response at The Rumpus.


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ZOE ZOLBROD's first novel, Currency, won a 2010 Nobbie Award. She was born in Meadville, Pennsylvania; went to college in Oberlin, Ohio; and got a MA from University of Illinois at Chicago. She works in educational publishing and lives in Evanston, IL, with her husband, the artist Mark DeBernardi, and their son and daughter. She's currently at work on a memoir.

46 responses to “Meditation on the Revelation of a Gang Rape of an Eleven-Year-Old Girl and the New York Times’ Coverage of It”

  1. Gloria says:

    I’d never heard of Troy Palamalou (not a sports fan in any conceivable way), but I clicked the link and I agree – he has lovely, lovely hair.

    This is a nicely laid out and extremely important issue you bring here, Zoe. I’m glad you’ve posted this.

    The fifteen year old’s rape story that you recount above makes me shake with anger. Of course it was her fault for daring to go to some piece of public land when the lights weren’t bright. Grrrr… As if a man’s nature is to rape and the onus is on anyone with a vagina to constantly dodge bullets. As if she went running absentmindedly through a mine field.

    Have you heard of Take Back The Night? They do it annually here in Portland. I’ve never attended, but every year I mean to. I think I will this year.

    The story of the eleven year old… I hadn’t heard that one yet. I won’t click your links. I know the thinking. The skewed accusations. Don’t dress your vagina up and parade it around or you’ll get what’s coming to you. God, this makes me angry.

    Thanks again for bringing this discussion to TNB.


    • Gloria says:

      Wait, I do have more thoughts. Where was the eleven year old’s parents? Who did she have in her life that was sex-positive? Who were her role models? If everybody in the town noticed that she was behaving in a sexualized way that was way out of bounds for her age and development, then why didn’t just one of those people pull her aside and try to counsel her in a gentle, meaningful way?

      It takes a fucking village, indeed.

      • Gloria says:

        Hi Zoe! Me again! (Dear Jesus, woman. Do you see what you’ve done here?)

        I JUST this second got an email from the Krav Maga (self-defense) guys here in town, letting me know that April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month.


        It just seems timely and I wanted to share.

        Okay, I’m shutting down my computer and walking away now.

      • Zoe Zolbrod says:

        Thanks for all your thoughts, Gloria. I’ve not seen a full picture emerge of the girl’s parents. A source in the NYTimes said, basically, that no mother worth the name would have let her daughter wander around like that. Another article mentioned how the girl and her sister are enrolled in gifted classes and gave other details that suggest a different scenario that the one implied by the Times. But really, isn’t it more important to ask where were the parents of the boys–some still in middle school–and men who raped? What message or counsel had the perpetrators received from their community?

        We can’t know what adults in the girl’s life might or might not have said to her, or what she might have made of the comments or suggestions. I know that I’ve sometimes become enraged when it’s been suggested to me that I shouldn’t do this alone, or wear that shirt or skirt. But the warnings have also lodged in my brain, contributing to feelings of mistrust, defensiveness, and fear.

        I remember Take Back the Night from college, but I haven’t been aware of it in Chicago. Thanks for the reminder and for the self-defense link. It’s good to have an option to be proactive.

        • Gloria says:

          Zoe, while I don’t agree that it’s “more important to ask where were the parents of the boys–some still in middle school” were, you do make an excellent point and I regret missing this in my initial response. I think it’s as important to ask that. The point being that i feel strongly that teaching healthy sexual expression and respectful regard for boundaries is important for all kids – male and female. I ask about the girl’s parents in particular because I jumped to the conclusion that they were negligent in seeing to her well-being and edification. Being a parent who hates the “blame the parent” mentality, I feel especially ashamed for that. So, sorry for that. It was a knee-jerk reaction.

        • Zoe Zolbrod says:

          Oh, I might have had a similar reaction, too, if I didn’t start out by reading an article that blamed the parents. When I see someone else do it, I get all prickly. Mostly for fear of the squinted eyes turning toward me!

          This is an aside to the rape conversation, but now that I know more people with kids in the tweenager/teenager range, I hear plenty of terrifying stories of how ungovernable older kids can become. These are pretty on-it parents, but at least one has found her 12-year-old daughter sneaking a “Former Virgin” t-shirt out of the house to put on at school, stuff like that. God help us.

  2. Lauri says:

    FYI, it’s Roxane Gay, not Gray.

