On the advantages of poor reading comprehension

by look i have opinions

“A sample of 9,086 women was asked [by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,] ‘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).”

—Christina Hoff Sommers (in this Washington Post editorial)

This is a really nice example of how misreading a mildly ambiguous sentence can be rhetorically convenient. Sommers wants us to believe that the survey question is asking about a list of four impaired conditions, the last of which is “passed out and unable to consent,” even though it would make far more sense, given the context, to read “and unable to consent” as applying more generally. I.e., “When you were impaired and unable to consent….”**

Is Sommers simply mistaken? Does she notice the ambiguity and choose to assume that most survey respondents understand the sentence the same way she does? Perhaps she even believes the question is deliberately, dishonestly ambiguous? That might make sense, except that she doesn’t even point out the ambiguity explicitly. She just interprets it for us, then casually calls it “ambiguous” in the next paragraph.

I think it’s more likely that Sommers, like many other people, sees the word “drunk” and automatically interprets it to mean “All drunk sex is rape!” because that’s what she wants to see. “All drunk sex is rape” is one of those convenient ideas—partly straw, but not entirely—that can be used to shut down discussions of what sexual violence is and how consent works. “Hahaha, of course not all drunk sex is rape,” we can say to each other, laughing, shaking our heads. “What a bunch of nutty extremists those feminists must be.” Then we speculate about what would happen if a nutty extremist feminist found out that two equally drunk people had had sex. Maybe her head would explode, like one of those old-time cliché robots confronted with a logical paradox! We laugh so hard there are tears in our eyes. I really enjoy bonding over our shared normality like this, we should get together more often.

Anyway, it’s sad that the Post didn’t even ask Sommers to clarify this point before going to press. Editorial standards, kids these days, etc.

*Lack of hyphens sic.

**Note to survey designers: A comma would help. Even better would be lumping all four impairments together into a single term, as I’ve done.

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