Lenore Skenazy Could Be A Skeptic, But She’s Not

Free Range Parenting, It’s almost skeptical.

For a long time now, I’ve really wanted to like Lenore Skenazy.  She dares to speak up against the ridiculous and crippling bubble wrap we put around kids growing up and point out that we should be basing our decisions about risk/benefit to kids based on the actual evidence.  Skenazy pointed out that crime rates are at historic lows nationally and in individual states, and yet the policies that govern parenting, play and schooling have gotten ever more restrictive.  There are social norms at work, although they vary by region, that ostracize parents who allow their children opportunities to learn and grow independently while building confidence and useful skills.

She calls it “Free-Range Parenting.”  Sounds like a good start toward a skeptical worldview, right?  Turns out, not so much.

Then the problems start to show up.

Along with the evidence based ideas of letting kids play outside without adults hovering a foot away and allowing mature kids to ride on public transportation to see friends or hit the library and not immediately characterizing men near children as probable pedophiles, she also comes off as a denialist about things we do have evidence of risk and harm.  I would not have known the extend to which she endorses some of these things had I not followed her on Twitter for a while.

I had a bit of a ragegasm in January when she seemed to side with a systemic anti-medication approach to ADHD that made my life misery as a kid.  She linked to a poorly done bit of research on exercise for kids with ADHD credulously agreeing with the overstated conclusions, saying it was “unsurprising but significant.”  I feared for all the parents who followed her seeing this and deciding that their kids don’t need medical treatment or coping strategies after all, they just need to run around a bit more during the day.  I feared they could face non-treatment (which is fucking hell) because of the I-heard-about-this-alternative-treatment-on-Oprah effect.

Since then, it appears that she has made her healthy and positive stance toward medicating those with ADHD more clear, which I appreciate.  However, she seems to think that since the rash of known bullying related suicides doesn’t match an overall decrease among most students (meaning it doesn’t affect lots of straight and cis kids, in my opinion), there is no epidemic of systemic abuses.  She seems to say that bullying is sad but normal and decreasing, so we shouldn’t look to see if there are greater influences of bullying, even anti-gay bullying, as the nation becomes more conservative and polarized about LGBT equality.

She claims that “No one is shrugging off the real crime of bullying. But to pretend there’s an epidemic when in fact things are getting better is to both over-react AND sell our kids short.”  Has she even looked at what places like Tennessee legislature or the Anoka-Hennepin school district have said and done on the matter?  If Skenazy had been paying attention at all, she should know that religious conservatives are lobbying for the right to verbally crush LGBT youth all in the name of religious freedom.  Some conservatives have even argued that bullying kids abusing LGBT students are displaying natural revulsion, rather than ingrained prejudice.  Is this really the argument she believes is supported by evidence?

But for a while, I continued following her because she generally has sane things to say about kids being allowed to be kids and parents not being perfect.  Then she did something that I think is unforgivable.  She claimed the recent CDC rape and sexual violence survey was an example of “overdefining” crime while linking to some of the most hateful straw analysis of the survey I have seen.

Lenore Skenazy Tweet Endorsing Rape Apologist Article

I think I understand why she did it.  Skenazy has long argued that our sex-offender laws are screwed up, and punish teenagers and adolescents for bad judgement.  And that much is true; it is one thing for someone to be convicted of statutory rape when xe is old enough that the power differential is inherently harmful.  It is another when a couple of years separate boyfriend/girlfriend and the elder spends the rest of xir days labeled on a registry, having future life options eliminated without good cause.

Why I No Longer Trust Lenore Skenazy.

But what Skenazy has done is conflate these Romeo & Juliet scenarios with the real and statistically huge risk of rape and sexual assault that women face and spit on victims.  By endorsing the views of someone actively trying to undermine more comprehensive study of sexual violence, she has become a rape apologist.  It was at this point I could no longer follow her or endorse her advocacy because it’s tainted by someone who interprets facts to suit her hypotheses.  Consent is really not that hard (no matter how “where is the line/I’m just asking questions” assholes try to muddle the issue).  Skenazy is talking about instances of free and enthusiastic consent without inherently broken power dynamics, and then endorses the most vile denial and rape apologism without even thinking.  That she could not see the difference means that I can no longer trust anything she says to be objectively measured.

