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I’ve been thinking about Voltaire lately. Specifically, one of his most famous quotations: “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.”
Last Monday, my campus newspaper printed a column by a male writer. In this piece, he called feminists and gay activists “a sniveling bunch of emotional cripples,” declared that date rape is an “incoherent concept,” and essentially that drunken flirtation is consent.
As a result, the internet exploded. Angry Facebook statuses and comments on the article grew. Some people said they were ashamed to go to a school where such views would be espoused, and that it was a sad day for the campus. Apparently threats were made against the writer, and the story grew until it got picked up on some major feminist websites and the local news, including the Washington Post. A quick google of my school’s name comes up with headlines along the lines of “’Rape Apology’ Angers Students.”
In addition to this, though, attacks were directed at the newspaper. Issues were stolen en masse from newsstands and the Editorial board was maligned and accused of having no journalistic integrity, and being rape apologists themselves. Amid the controversy, the paper has since admitted mistakes in their editorial process, and apologized for mistaking “better editing for censorship.”
I think the views the article espouses are uninformed, ignorant, misogynistic, and arrogant. But here’s the thing. I’m glad this article was published. I’m sorry it caused people pain and I agree there were editorial mistakes, but the potential of offending people is not grounds for censorship.
The writer’s opinion is extreme, but the fact is, he’s not alone—not close to it. I know people who tend to agree with him—that girls who get drunk too often cry “rape” when it was more accurately a poor decision. As romance readers, the issue is often presented to us, with heroes thinking “no” means “yes,” and we accept it because we know what’s really between these characters is True Love, and the heroine ends up enjoying it anyway so no harm done. Remember Whitney, My Love, whose first edition included the hero raping the heroine and hitting her with a riding crop? Most books wouldn’t get away with this anymore, but the issue of consent still finds itself drowning in shades of gray.
But let’s consider the result of the article. People are discussing what “consent” means and whether or not drunk sex (or forced seduction) is rape. People are coming out of the woodwork in support of rape victims and women’s rights and creating organizations that support victims of sexual violence. People are exercising their own freedom of speech by writing letters to the editor of the paper. There are plans to host a “constructive dialogue,” and students are debating censorship and the freedom of speech. Are these things bad?
April is National Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Sometimes we need something inflammatory to spark action. There is such beauty in the peaceful counter protest and the respectful exchange of ideas. We need more of that. We should be discussing what constitutes as consent and where editing stops being for the good of the reader and starts being censorship of ideas and opinions. Romance readers should be talking about whether heroes too often cross the line and if that’s okay in that context.
So don’t let even hateful speech create anger and retaliation. Let it create dialogue and discussion.
– Jane Granville