  3. Roxane Gay says:

    This was an interesting meditation Zoe, lots to think about here. That Roethlissberger situation is a mess. I’ve avoided following it because I don’t have enough time to get as angry as it would make me to know more though I am reminded of the saying that where there’s smoke, there’s fire and there often seems to be a whole lot of smoke around Roethlissberger. I do find it interesting that rape prevention always focuses on women as if that somehow absolves men of the responsibility. It shouldn’t be about what a woman has to do to protect herself. It should be about how men should know when they can or cannot insert their dick into someone else’s orifices. I kind of struggle with the notion that intelligence can somehow keep you free from rape while stupidity increases your risk. A woman should be able to do anything she wants, dress how she wants, flirt how she wants, cocktease how she wants, without having rape be a potential consequence. There are good decisions and bad decisions but rape seems like an awful high price to pay for a so-called bad decision. Now, yes, we live in the real world and so we have to think about things like choices, decisions, motives and risk. We’re all human so we really do wonder sometimes, we think twice when we hear about a woman who was raped by a professional athlete or a movie star, we shake our heads when we hear about a woman who was raped under risky circumstances. That’s a shame though. It would be useful to get to a place where we were as horrified by those incidents as we are by the gang rape of an 11 year-old girl.

    • Zoe Zolbrod says:

      Hi Roxane–

      I do agree with you about the lucky/smart thing. I know that believing I or any woman can outsmart rape is really just a delusion to get me through a day out in the world, just a raincoat to wear over vulnerability. But it’s been a natural question for me, because I, like pretty much every woman, has been told from the time I was a kid what I should and shouldn’t do if I want to avoid assault. We’re given to understand that it’s all up to us, that if we follow a formula–a very narrow one–we’ll be OK. That’s often proved a lie, of course, but also of course that formula is used to judge victims and accusers much more harshly than perpetrators. And that has affected me, not always in ways I like or am proud of. Seeing it all play out in the context of a child just puts the lose-lose situation under a magnifying glass.

      As you say, all rape should be met with horror. I don’t mean to imply otherwise (although I guess any crime involving a child does seem extra-bad to me, which is something to be examined in its own right). But we’re so far from that place. That’s why the Olbermann/Moore/Assange thing was so shocking but also reifying. Here were these two progressive men not only slandering the accusers but also dismissing the seriousness of rape in general. I think it’s important to have voices, like yours in The Rumpus, like #mooreandme, that loudly and clearly and articulately say “this is wrong, this is wrong, this is wrong.” It’s necessary. It’s the most helpful thing. But I also think there are knots to unravel on the way to or after reaching that conclusion.

      • Roxane Gay says:

        There are definitely knots; that’s why I really appreciated what you wrote here.

        • Roxanne, I loved your piece in The Rumpus. I drafted a long response to it, but I just couldn’t end up posting it. Thanks for being one of those to lead the cry against how the case was treated by the Times . . . I am among the camp that is still flabbergasted that the case was actually reported in the Times. In the world where I come from, it wouldn’t have been reported anywhere, and no charges would have been filed. I’m bouncing between righteous feminist indignation–which is the right, sane, true response–and a horrible, bottomless cynicism and hopelessness from my youth that tells me we (ah, that proverbial “we” of women) should count ourselves lucky that anyone even gave a shit to write about this, that the case is going to trial. Suffice it to say that your words (and others’, like Zoe’s here) have made me re-evaluate my own knee-jerk reaction of feeling we’ve made progress and that we have to accept that as a win. “Acceptance” isn’t going to help anyone. I’m really glad your piece got so much attention.

  4. dwoz says:

    wading into dangerous waters here…

    Maybe it’s because I have a lot of daughters…but I feel more than a little bit ill about the mere concept of making use of a woman who isn’t completely on board with it. And never mind girls, much less LITTLE girls…sheesh.

    And I did write “making use of” specifically, because I think the mindset behind that statement should be considered unacceptable. As if “making use of” a woman was an acceptable way forward regardless of her state of mind.

    Is it (your typical NFL rape) actually a scenario of sociopathic/psychopathic predation, or is it rather a matter of incremental escalation where there’s not necessarily a clear moment of demarcation, between normal/acceptable behavior, and out-of-control behavior? In other words, do these things happen because the participants are swimming in a slow-boiling pot and don’t realize it until too late?

    What sort of thinking goes through the mind of a man waiting his turn on an 11 year old? (or, a non- or ambiguously-consensual 20 something for that matter) Is it a profound failure of empathy? Putting aside for a moment how the girl got there, how the hell does the GUY get there?

    in an aside…It is my casual understanding that the Assange case is decidedly more nuanced and ambiguous around the notion of consent and control, than the other examples offered. I think that while a person’s body is a sanctum and there shouldn’t necessarily be a presumption of consent because of an absence of dissent, there may also be a duty to assert control, else consent is implied?

    mind you, I am not wading into “she asked for it” waters here. But social conventions do come into play.

    • Zoe Zolbrod says:

      I’m glad you waded into the waters, Dwoz. It can be hard to venture opinions when trying to think fully about such a loaded issue, especially, in certain forums, as a man. I found myself to be defensive at times when writing this piece. At one point I wrote something like, “yeah, I know. I know. We have to watch out. We have to be careful,” because I’m so used to being told that. And at other points I worried (worry) that what I write could be seen as an apology for certain kinds of rape.