So you can understand why I am so angry, I’ll talk about both the article she endorsed How to fake sexual violence rates and produce scary numbers and the CDC survey it references.  I’ll start by talking a little bit about the CDC violence study, but honestly, it has been parsed and discussed in so much depth that it’s mostly just so I can explain just how wrong the opinion piece is.

Sexual Violence and the CDC Survey.

Rape and sexual assault are both incredibly under-reported and generally prone to lower rates of false reports than other types of crimes.  The fact that these crimes are very seldom reported makes it extremely difficult for us to get an accurate picture of just how widespread sexual violence is; and thus makes it easier for people to claim the outrage over abysmal prosecution and conviction rate is overblown.  Moreover, there is an accepted caricature of what “real rape” looks like that prevents many victims from even understanding what they experienced was rape at all.  Women victims especially are subjected to character assassination and gas-lighting that makes them likely to hide their attacks.  Thankfully the CDC did a randomized phone survey last year that helps us get a much more accurate of how very real the risk is and hopefully get some attention on the factors that prevent us from making progress.

The survey does not ask if women were raped, specifically because it’s been found that many victims and even attackers will admit to rape so long as you don’t call it this.  Instead the survey ensures that it focuses exclusively on questions of consent, thus making sure to count even those rapes where the victims are in denial about what happened to them.  Even better, the survey was constructed so that it allowed for inclusion of the range of possible rapes and assaults rather than assuming default genders of attackers and victims.  The questions very clearly and easily allow us to tabulate sexual assault and rape by asking respondents if others victimized them when they refused consent or were unable to do consent.  The results are nothing short of heartbreaking:

  • Nearly 1 in 5 women (18.3%) and 1 in 71 men (1.4%) in the United States have been raped at some time in their lives, including completed forced penetration, attempted forced penetration, or alcohol/drug facilitated completed penetration.
  • Approximately 1 in 21* men (4.8%) reported that they were made to penetrate someone else during their lifetime; most men who were made to penetrate someone else reported that the perpetrator was either an intimate partner (44.8%) or an acquaintance (44.7%).
  • More than half (51.1%) of female victims of rape reported being raped by an intimate partner and 40.8% by an acquaintance**; for male victims, more than half (52.4%) reported being raped by an acquaintance and 15.1% by a stranger.
  • Most female victims of completed rape (79.6%) experienced their first rape before the age of 25; 42.2% experienced their first completed rape before the age of 18 years.
  • More than one-quarter of male victims of completed rape (27.8%) experienced their first rape when they were 10 years of age or younger.
  • Nearly 1 in 10 women in the United States (9.4%) has been raped by an intimate partner in her lifetime, and an estimated 16.9% of women and 8.0% of men have experienced sexual violence other than rape by an intimate partner at some point in their lifetime.
  • Approximately 1 in 5 Black (22.0%) and White (18.8%) non-Hispanic women, and 1 in 7 Hispanic women (14.6%) in the United States have experienced rape at some point in their lives. More than one-quarter of women (26.9%) who identified as American Indian or as Alaska Native and 1 in 3 women (33.5%) who identified as multiracial non-Hispanic reported rape victimization in their lifetime.
  • One percent, or approximately 1.3 million women, reported being raped by any perpetrator in the 12 months prior to taking the survey.

This makes me want to vomit.  I would hope it would make anyone else sick too.

The Sommers Rape Apology Article and Criticism.

I can almost understand wishing that this data was in some way flawed in order to minimize these numbers, pretend that the situation just can’t be this bad.  But lying to yourself won’t save future victims or help those already raped.  And spitting on those victims in public as mere tools to “inflate” the rates of sexual violence is despicable.  But that is exactly what Christina Hoff Sommers has done.  Here are excerpts from the denialist and heartless Bangor Daily News article Lenore Skenazy found compelling.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently released a study suggesting that rates of sexual violence in the United States are comparable to those in the war-stricken Congo. How is that possible?

Well, it’s possible partly because of a poor understanding of statistics wherein Sommers confuses lifetime risk with annual rates of attack as well as conflating stranger rapes with acquaintance/partner rape which are not currently counted in the estimates of rape in Congo (meaning Sommers’ comparison is utter bullshit), but also because we as a society do not treat rape with the seriousness it deserves.  Just looking at the percentages of attacks that don’t fit the “real rape” narrative along with our shameful history of either completely ignoring or apologizing for spousal rapes, it becomes clear that unlike many other violent crimes, rape is a hidden crime.  Moreover, in most cases, reporting rapes have far more negative consequences for victims than perpetrators.

