Right-Wing Austin Institute’s ‘Frank and Fearless’ Take on Rape: Women, ‘Be Safe’

Steve Buscemi is ready for a "frank and fearless" discussion about college rape with the youth of today.
Steve Buscemi is ready for a “frank and fearless” discussion with the youth of today.  30 Rock via Skate and Annoy

“How do you do, fellow kids?”

That’s the caption from a 30 Rock GIF that often gets passed around on the social media these days when us decrepit 30-somethings are feeling particularly out of touch with the youths. The image itself is of middle-aged character actor Steve Buscemi geared up like a teen — backwards hat, hoodie, carrying a skateboard — trying desperately to appear hip, young and with-it.

I could not get Steve out of my head Thursday night as I sat through a 90-minute panel at the University of Texas called “Assault and Integrity: A Frank and Fearless Discussion About Sex on Campus.” It was hosted by the Austin Institute, a right-wing think tank that bills itself as a “leading resource for tested, rigorous academic research on questions of family, sexuality, social structures and human relationships.” Their brain trust includes anti-gay University of Texas professor Mark Regnerus, whose own sociology department, along with the American Sociological Association, has publicly disavowed his “fundamentally flawed” research on LGBTQ families.

If you’ve got something important to do, such as take care of your own mental health, the upshot was this: Sex is risky, rape is bad, drinking! and women should “be smart” to avoid rape. Also drinking is a problem. In addition: drinking, a problem.

These “frank and fearless” takes came courtesy of three panelists decades removed from their own undergraduate experiences, and who joked openly about their ages. The spread: a doctor whose snazzy tagline is “one hundred percent M.D., zero percent P.C.”, a journalist who wrote a book subtitled “How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love and Lose at Both,” and a Baylor University philosophy professor.

From left: Baylor professor Alexander Pruss, journalist Laura Sessions Stepp and doctor Miriam Grossman, panel members on an Austin Institute-sponsored "frank and fearless" discussion about college rape.
From left: Baylor professor Alexander Pruss, journalist Laura Sessions Stepp and doctor Miriam Grossman, panel members on an Austin Institute-sponsored “frank and fearless” discussion about college sexual assault.  Baylor University / Laura Sessions Stepp / Miriam Grossman, M.D.

There were no real-life college students on the panel. Austin Institute director Kevin Stuart moderated, along with his wife. I would be disingenuous if I did not say that the Stuarts made notable, if heavy-handed, efforts to engage an audience of 30 or so who were mostly significantly younger than the purported experts on stage. But they did try, venturing into the audience for the panelists’ views on the event’s two main subjects, “hooking up” and sexual assault. (Summed up, the panelists’ expert opinions on the two, respectively: a bad inevitable thing, and a definitely bad thing that might sometimes be the fault of drunk women who tease men into raping them. More on that later.)

The discussion also included two notable extended metaphors about rape being like making someone eat ice cream when they don’t want to eat ice cream, and also rape being like stealing an ugly painting that someone secretly wants you to steal but didn’t tell you to steal but maybe they are glad you stole it but you probably should have asked them first.

Those metaphors came courtesy of Alexander Pruss, the aforementioned Baylor professor who told the audience he studies “infinity.” He also wrote a 14-page article for the anti-abortion coalition University Faculty For Life entitled “I Was Once a Fetus: That is Why Abortion is Wrong.”

I have to give Pruss credit, reluctant as I am to embrace his juvenile assertions about pregnancy termination. He really was striving to make a pretty important point, one otherwise lost for most of the discussion. I believe he was trying to say, inelegantly, that “she wanted it” is a poor but oft-used excuse when men rape women.

Pruss was the only panelist to even come close to directing his remarks at men, who are, after all, estimated to be responsible for the vast majority of sexual assaults both of women and of men. (The Austin Institute panel was exclusively concerned with rape among heterosexual college- and high school-age cisgender men and women. Lesbian, gay, trans and queer people figured nowhere into the discussion. Perhaps they do not go to college.)