      I don’t know all the details about the Assange case, either. I was focused mostly on the Olbermann/Moore reaction and brouhaha, which did seem really telling. But my understanding was that both women who pressed charges against Assange said that they engaged in consensual sex with him, but when he ceased using a condom mid-act, they vocally ceased to give their consent, which under Swedish law would make it rape. At the risk of getting into TMI territory, I’ll say that back in the distant day when I had recreational sex, I was absolutely insistent upon condoms. If a partner had ripped off the condom mid-stream. . . yeah, I get outraged just thinking about it. The consequences are huge. I’m with Sweden on that one.

      But when I tried to confirm my understanding of the Assange charges just now, I noticed how hard it is to find a thorough, reliable source, and how much easier it is to just grasp onto things that support one’s own preconceptions. It seems the charges have been made out to be both greater and lesser than what I’ve understood. Here’s a feminist blogger with good commentary and links to lots of original sources. http://kateharding.info/2010/12/18/why-im-on-board-with-mooreandme/

      The charges against NFL players vary widely, from what I glean. Some probably do fall into the territory of predation (The Roethlisberger Georgia incident might, and see Brad’s comment below.) Others are probably more like the slow-heating pot you mention.

  5. Brad Listi says:

    This was excellent, Zoe. I’ll be honest — I started reading because I’m an absurd fan of professional football. The “Roethlisberger” mention lured me in. (By the way, have you read this? It spells out pretty clearly how grizzly things got down in Georgia.)

    Must also admit that I’ve been too caught up in Charlie Sheen to have read much about this awful gang rape or the ensuing media response, so I can’t really speak to it with any degree of insight or understanding.

    Also…I’m a Packers fan.

    And, in the spirit of good sportsmanship, I would like to mention that Green Bay Packers, while vastly superior to the rest of the league in every possible way, are not, in the end, exempt from Roethlisbergian behavior. (See: Mark Chmura.)

    Back when I was living in Colorado, years ago, I went to see the Packers play the Broncos. This was, I think, 1999. Favre was the quarterback. We got our asses handed to us that day. Favre played one of the worst games of his life. (And I was there!)

    I remember before the game, tailgating, walking across the lot outside of Mile High. Standing in line for the port-o-lets for about a half-an-hour. Drinking beer. Talking to some other Packers fans who had driven all the way from Wisconsin to see the game. Chmura came up. These people were from Green Bay. They said that Chmura’s behavior was common — he was sort of known for it. And his best drinking buddy from years past was none other than Brett Favre, who, as we all know, went on to leave the team, and the league itself, in egomaniacal disgrace. (I am no longer a Favre fan, to say the least.)

    Favre, I think, is the ultimate example of a pro athlete who completely — completely — loses touch with reality and lives in an insulated fame/glory bubble surrounded by sycophants and dependents. You get your ass kissed that much, for that long, and it probably does something to you. Only those with extreme self-awareness and grounding, and — probably more than anything else — good friends and good family with good bullshit detectors, are able to withstand it without becoming a raging asshole. (Maybe? Does that sound right?)

    When Favre closed out the ludicrous last act of his career with a series of miserable losses, displaced blame, absurd self-pity, prima donna preening, and — who can forget? — lurid sexts and pleading voicemail messages, it really came as no surprise. To me, anyway.

    It was, in truth, the culmination of his career. The final reveal on a terrific player who, as it turns out, was also sort of a terrific asshole. Or, if that’s too harsh….a guy with seriously limited powers of self-awareness.


    Last fleeting semi-connected thought: David Foster Wallace’s essay, “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart.” I think it’s in Consider the Lobster. It is, for me, one of, if not the, best and most penetrating analyses of professional athletes, sports prodigies, etc. How they function. How they are made. How their minds work….and don’t work. Worth reading in the context of Roethlisberger/Favre/et al.

    • Zoe Zolbrod says:

      Brad, I hadn’t read that SI in-depth piece about Roethlisberger in all his glory, and I haven’t read ‘How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart” in a million years. Time to hit the books.

  6. Becky Palapala says:

    Regarding the “every man is a potential rapist” thing…

    Was one of my favorite topics when I was finishing my minor in Women’s Studies. I mean, the intellectual debate surrounding it, not the fear or the threat of date rape itself.

    It strikes me as nearly unnavigable, in a lot of ways, for any critically deliberate, self-respecting feminist. Fraught with contradiction and potential (certain?) hypocrisy and so on. Women calling each other anti-woman over their stance on the issue. Pandemonium. Not an easy answer anywhere. The line between empowering women and suggesting that powerlessness is native to them is a fine one.

    It was a while ago, so I confuse my sources, but there was definitely someone (maybe Camille Paglia?) talking about the similarities between contemporary attitudes toward date rape on college campuses and Victorian attitudes toward the sexualization of children. It centered, basically, on the notion that in obsessing about STOPPING it, you nevertheless obsess about it. It becomes a fixation in public and cultural consciousness…in attempting to stop children from becoming sexualized, Victorians had to sexualize them first. That sort of thing. There becomes something titillating about it that taints the public consciousness and sort of dares people to behave in ways they might not have.