But we have to get to the minimization and denial as quickly as possible because the reality is too horrifying.

In fact, what the study reveals is the devastating impact that careless advocacy research can have on truth. The report proposes an array of ambitious government-sponsored “prevention strategies” and recommends “multi-disciplinary service centers” offering survivors psychological and legal counseling as well as housing and economic assistance. But survivors of sexual violence would be better served by good research and sober estimates — not inflated statistics and sensationalism.

Wow, that sounds like a serious allegation.  So Sommers is claiming that the CDC was looking to find victims so they could increase support to help women leave abusive situations.  Those bastards!  It couldn’t be that they found a serious problem worse than expected and proposed ways to help mitigate the harm out of good faith.  Of course, she doesn’t explain what exactly she finds so objectionable about their collection methods  yet.

The agency’s figures are wildly at odds with official crime statistics. The FBI found that 84,767 rapes were reported to law enforcement authorities in 2010. The Bureau of Justice Statistics’ National Crime Victimization Survey, the gold standard in crime research, reports 188,380 rapes and sexual assaults on females and males in 2010. Granted, not all assaults are reported to authorities. But where did the CDC find 13.7 million victims of sexual crimes that the criminologists had overlooked?

Ah, here’s the first objection to the actual data: it doesn’t match with meta analysis of law enforcement rates.  Sommers kindly acknowledges that some rapes and assaults are not reported to authorities, but surely, it can’t be that under-reported, right?  Well, yes it can, but also law enforcement agencies can be notoriously bad at handling cases.  Victims are blown off, and in many places, systematically ignored to artificially deflate violent crime numbers under pressure to report lower crime rates across the board.  (Seriously, there are documented cases of police departments pushing obvious victims with physical evidence into false reports to fudge their numbers.)

What’s more, data compiled by the FBI should by no means be considered the “gold standard” for anything when describing rape and sexual assault.  The federal definition of rape was only updated this January, and has been so out of date that it ignored whole swaths of rapes because they did not fit the uniform crime report survey given to police departments.

But Sommers naturally has other explanations of why the resulting reported rapes would be so much higher than the FBI’s analysis.

It found them by defining sexual violence in impossibly elastic ways and then letting the surveyors, rather than subjects, determine what counted as an assault. Consider: In a telephone survey with a 30 percent response rate, interviewers did not ask participants whether they had been raped. Instead of such straightforward questions, the CDC researchers described a series of sexual encounters and then they determined whether the responses indicated sexual violation. A sample of 9,086 women was asked, for example, “When you were drunk, high, drugged, or passed out and unable to consent, how many people ever had vaginal sex with you?” A majority of the 1.3 million women (61.5 percent) the CDC projected as rape victims in 2010 experienced this sort of “alcohol or drug facilitated penetration.”

What does that mean? If a woman was unconscious or severely incapacitated, everyone would call it rape. But what about sex while inebriated? Few people would say that intoxicated sex alone constitutes rape — indeed, a nontrivial percentage of all customary sexual intercourse, including marital intercourse, probably falls under that definition (and is therefore criminal according to the CDC).  [emphasis added]

Here is where she starts getting really nasty and willfully ignorant.  All it would have taken would be to read for comprehension, but given that Sommers is trying to find a way to meet her premise (the reported rape and assault numbers are too high), if it fits her thesis, she’ll run with it.

First problem: she thinks that victims of rape will all be open to themselves about what happened to them.  Sommers suffers from the delusion that rape victims don’t in vast numbers suffer from feelings that they deserved their attacks, or that what happened to them couldn’t be a “real rape” because it didn’t fit x, y, z bullshit requirement.  Guess what happens when you ask victims of rape if they were “raped?”  Many don’t report rape.

Asking women if they were raped is anything but a “straightforward question” because of all the social baggage that comes along with it.  By ensuring to ask specifically about specific attacks/circumstances, CDC researchers got a much more accurate picture of rape, because we don’t leave it up to victims to define crime.  (Look at fucking domestic battery cases and how often victims side with partners.)

