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Dismissive of 'Rape Culture,' a New York Times Columnist Perpetuates It in a Screed Against 'Sensitivity'

03/25/2015 02:19 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2015

Judith Shulevitz's cri de coeur in Sunday's New York Times against the "self-censorship" she believes is stifling intellectual debate in American universities due to the supposed heightened emotional fragility of today's students should appall anyone who cares about or believes in mental health.

In her article, Shulevitz equates passionate advocates for gay rights and abortion rights with rape survivors, claiming each of these people must toughen up and expose themselves to ideas that make them uncomfortable for the sake of intellectual growth. Clinically anachronistic, Shulevitz's article mentions post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) nowhere, nor the strong correlation between sexual violence and PTSD.

In failing to distinguish between people upset aspersions are being cast on their favorite postcolonial theorists and rape survivors with PTSD being triggered into a psychosomatic nightmare by an argument over whether rape culture is real, Shulevitz actually proves quite neatly that she is complicit in that culture's existence and perpetuation.

If you only read Shulevitz's article, you might believe an epidemic of overly dramatic rape victims and overly-sensitivity responses to them was sweeping the country. You wouldn't know that two-thirds of rapes go unreported, and that only 2 percent of rapists spend one day in prison. You wouldn't know how little interest college administrators show in seriously investigating cases of rape (as sad stories at Hobart William Smith, Florida State, and Brown illustrate). And you certainly wouldn't get any picture of how horrific a rape is, how different it is from having cherished political and personal beliefs challenged, how violent, life-changing, and brain-chemistry-altering it can be.

You would also get a clear picture of the disdain Shulevitz seems to have for this widely-accepted idea of American rape culture, which is one in which sexual violence is conceptualized as inevitable, its prevalence is grossly underestimated, its effects are trivialized, and its victims are blamed.

While suggesting that traumatized rape victims at Brown might have benefitted from listening to a guest speaker deny that rape culture exists, Shulevitz does her part to prove that it does. She includes rape victims (an estimated one-third of whom have PTSD) with other students who are "hypersensitive," "infantile" "cossetted" "puerile" and in a particularly poor choice of words, "member[s] of a protected class."

She describes a safe space, also at Brown, as coming: "...equipped with cookies, coloring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, calming music, pillows, blankets and a video of frolicking puppies" as if spending time in lobotomized and saccharine-sounding chambers like this is the standard and successful prescription for treatment of PTSD in rape victims. Shulevitz does trivialize the effects of rape by insinuating they are so easy and voluntary to shrug off, and this is all the worse because it isn't even the intent of her article to do so.

That Shulevitz doesn't make any exception in her screed for rape victims (or those of any other trauma) with PTSD is bizarre, given how conclusively PTSD has been recognized and defined in the past three decades and how widespread it is acknowledged to be. PTSD has been recognized as a mental disorder by the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders since 1980, and reminds us of its pervasiveness and power with every combat veterans who commits suicide or a seemingly-inexplicable act of violence after returning from war.

But soldiers aren't the only ones who suffer from PTSD. The DSM includes sexual violence as a potential precursor to the disorder: studies have shown that rape victims are six times more likely to have PTSD than those who have never been raped, and that nearly one third of all rape victims will have PTSD related to the episode at some point in their lives. There are a host of terrifying ways PTSD can manifest in people who have it: Sleep terrors, hallucinations, hyper-vigilance, paranoia, and flashbacks, to name a few; along with pervasive feelings of shame, guilt, and fear.

This is all relevant to Shulevitz's insistence that rape victims with PTSD should stop being "worried about being put in emotional peril" along with all the other "hypersensitive" students out there because her glib prescription that they do so ignores the fact that sufferers from PTSD by definition experience "intense or prolonged distress" and "marked physiologic reactivity.... after exposure to traumatic reminders" and that a criterion for having PTSD is "persistent effortful avoidance of distressing trauma-related stimuli after the event."

If people with PTSD were to live in Shulevitz's world (or on her campus, at least) one would hope that they had some modicum of control or choice in responding to such stimuli. And it seems to be her operating assumption that they do. She quotes a student at Columbia as saying: "If the point of a safe space is therapy for people who feel victimized by traumatization, that sounds like a great mission." But victims of trauma don't feel victimized -- instead, as the pioneering trauma theorist Cathy Caruth puts it: "... the [traumatic event] is not assimilated or experienced fully at the time, but only belatedly, in its repeated possession of the one who experiences it." Imagine being possessed. If you don't have PTSD, you probably can't.

One would hope that if symptoms like hallucinations, flashbacks, and paranoia might be provoked by a discussion, they would at least be provoked by a discussion extremely worth having. I fail to see how contesting the prevalence of rape or the trivialization of its survivors' experiences is such a discussion.

Even if you'd like to leave "emotional fragility" out of the equation, there are so many more intellectually interesting debates to have around the same issue: Why do some people get PTSD and others don't from the same experience? Why does PTSD manifest in the multitude of ways that it does? What seems the most promising approach to treatment? And what can PTSD illuminate to us about our impulse to defend and control ourselves and our lives, to give ourselves good lives after all avenues to one seem to have been closed to us?

I wonder if Shulevitz actually intended to include rape survivors with PTSD in her catalogue of "coddled children" who should grow up and expose themselves to opposing viewpoints. Shulevitz is generally a very smart writer and thinker, and I suspect that her neglect of this subset of students was predicated on the assumption that an insignificant number of rape survivors end up with PTSD. Not only is this not true, it is another example of the "rape culture" she seems to find so much merit in questioning. It's no small wonder, then, when writers like Shulevitz belittle them as she does, that victims of sexual violence seek safe spaces that are more serious, and almost always more elusive, than rooms festooned with "...bubbles.... blankets... and videos of frolicking puppies."