    In the Universities, it’s literature everywhere–pamphlets: don’t go anywhere with a boy, “look to your left and right, one of these men will commit a sexual crime” (or “statistically, if you have not been, one of these women next to you has been or will be a victim of sexual crime”), and so on. Just transmitting this heavy, paranoid fog of sexual danger that seems, intuitively, like it has a really good chance of being self-fulfilling for any number of reasons, not the least of which is that it advertises to both men and women that women are perpetual victims, institutionalized into fearfulness so much that they must be taught how to pretend they’re not victims: Wear this color or that color, carry an umbrella, walk with your chin up and out, with purpose, make eye contact, etc. The message is, kind of: Stop acting meek and vulnerable as is your nature, womenfolk.

    There’s something truly anachronistic going on there.

    But certainly the answer can’t be that we just ignore it. It’s not like sexual aggression will just go away if women are careless.

    It seems intractable sometimes.

    • Zoe Zolbrod says:

      “The line between empowering women and suggesting that powerlessness is native to them is a fine one.” You nailed it.

      At my most rabidly, thirstily feminist, in college, I would devour books by Dworkin and the like in large part because they were so sex-filled and titillating.

    • Gloria says:

      I read this today and thought of this discussion string:


      Just thought you’d be interested.

      • Becky Palapala says:

        I can understand her sentiment, I’ve heard it a lot, and I’m sympathetic to any number of her apparent reasons for holding it. This being the case, I’m going to be as matter-of-fact as possible here.

        First of all, I have to offer the disclaimer that I can’t speak for or against any of these scientists’ work without reading it, so my response can’t be taken as as defense of anything more than the discipline of evolutionary psychology itself. This is okay, though, I think, since the following paragraph strikes me as operative in her objection and it is broad in scope.

        The whole field of evolutionary psychology suffers from a lack of solid data…The most consistent criticism leveled at evolutionary psychologists is that they start with a conclusion, and gather evidence to support it. And that they ignore conflicting explanations–which is not how science is supposed to work.

        Ironically, the very criticism of which she speaks (and the overall trajectory it follows, present in this article) is most often leveled at evolutionary theory by two groups: Feminists and Creationists. Strange bedfellows, as it were, to say the very least.

        What they do have in common, though, is that they are groups distinctly associated with an ideological/moral bent. And in both cases, there is a sense that they are trying to paint an ideological or moral/ethical bent (“normalizing” violent crime, or “misogynist” in this case) on to a scientific field whose findings are often politically or cognitively uncomfortable for them.

        (As an aside, evolutionary psychology is uncomfortable, ideologically, for a LOT of people, regardless of race, religion, political bent, etc., which is one of the reasons it fascinates me.)

        By reducing it to a political (and therefore subjective “good/bad”) issue, she opens the door for the suggestion that certain types of knowledge can or should be withheld from the realm of permissible exploration or that some may be refused exposure to the public sphere on the condition that the knowledge could (or is intended to) be misappropriated for immoral/unethical/ideologically dangerous means. Of course, this kind of thinking thwarted feminist research and scholarship for years, which is not really germane to the subject at hand, except that this observation fills me with that intoxicating, grimly humorous sense of irony that I love so much.

        Of course, if she believes anything that she herself is saying, the fact is that even if rape WERE in some capacity an evolved phenomenon, there is no reason why that represents an argument that it is okay. The “natural fallacy” is in play here. No evolutionary psychologist that I know of would be willing to state that what is natural is moral, but because she is operating from an ideological/morally entrenched perspective she is married to the notion that everything is an argument for or against a morality and these individuals, too, must be pursuing an agenda. That whether or not rape is an adaptation is philosophical question of right/wrong.

        I mean, it is either an adaptation or it isn’t. It’s not a moral question. What we do with that answer IS.

        She makes a lot of pretty bold statements about what evopsych has evidence for and doesn’t, what it is and isn’t, etc. I’m not sure she really knows.

        Though I think she riled up, kind of, for nothing. The very premise of the lecture appears to include exploration of the competing theory that it is not an adaptation at all. That it has no evolutionary purpose and is simply a “by-product” of productive adaptations, like some kind of accidental behavioral Frankenstein, emerged from a soup of adaptive spare parts.

        Granted, this still assumes that rape is somehow at least related to evolution, however accidentally, but I think it’s a tall order to expect to see an examination of, say, competing cultural constructionist sex and gender theories from a evolutionary psychologist.

      • Becky Palapala says:

        “Riled up for nothing” is wrong.

        But as with most claims of fatalism and absolute reductionism leveled at evopsych, I think her concern is largely unfounded.

        This assertion that “on top of that truth that everything we do is not only adaptive, but must have been selected for somehow,” is indeed “ridiculous and reductionist.”

        Luckily, it’s a strawman. No evolutionary psychologist would make such a claim.