Second problem: reading comprehension fail.  They did not ask whether men and women had sex while high or drunk, but were capable of expressing their wishes.  The researchers very deliberately laid out conditions that would render the victim incapable of giving consent, by the victim’s own metric.  By its very construction, the question asked about instances when, to quote Sommers, victims were “severely incapacitated” and by anyone’s definition unable to consent.

So let’s not fucking split hairs about just how drunk a victim has to be before we can all agree that xe was raped.  That way lies thought exercises of rape apologists, “men’s rights activists” and their ilk.  We as a society should instead move toward goals we should all be able to agree on; like mandatory seat belt use or children wearing bike helmets, let’s start teaching our kids that enthusiastic consent is our golden standard for sex.

What’s more, it’s incredibly important to ask this sort of question.  In multiple studies, rapists not only acknowledge raping women (serial rapists using these tactics admitted on average, to six victims per rapist), but they are open about the very tactics they use to minimize their risk of being arrested, charged and prosecuted: they get their victims drunk.  These rapists know that women in these cases will be questioned, that their rapes will be seen as less credible, less believable to society at large.  Sommers just proved that for us again.

Third problem: unreported crimes and unsubstantiated reports.  Although she grudgingly acknowledged that victims of rape sometimes don’t report, she doesn’t give this any consideration when looking at how the numbers might differ between official statistics by law enforcement and what people guaranteed safety by researchers will report.  In addition, she doesn’t even acknowledge the huge portion of reported rapes that police fail to investigate, whether from bias, lack of evidence or victims deemed poor witnesses at trial.

But now that Sommers has demonstrated that she absolutely doesn’t understand consent, we have to move on to the next great delusion: pretending coercion isn’t real.

Other survey questions were equally ambiguous. Participants were asked if they had ever had sex because someone pressured them by “telling you lies, making promises about the future they knew were untrue?” All affirmative answers were counted as “sexual violence.” Anyone who consented to sex because a suitor wore her or him down by “repeatedly asking” or “showing they were unhappy” was similarly classified as a victim of violence. The CDC effectively set a stage where each step of physical intimacy required a notarized testament of sober consent.

Yay!  More distortions and misrepresentations, plus continued pretending that consent is really, hard and super-duper unsexy.  Apparently, coercion and lies don’t actually imply anything wrong at all.  All those Utah teens who ended up pregnant because their partners told them they were infertile?  Nothing rapey or non-consensual going on here, just silly sluts!  And women who say they didn’t want to have sex, but were so worn down or emotionally manipulated that they said yes just to make their lives momentarily less exhausting or miserable?  Nope, that’s not rape, either; thanks Christina Hoff Sommers!

The key difference between someone like me, who thinks that women are sexual beings with agency and Sommers, (who thinks feminism second-wave forward is betraying women and hates all men) is that I do regard someone disregarding an individual’s self in favor of your own power and pleasure as an act of violence.  She doesn’t.  Somehow, not only does she disagree with decent human beings that “coercion of any kind negates consent, informed or otherwise,” but violating another’s right to bodily autonomy doesn’t count as a violent act unless the victim xirself defines it as rape.

Moreover, I’m always puzzled by people who think that for sex to be hot and fun you have to try to be a motherfucking mind reader.  Do these people exclusively read women’s magazines like Cosmo?  They act like consent has to be awkward and stilted for some reason that puzzles me.  You know how you make sure you have consent?  Watch to see if your partner reacts with enthusiasm, joy or pleasure; and even asking directly, as it turns out can be incredibly fucking hot, as Holly Pervocracy was nice enough to write about a while back.

The trick to consent is insanely simple: if you’re not certain you have consent, don’t.  Because the potential downside to stopping is not having sex with someone else, but the potential downside of just doing whatever you feel like doing is rape.  How can any decent person weigh these and not come up with a compassionate calculus that prioritizes the dignity of your partner over libido?

Of course, since Sommers is no friend to women or feminism (despite claims to the contrary), she has to take some additional potshots at a study that highlighted crime against men and women, simply because rape and sexual assault disproportionately affect women in our society.  If the recommendations have more to do with helping women avoid or escape violence, that must mean it is borne from evil feminist theory (which obviously hasn’t evolved in several decades  and as such can be accurately characterized by whatever choice quote you find from 40 years ago).