It’s difficult, in retrospect, to otherwise parse a conversation that so thoroughly conflated sex outside of committed relationships (what I have to assume the panelists meant by “hooking up,” a term no one made any real attempt to define) with sexual assault. In fact, the definition of rape didn’t come up until, halfway through the discussion, an audience member wondered: What is sexual assault? Does it, she asked, “have to be violent?”

The question was ultimately answered not by a panelist or a moderator but by another audience member sitting in a nearby row, who emphasized: No, sexual assault is about a lack of consent, not physical violence.

It may be that the panelists agree with that characterization. If that’s the case, they never made much of an effort to establish it. Instead, panelist and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Laura Sessions Stepp opened her statements about “hooking up” and sexual assault with a classic victim-blaming gem regarding the aftermath of what she called “gray rape,” which she characterized as, basically, drunk sex that young women later regret: “Sometimes those girls really did go pretty far toward encouraging that young man before backing off.”

Sessions Stepp introduced that remark with an assurance that rape is rape and that victims are never responsible for their own rapes, as if that kind of preface might absolve her, or anyone, of the logical conclusion that follows from saying a rape victim could “go pretty far” toward inviting someone to commit sexual assault.

What anyone at this panel failed to observe is that rape is committed by rapists, for reasons that are more complicated than anyone on the Austin Institute panel — which reflected, broadly, mainstream conversations about rape that also laughably bill themselves as similarly paradigm-shifting — cared to explore.

Harping about alcohol consumption, as the panel did every two or three minutes, between ill-defined hand-wringing about “hooking up,” does little to deter rapists from raping, or even to encourage men to make the most half-hearted attempts at holding their fellows accountable for assaults. Instead, the panelists predominantly put the onus on women to avoid their own victimization, as UCLA psychiatrist Dr. Miriam Grossman put it, by being “safe.”

It is that “be safe” narrative that I find to be the most enraging, the most useless, when anyone talks about sexual assault, because it is always women who are encouraged to mind their safety, rather than men who are encouraged to mind their raping. We’ve been having the same conversations about rape not just for decades, but for hundreds of years — privileging a woman’s chastity, or her virginity, or her sobriety, as the sole argument for her victimhood.

If warnings to women to preserve their virtue were the key to ending rape, men would have stopped raping us literal ages ago. But rape has naught to do with sex, or “hooking up,” or virtue. It is a crime of power, not of desperately sought sexual satisfaction on behalf of an unfairly teased man. There is nothing “frank” or “fearless” about telling women to “be safe.” That is an impotent, and a dangerously impotent, refrain that silences victims and survivors and protects their attackers.

And it is a narrative that the event’s most vocal audience members seemed far more attuned to than the panelists. One woman, who repeatedly questioned the speakers’ assertions about alcohol’s causative connection with sexual assault, told her own story of being assaulted — to a room full of strangers whose most frequent reaction to the panelists’ oft-conflated assertions about sex and rape was nervous giggling.

At one point, the room even had a good awkward chuckle about the concept of “enthusiastic consent,” which Sessions Stepp mocked, from the stage, as a preposterous idea embodied by a woman jumping on a bed saying, “Yes, I consent, let’s do it!”

This concept, which invites sexual partners to consistently check in with one another about the mutual agreeableness of their activity, is more revolutionary than any of the piddling and predictable complaints the panelists made about drunk college kids and their promiscuous ways.

And yet it was roundly mocked by the very people the Austin Institute presented as authorities. For a “frank” and “fearless” discussion about rape, the panelists’ attitudes largely made for a sorely disappointing rejoinder to the demonstrable confusion many of the audience members had, not just about how to deal with rape, but about what even constitutes rape in the first place.

How do you do, fellow kids? You do deserve better.

Correction, February 22: The Laura Sessions Stepp quote concerning “gray rape” has been updated to include the phrase “before backing off” in order to complete her original statement. 

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Andrea Grimes is a writer and feminist activist living in Austin.

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