  7. Greg Olear says:

    This is a terrific piece, Zoe, although I wish it were something that didn’t need so urgently to be addressed.

    I don’t have much to add here — the comments have expanded a piece that was already full of insight — but I can’t help reading this and connecting it with what the Republicans are trying to do to women’s rights, which is beyond nauseating. When a significant portion of the government is that retrograde and anti-woman, it sends a tacit message, doesn’t it, that rape is somehow less than other crimes. Certainly the jail time for rape is not on par with, say, possession of a lot of cocaine.

    And we can’t have a discussion on this topic without bringing up Kobe Bryant, an athlete I really enjoy watching play, but whose conduct in that Colorado hotel room was — no matter what became of the charges — hideous. I don’t know how to process this stuff, other than to not watch sports as closely, which is what I have done.

    As for Assange, I tend to regard charges against someone who has made himself an enemy of the state with great skepticism. The order of operations seemed to be, “He released classified documents,” and then, “He’s a rapist.” I’m not defending him, but the timing of the allegations seemed fishy, to say the least.

  8. Zoe Zolbrod says:

    The timing did seem fishy, I agree but that’s just one element to the complex story. I’m not well versed in the larger Assange context, but I am well versed in the feminst blogosphere’s response to the rape charges and anger over them, so I could pull this quote up right away.

    “In fact, it is totally possible to support the WikiLeaks project and to think that the international response to Assange and the project is thoroughly fucked up and to think we should withhold judgment on whether or not Assange is actually a rapist and also to think that we should withhold judgment on whether the women are lying, and to not discredit the women involved, and to not create a hostile climate for rape survivors, and to not play into every tired old stereotype about women and rape.”


  9. Amanda says:

    It’s interesting how you mention the problems inherent to framing all men as potential rapists. Years ago, I ended up in an argument with my boyfriend at the time, because something I said about remaining vigilant against physical assault was insulting to him. I had tried to explain to him that it was good manners to cross the street and not appear to be following a woman walking alone at night. And that because of my own lack of security about walking alone in certain places after dark in our city, I was always careful about walking closely behind other women at night when they and I were alone (since I wore big boots and sounded, walking up behind them, like a man).

    He suggested that by crossing the street, people were not so much being polite to the woman alone, that we weren’t so much conveying a message of “hey, it’s just me, I’m not going to attack you!” as we were condoning the perception of all men, and particularly all men walking after dark, as potential rapists. We ended up in a back-and-forth about how (on my side of things) I felt like it was just plain good manners to not freak someone out versus how (on his side) that encouraged fear and apprehension and negative framing of men, as though it was more common to be attacked than to go out at night and *not* be attacked.

    The disappointing part wasn’t that he disagreed with me, but that he refused to really engage in any sort of conversation about the issue. That it was a matter of swapping opinions, and not asking questions or really considering what I was trying to say. I was definitely up for considering his opinion–not necessarily being swayed toward it, but at least hearing it out and asking more about how he formed it. I think a lot of people (women AND men) get conversations like that started, but then drop it because of how hot-button and contentious and fighty it all becomes.

    I like that you asked questions in your piece, instead of just telling…

    • Zoe Zolbrod says:

      Thanks, Amanda. I totally agree with you about this. “I think a lot of people (women AND men) get conversations like that started, but then drop it because of how hot-button and contentious and fighty it all becomes.”

      Fighty is the right word. I know that feeling all too well. A seemingly innocuous phrase can unleash a torrent of blocked-off emotion.

  10. Simon Smithson says:

    There was an outcry over here some years back when an Australian Mufti made comments regarding women who were sexually assaulted while wearing ‘indecent’ clothing. The Mufti, Sheikh al-Hilali, likened the crimes to leaving meat out in the garden and a cat coming to eat it. His summation was that the cat is blameless; the meat is where the problem began.

    There was an outcry, there was criticism from the government, from the media, from talkback callers… it was a big deal, as it rightly should have been, as the Mufti represented and preached to a large sector of Sydney’s Muslim populace.

    A few months ago, a case captured the Melbourne media about a young girl who has been sexually involved with a number of football players, potentially been supplied drugs by a player manager, and had one or more abortions to a player, and suddenly, Facebook is just as awash with attacks on her for degrading the teams people love to support as it was with updates and groups decrying the Mufti’s comments.

    The borders of outrage and condemnation would appear to shift – shockingly easily – depending on who is involved and from what community, both inside the community and out of it.

    Compare this all to the experience of a consultant I know who works in IT. His client had asked him to make a house call, so the consultant showed up at the arranged time of 4:30. The client’s teen daughter answered the door, and said the client was running late.

    The consultant stood on the doorstep, called the client, who said ‘Yep, sorry, running late, I’ll be there in ten minutes. Just wait inside.’

    The consultant said ‘No, I’ll wait in my car. If you get held up further, I’m leaving, we’ll re-schedule.’ Because there was no way he was going to put himself in the position of being alone in someone’s house with a teen girl. And to me, that’s the best and smartest thing he could have done after having been put in that position by his client.