The report also called for more research on “sexism” and urged “collective action” against media messages that “objectify and degrade women.” In the familiar jargon of feminist theory, the CDC said: “It is important to continue addressing the beliefs, attitudes and messages that are deeply embedded in our social structures.”

Why is the CDC using methods of advocacy research that are anathema to genuine social science? The answer is suggested by a posting on the White House Web site this month by Lynn Rosenthal, a presidential adviser on violence against women:

“Early in the Administration, the Vice President convened federal agencies to assess trends and identify gaps in our response to violence and abuse. We identified data collection as one of the biggest challenges we face in understanding and combatting these crime. Thanks to the hard work of [Attorney General Eric] Holder, the FBI, law enforcement leaders, and the women’s organizations who have long advocated for this change, we are one step further towards meeting that challenge.”

While that passage referred to the FBI’s recently revised definition of rape — and not the CDC survey — it shows how the study fits into the administration’s effort to apply the advocacy agenda of the women’s lobby to rape research. That would explain how feminist theory found its way into the report. But why would CDC officials, who are experienced in resisting political pressure, cooperate?

Since numbers this stark don’t come from nowhere, but instead follow from larger societal attitudes, laws and government policy, the call to examine causes like sexism in society should be mainstream.  Or at the very least, these calls shouldn’t be controversial to anyone more interested in what evidence like this indicates, rather than someone with a knee-jerk aversion to discussing sexual violence as it exists in our society.  But when you have made a living and image for yourself by vilifying feminists as extreme and hysterical, you simply cannot accept conclusions such as these.

It’s no surprise that Sommers is seeking to vilify feminism in her attempts to handwave away serious risks of violence toward women; she can be fairly characterized as claiming that feminism is trying to ruin everything and depicts second and third wave feminists as a collection of straw-filled misandrists.  Sommers is one of those women who happily has benefited from the work of feminists, but who now sees achieving equality as a zero sum game, pointing to falling scholastic achievement among boys  and greater advances by women in college as some sort of proof.  Sommers, despite using the phrase “equity feminist” to describe herself, is fundamentally opposed to the vast areas of consensus in feminism**** because she simply refuses to admit that any inherent power imbalance in society exists.

What’s more, I find it absolutely rich that despite no apparent scientific background (her degree is in philosophy), she believes she can critique the CDC research as employing methods that are “anathema to genuine social science.”  I will not take seriously accusations of ignoring scientific rigor from someone who can’t even be bothered to properly back up her assertions with real evidence.

Moreover, given her conservative, libertarian attitudes (that irrationally venerate the right to abuse and oppress others in the public sector***), I confess it is no surprise to me that Sommers would very much like to dismiss any attempt to move the conversation about sexual violence into public discussion.  And FSM forbid we allow government to do that research!  For libertarians, government policies, especially those intended to help the vulnerable are to be fought tooth and nail.

Note that the mere support of women’s rights organizations of governmental changes is enough to make Sommers see changes to improve data collection as tainted and biased.  When you start from an assumption that people you disagree with must be wrong, you will ignore any evidence that supports their position.  By any sane evaluation, the FBI definition of rape was woefully inadequate and needed improvement; but because it is a cause of “gender feminists” (meaning feminists she doesn’t agree with) supported the move, there must be something totally wrong with it.  She also implies that there is some sort of inter-departmental scheme to incorporate sinister “feminist theory” into all branches dealing with violence against women.  Sommers is once again fighting against anything that will shed more light on sexual violence statistics that are missed, dismissed and hidden from law enforcement across the country.

And after all this trivialization of sexual violence, she has to close in a way that makes it appear that she is actually an ally in a fight against harms of women.  She has to justify calling herself a feminist:

Perhaps they felt the study would draw needed attention to the genuine problem of sexual violence. That is an understandable but recklessly misguided conclusion. Faulty studies send scarce resources in the wrong directions; more programs on sexism, stereotypes and social structures, for example, are unlikely to help victims of violence. Defining sexual violence down obscures the gradations in culpability that are essential to effective criminal law, and it holds up a false mirror on our society. The CDC should recall this study.

