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Five problems with Dr. Phil’s tweet

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Last night, Dr. Phil sent out a quickly deleted - but more quickly screen-grabbed - tweet about sexual violence and alcohol. "If a girl is drunk, is it OK to have sex with her? Reply yes or no to @drphil #teensaccused." Rightfully so, the feminist internet erupted in outrage, forcing a representative to justify Dr. Phil's tweet as promotion for an upcoming show, as though somehow everything is excusable so long as you're trying to get people to stare at your face on a screen.

Unsurprisingly, the rep's non-apology - "[the tweet] was not intended to be taken lightly" -missed the source of the protest. We weren't angry that the tweet was too flip. We were angry because it promotes sexual violence. Here are my five biggest objections to Dr. Phil's question; tell me what yours are in the comments.

1. The tweet perpetuates the idea that rape is blurry.

Let's start with a story. During my collegiate freshman orientation five years ago, my classmates and I were hoarded into an auditorium to learn about consent. On the stage two actors pantomimed a date rape (why anyone thought any of this was a good idea, I have no idea): girl comes to boy's room to study, they make out, girl takes off her shirt, boy ignores her refusal to have sex and rapes her. Each student was given a little stop sign, which we were supposed to raise when we thought the boy had crossed the line: essentially, when the violence had begun. Afterward, we broke into little discussion groups to talk about our personal opinions on whether what had happened was rape and why. I said it was. The guy who lived downstairs in my dorm said it wasn't. The facilitator gave our opinions equal weight.

There are obviously a whole ton of reasons this orientation activity was terrible, but the thing that particularly worried me was the program's messaging that there wasn't a right answer. If everyone's definition of rape is equally valid, rape doesn't really exist: how can we name violence if anyone's "but I don't think it is" works as an accepted counterargument? When every student's decision as to when to raise the little red stop sign, if at all, is correct, the category of rape dissolves quite literally into a series of blurred lines, about which some of us will have Happy Feelings and some of us will have Sad Feelings, and isn't that interesting.

Dr. Phil's tweet reminded me a lot of my freshman consent education. The phrasing of the question, and invitation for all of us to respond with our one-word judgments, presented consent as an ultimately unresolvable dilemma. Some will say yes, some will say no. Who can ever really tell? What an ageless question.

The stakes are high. The more we talk as though rape is blurry, the more likely it is to occur. Implicit in Dr. Phil's tweet was the suggestion that, you know, maybe it is fine to sleep with an incapacitated person. Maybe this is all just up for debate.

2. The question is too simple for the problem.

As Angus Johnston pointed out on Twitter last night, there are actually a number of important questions to ask about sex, sexual violence, consent, and alcohol. After all, it isn't always rape to sleep with someone who has been drinking; the line for judging whether someone can give consent is incapacitation, not the existence of any alcohol in our blood. "Drunk" isn't a precise term, so if we use it to mean a wider range of mental states than just incapacitation, there's a real discussion to be had here. How drunk is too drunk for consent to be meaningful? How can we best respond to our partners' desires when they've been drinking?

These are helpful questions - vital questions - that we need to talk about with nuance and care. "If a girl is drunk, is it OK to have sex with her? Reply yes or no" doesn't ask us to grapple with the serious issue at hand but instead to pass a thoughtless one-word judgement.

3. The question assumes all victims are women.

Dr. Phil didn't ask about whether it's "OK" to have sex with a drunk person: he could only imagine a "drunk girl" as a potential maybe-victim. The assumption that survivors are women and perpetrators are men helps no one. It ignores the experiences and particular needs of male and gender non-conforming survivors and glosses over same-sex violence. The idea also hurts women, too: the more we conflate femininity and vulnerability, the more vulnerable we become. When we've internalized that to be a woman is to be a victim, it's much harder to stand up for ourselves and articulate our desires.

4. The tweet focused on offenders rather than survivors.

Dr. Phil was very clearly tweeting at an audience of potential rapists, rather than survivors present or future. That "you" ("can you have sex with her") is telling: the agent and intended responder is the maybe-offender, not the drunk girl. And Dr. Phil's concern for the assailant over concern for the harm done or well-being of the survivor is underscored by the #teensaccused hashtag. As my friend Wagatwe Wanjuki said, "what about #teensraping or #teensraped?"

It's a mark of remarkable privilege to assume that you're talking to a world of people more likely to commit violence than sustain it. Of course these categories aren't mutually exclusive - victims can be perpetrators - but only those shielded from harm, who can identify more with offenders than their targets, can possibly forget the survivors in the audience.

That fact of forgetting is disturbing in itself, but it's also profoundly unproductive. Want to have a conversation about rape? Maybe you should talk to survivors! We'll learn a lot more about defining violence from those who have experienced it than from potential offenders trying to figure out if their own actions were criminal or not.

5. Dr. Phil is concerned with "can" rather than "should."

From Dr. Phil's tweet, you'd think that rape is just a kind of sex that we're not allowed to have. Dr. Phil's question looks to define what we can get away with in our pursuit of pleasure rather than how we should interact with our partners to make sure we're all happy and safe. The focus on what we "can" do again centers us on the potential offender's well-being rather than the potential survivor's and makes room for more violence.

I saw this idea best articulated on the blog A Radical TransFeminist last year (hat tip Kate Sim) when the writer dissected the question "Is it rape if somebody has sex while drunk?" I'll never articulate it as well, so I'd rather just quote at length. Lisa writes:

Asking, "Is this legally rape?" carries an undertone of, "If you say it's not, I'll go ahead and do it", and is a question which should be turned around and asked back as: Why are you so relaxed - and even enthusiastic - about maybe raping someone?

You don't get this in other contexts. You don't get folks saying, "Well, I'm going to do this thing which may or may not kill somebody. It's probably fine as long as it's legal." ... We can solve this apparent contradiction by clarifying what our questioner is actually worried about. They aren't worried about raping. They are worried about social consequences of rape. They are worried about being named a rapist. They are okay with "maybe" being a rapist as long as it won't come back to bite them...

If you care about not raping, because you care about not raping, then the only way to be sure you're not raping is to be sure you're not raping. This means not having sex when you're not sure whether it's rape or not. This means that if you're asking the question, "Is it rape if I...?" then you may not know the answer, but you know what you should do.

What did you think about Dr. Phil's tweet? What problems did you see? (Don't reply yes or no)