    I can’t speak for other groups, cultures, or nationalities, but I think more and more, the men I know are being educated that you shouldn’t even look like you’re in a situation where you could potentially crossing the line, regardless of innocence or intent – hence, the consultant turning right around and not entering the house for a second.

    The flip side of the equation to the ‘look how she was dressed’ argument is ‘Yeah, dudes can’t help themselves from raping someone if she’s wearing a low cut top’. Not only are women powerless against men, but men are powerless against themselves.

    The ridiculous part is that it’s still even an issue; that there remains a place for commentary like ‘Those poor guys have to live with this for the rest of their lives’. The fact that similar comments have been thrown up, time and time again, over here, is what prompted this grimly funny, and hugely sad, post that went viral:


  11. Zoe, this is such a deeply introspective and insightful piece. At this point, it doesn’t make much sense to deconstruct the Times anymore (it’s been done, which is great and incredible to me–done to the point that they had to actually listen and responsd, holy shit), but it mainly makes sense to go “inward” on this. To how women ourselves actually think about rape. About the excuses we make for the male figures we want to enjoy; about the stories we tell ourselves about how we can prevent it by doing X, Y or Z. As a mother, those stories are precious sanity to me, but at the end of the day they’re fairy tales, too. Most women (myself more than included) have done a million “stupid” things that didn’t end in rape, and plenty of women have done essentially nothing out of the ordinary and been raped anyway. The rule is that there are no rules. We can try to adhere to a certain code to minimize risk, but minimization isn’t elimination.

    It comes down to this–as Becky said, really (though maybe not the Camille Paglia part; fuck that woman gets on my nerves): it is a grave error to think that “all men are potential rapists.” This simply isn’t true. There are so many men–MOST men–who have routinely in their lives done things like have drinks in private with a woman without ever contemplating raping her. It seems crazy to even have to stipulate that! There are plenty of men–MOST men–who have been alone with an underage girl like a babysitter or a daughter’s friend–and never even considered making a pass much less assaulting the girl. Almost every man on the planet has at some point been kissing or touching a woman and then heard her say no, and the majority of them do not just rape the woman as though she has no voice. Yes, the statistics are pretty compelling that a lot of women are raped in their lives. Something like 1 in 4, right? But the fact is that many women are raped by RAPISTS–men who habitually rape women and are never caught. This does not mean that 1 in 4 men is a rapist. Rapists usually rape repeatedly. Non-rapists never rape at all.

    It’s very sad for a non-violent man to be thought a rapist by a frightened, angry woman. But it is much sadder still that it is so fucking dangerous to be a woman (and even more dangerous to be a girl) that hysterical, overblown fear often seems the only possible way of reducing one’s risk.

    I don’t care about professional sports. But famous athletes also aren’t the ones usually gang raping 11 year old girls, either. What this illustrates is that rape exists among the power/wealth/fame spectrum of men. Violence is not synonymous only with entitlement and privilege. It’s also tied in many ways to poverty, lack of opportunity, hoplessness.

    And there are also men on both ends of this economic/fame/power spectrum who would simply never dream of physically overpowering somebody and fucking her against her will. Who would no more do something like this than I would or you would.

    We need to start at the ground up. What’s the ground, though? Well, I guess your son is the ground. My son is the ground. Their generation will be the men of the future.

    I hope our generation of mothers and fathers can do a better job than those before us have done, so that men who rape will no longer just be a “minority” but truly an anomoly.

    • Becky Palapala says:

      Paglia’s appeal, for me, is in her humor and her ability to consistently say things (often challenging, unpopular things) that have not been said in a way that refuses to coddle. It’s the antithesis of the sick-making ersatz piety with which it has become commonplace for people to treat politics.

      Her perspective is consistently, almost unerringly fresh, which is gold to me in a world where so much opinion is a parrot, a party line, an intellectual or emotional trope.

      I agree with her more often than not, but just barely.

      I have to respect her. It would genuinely appear that she does not give a fuck what anyone thinks. Love her or hate her, she is a force. I have to give a woman–any woman–props for that.

  12. Hey Becky–

    I do agree that Paglia has chops, and I do respect any woman who is able to make a name based on the force of her opinions. That’s no easy task in the culture. And yeah, if push comes to shove, I’m not sure she annoys me any more than some of the more extreme piety of Second Wave feminism, the “all intercourse is rape” stuff–looked at from that lens, Paglia’s views can seem quite fresh (and even refreshing) indeed.