I don’t buy the implicit assertion in this paragraph: that Sommers gives a shit about sexual violence.  The whole article is vile, and wrapping it up by claiming there is a real problem, but we aren’t making it better simply falls flat.

And again, she doesn’t actually cite real methodological problems with the study, but merely claims it’s tainted by a worldview she doesn’t agree with.  Showing her lack of scientific background, she calls for the recall a study with no factual errors whatsoever.  It took years for the Lancet to retract Andrew Wakefield’s disastrous and notably wrong anti-vaccination paper, and there were mountains of evidence that not only was his published work unethical and wrong, but it was being used to justify further harm.  Yet we’re supposed to believe an anti-feminist (I don’t give her credit for inventing an “equity feminist” since I’ve seen MRA’s describe themselves thus as well) with no scientific background and degrees and philosophy over the highly prestigious workers at the Centers for Disease Control?

Quoting someone else doesn’t absolve you from resulting harm.

Now, the greatest portion of my anger is obviously reserved for people like Christina Hoff Sommers, because they are the ones actively attacking women and moves to make them safer and more empowered in our society.  Lenore Skenazy is far from Sommers and she didn’t write this.  But that doesn’t give Lenore Skenazy a pass either.

You do harm any time you laugh along with a rape joke, or slut shame or doubt a rape survivor out of misplaced  and misunderstood conceptions of “innocent until proven guilty.”  You do harm when you fail to call out someone for rape apologism or denialism.  How much more damage is done when you actually endorse it when someone engages in the most vile sort of denialism?

I will not accept that Skenazy simply didn’t understand what the survey said, and as such thought Sommers’ article was valid criticism.  It takes only a modicum of effort to see that Sommers assertions bore no relationship to Skenazy’s concerns about the flawed way our justice system handles adolescent relationships where one is underage or hypersensitive panic of “stranger danger.”

Despite the claim of relevance due to “overprotection,” statistics on the lifetime risk of rape and sexual assault have nothing to do with overprotecting children.  If we blindly followed what the evidence of child rape and assault suggested, we would take children away from their families because of greater risks of abuse; make no mistake, there is no reasonable connection between rape and assault statistics and policies to overprotect children from kidnapping or strangers.  That Skenazy can’t see a difference reflects an inability to weigh risks and evidence, which is central to idea of making informed and measured decisions about parenting and living in general.

That lack of judgement compromises not only her own efforts to change the damaging way we pressure parents to stifle their children, pressure mothers to sacrifice identity and sanity to be perfect and to fight gender stereotypes that harm male guardians, teachers and caregivers, but it threatens to undermine what progress we have made so far in fighting for women’s autonomy, protection of victims and prevention of abuse, advances in insisting women be granted their own sexuality rather than shallow sexualization and greater public acknowledgement of rape and assault victims regardless of gender.  You cannot endorse this sort of anti-skeptical tirade without calling into question the credibility of millions of victims, all of whom deserve better.

Skenazy started a movement toward more evidence-based parenting more or less by accident when she allowed her nine year-old to ride the subway.  I had always considered her an ally, a reliable source of reason in approaching life decisions, even if she didn’t publicly identify as a skeptic.  No more.  Her judgement can’t be trusted.


NOTE: I’ve been holding on to this post for a couple of months, because I kept getting too angry or frustrated and would shelve it after working on it for any length of time.  I realized it was time to finish it.
*The way that this report is set up, they are counting rapes of men in two separate ways: being penetrated and being forced to penetrate.  When done against one’s consent, both are rape.  (Pro-tip, an erection is not consent.)
**For those of you doing the math, that means that just 8% of rapes of women can be rapes by strangers, despite stranger danger “rape prevention” tips being paraded as helpful at stopping rape.  This is nearly half the rate of stranger rape reported by men.
***After all, just look at the all the libertarians who say that so much of Civil Rights was unconstitutional, and that public businesses should be allowed abuse, mistreat and reject others based on prejudice.  All while claiming that they *personally* oppose bigotry and oppression, even though their actions encourage it to thrive in society.
****To be fair, there are legitimate criticisms of feminism, particularly elements in rad-fem circles that are cissexist and which often do not reflect realities for women of color.  I understand why many people would prefer to talk about kyriarchy than patriarchy; intersectionality is far more helpful when discussing injustice in a critical way.
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