    However, I actually think she was part of a cultural zeitgeist of “post-feminism” in the 90s that itself became kind of a gimmick or a trope. I will give her props for being one of the foremothers of this ideological/cultural discourse in reaction to traditional feminism. But her ideologies, or what came to be described as “post-feminism” (though I don’t think BY Paglia) in the academy and the media, did soon become parroted ad nauseum in the media in everything from fashion magazines to Politically Incorrect. Do you remember the website The Postfeminist Playground? And the writer Susannah Breslin, who managed to parrot Paglia and Roiphe and that ilk all the way on to national TV and was interviewed by Bill Mahr? It became tiresome, the way a bunch of female academics seemed to simultaneously “figure out” that if they insulted the previous generation of feminists and called them victimy crybabies, they could get a lot of sexy media attention from . . . well, largely from men. And the fact that so many, like Breslin and Roiphe, were the children of famous cultural critics made postfeminism seem very much the pet or mascot of a kind of privileged white chick who never actually had to struggle much. By saying feminism was unsexy and passe, they could basically . . . ah, I want to say “get laid,” but what I really mean is get on TV, get in magazines, get famous. I thought it was petty and boring after awhile, although I did initially agree with some of what they said. But they started to seem, to me, like performing monkeys for the male media. “Oh those other feminists with their hairy legs–they’ve never had an orgasm–they’re so lame–who cares about date rape, blah blah.” I’m exaggerating, of course. They had their points. Just as the Dworkins and such who came before them did.

    Anything pushed to hyperbole becomes obnoxious and becomes a bandwagon, I guess. I feel like Paglia became the leader of something that started as fresh and provocative, and became a bit of a parody of itself and kind of reductive of the fact that: a) violence against women is pretty damn real, and not really any less common than it was in the 70s during Second Wave feminism, not to mention feminist issues like women still being able to legally earn less money for the same work, so I’m not sure we’re “post” anything yet–though I don’t blame Paglia for the affectation of that term, since as I said, I don’t think she was one of its appropriators even though it was often applied to her by others and b) I feel like Paglia and her cohorts became somewhat shock-jocks, where they said things because they were grooving on the media attention, and I wasn’t really sure whether they even believed in them after awhile or just had to continue to shock to court attention.

    But yeah, she was interesting when she burst onto the scene, I will give her that. I did like her celebration of gay men, too (although that seemed a little fetishized over time, like other things she did that originally seemed fresh.)

    • zoe zolbrod says:

      I sometimes feel like conversations about sexism are similar to conversations about the latest in parenting advice, in that the people who are participating are already likely to be taking these things pretty seriously. The result is that parents who already, say, feed their kids decently hear so much about the evils of junk food that they come to equate giving a kid a handful of Cheetos with child abuse while other parents are still blithely serving their kids Coke with every meal, and guys like an old acquaintance of mine who become uncomfortable with anything but the most vanilla of sexual positions because they fear taking the pose of a rapist. And so the message gets overly intense in the small rooms where it is circulating, it gets turned into a rigid gospel, and it becomes easy to caricature for those who start off in or near the room but who are rebellious by nature. But the larger world–at least when it comes to sexism–has only ever reluctantly moved from caricature. As Gina points out, no woman making fun feminism is going to have a hard time getting airtime. The brilliant wits showing the flaws of capitalism? Not so much.

      Paglia seems to be a provocateur. Although this was perhaps less the case when she made her name–and although I probably haven’t read anything of hers in a decade and can’t remember the actual content of what I did, and so perhaps shouldn’t say anything about her specifically–I think the handing of political discussions to provocateurs has done damage to meaningful discourse. Anne Couture comes to mind. Caitlan Flanagan. Did you all read her piece in the Atlantic about the Duke fuck list incident? http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2011/01/the-hazards-of-duke/8328/ There’s some truth in what these people have to say (except for Couture, but I include her because I think the strategy is similar), but they’re more interested in bomb throwing than in dialoguing or deepening understanding. (Having obsessed over the fuck list incident, I was aware of how much Flanagan was taking out of context when writing her piece).

  13. Oh, let me add here that I actually think Susannah Breslin’s writing has gotten a lot more interesting and soulful in recent years . . . though ironically, the media being what it is, she seems to receive less attention now that she has more genuinely wise things to say. I went to graduate school with her, and though we were not friends (I think she disliked me, actually) I almost emailed her recently after seeing this fabulous piece by her, “advising” a young journalist. Brilliant stuff:


  14. Sharon Wilks says:

    Your piece couldn’t have been more timely. My daughter is soon to be 9 and asked me JUST LAST NIGHT what rape was. I was only marginally stunned because my daughter is very bright and we have had the birds and the bees conversation already. When I asked her what she thought it was, she replied “when someone takes you somewhere and you don’t know where you are and they force you to have sex with them”. I have to admit at first I was deeply saddened that, at only 8 years old, she actually knew what rape was about. Then I was a bit relieved. Thank goodness she knows. Thank goodness that her eyes are open and that even just this little bit of knowledge might help protect her in some way. Our discussion went on for quite a while extending into date rape and other unpleasantries that we try so hard to shield our kids from. I used to want to shield her but now I realize by answering her questions and passing on some knowledge I am actually giving the shield TO her. Thanks for the story.

    • zoe zolbrod says:

      Wow, Sharon, that is weirdly coincidental timing. I hope your daughter can use the awareness to empower herself, and not to terrify herself. It seems like coming at it that young, before the hormonal whirl, might help, in that regard. Good luck!

  15. dwoz says:

    As if on cue, in response to the gang rape in Texas, a Florida state legislator (a republican unsurprisingly, a woman inexplicably) has introduced legislation to prohibit young girls from wearing provocative clothes, as a way to prevent them from being gang raped by teen aged boys.

    Apparently, it was not the sociopathic predatory tendencies of the boys that was the proximate cause of her rape, rather it was her own fault for not wearing a kevlar and chain mail burkha. You know, guys can’t help themselves from helping themselves when they see a heaping helping of hot eleven year old bare skin.

    I mean, if you’re a good old boy, what are you going to rely on? fuck-me boots or anguished screams of pain?

    • zoe zolbrod says:

      Dwoz, I saw that news item. The rep actually refers to the NYTimes article in her justification for the law. I’ve pasted this from an article on jezebel about it. http://jezebel.com/#!5782426/gag-order-issued-in-texas-gang-rape-case-but-the-response-remains-twisted

      “One committee member, Rep. Kathleen Passidomo (R-Naples) said she’d read recently a horrible story out of Texas about the rape of a young girl.

      “There was an article about an 11 year old girl who was gangraped in Texas by 18 young men because she was dressed like a 21-year-old prostitute,” she said. “And her parents let her attend school like that. And I think it’s incumbent upon us to create some areas where students can be safe in school and show up in proper attire so what happened in Texas doesn’t happen to our students.”

      No one commented on that line of reasoning.”

      Um, I guess there’s a silver lining for those of us who care about words and who have spilled a lot of ink deconstructing the Times article: It shows us that language matters and can have far reaching consequences.

  16. […] direction. There’s a great conversation taking place right now over at The Nervous Breakdown with a meditation by Zoe Zolbrod where she articulates a lot of the things people think but are afraid to […]

  17. Good Gahd, don’t get me started on this.

    1. If you walked through a crowd waving a one-hundred-dollar bill around and someone snatched it, would that be theft? Yes. Yes, it would. You were stupid to wave it, but it’s still theft. If a woman (or girl) makes a bad choice about where to go with whom and is raped, was her choice bad? Yes. Was it still rape? Yes. YES IT WAS.

    2. Why are the women left in charge of men’s hormones? They want to control everything else – the money, the power, but their sexual urges? Thanks, no, they’ll blame those on us. We ENTICED them, to the point they went bonkers and had to have sex with us.

    Ok, I gotta take an aspirin now. Or a shot of something.

  18. Tom Hansen says:

    WOW. What a post, and what amazing comments. I have to agree with Gina, some men are that way and some aren’t. And who knows why? I remember when I was selling heroin, I had many opportunities to not rape but simply use my power of holding the bag to have my way with desperate girls, and even then, being involved with criminal activity, and being loaded out of my gourd, I just couldn’t bring myself to engage in that. Who knows why? Was it because I am ‘wired’ a certain way, or because my parents never divorced? It’s a mystery.

    Lately my thinking on this, among other topics, such as the economic crisis, has been leaning toward power dynamics as having something to do with why some men rape, that some men deal with being powerful or powerless in one way and others another way. Some can be, or allow themselves to be corrupted by it, or angered by it in some dark way, and some just don’t. And then there’s the social and cultural influence, which I think often is not helping the situation….

    • zoe zolbrod says:

      I think most women–well, it can’t be just be!–work under the assumption that the majority of men aren’t rapists on any level. Otherwise, how would anyone get consentually laid, especially casually? We think we can read someone’s character well enough to go off alone with them. And usually we’re right. But sometimes we’re wrong. And then comes the insinuation from a lot of different quarters that it’s all our fault.

  19. Jessica Blau says:


    This is so well-written and smart and passionate and MOVING.

    Thank you for posting this!

  20. […] Then there was all the outrage against the Times’ coverage, including over at The Rumpus, and Zoe Zolbrod’s piece questioning our own complicity here at […]

  21. Dana says:

    I missed this Zoe, but Gina’s latest piece directed me here. Somehow I’d completely missed the story of the 11 year old being gang raped. Absolutely horrifying. As disgusting as any rape is, gang rape is just unfathomable. And at 11? I always worry when I see an overtly sexual little girl because it so often means that they’ve been already suffered some abuse. Well written and impassioned piece!

  22. […] rape of an 11 year old girl, they famously included quotations describing her sexy, mature attire (which I had something to say about), and, more recently, a Toronto police chief told a group of women that if they didn’t want to […]

  23. feminism says:

    Second Wave feminism…

    […]Zoe Zolbrod | Meditation on the Revelation of a Gang Rape of an Eleven-Year-Old Girl and the New York Times’ Coverage of It | The Nervous Breakdown[…]…

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