Our Brand Is Rape Skepticism: On Slate and Emily Yoffe’s Weird ‘Hunting Ground’ Obsession

Here’s a not-terribly-controversial opinion: I don’t have a problem with advocacy journalism. Sneering at the term presumes our news outlets are otherwise working from a perspective of unimpeachable objectivity, which anyone who’s worked in the news knows is outright bunk; calling that spade a spade dispenses with such outmoded ideals, and lets writers and researchers get down to the business of fighting the good fight against injustice. I’m kind of OK with that, and I’m willing to bet a lot of you are, as I’d imagine many of those who read commentary online at sites like ours and, oh, for example, Slate might be.

But yesterday, that site ran the latest slab of campus-rape skepticism from their in-house specialist, Emily Yoffe, who contends of the documentary The Hunting Ground, “because the stakes are so high, it is crucial, in telling stories of sexual assault, not to be blinded by advocacy…” Elsewhere, she criticizes “how deeply the filmmakers’ politics colored their presentation of the facts,” accuses them of putting “advocacy ahead of accuracy,” and harumphs at them for acknowledging “that they are advocates fighting for a cause.” But, again, many those concerned with this issue can’t conjure up the same negative connotations for advocacy, in and of itself. I’m more interested in motivation. And in this specific case, we can ask two questions: What are the motivations of those who made The Hunting Ground? And what are the motivations of a writer (and an outlet) so hellbent on discrediting that film, and the cause it champions?

Because, you see, Yoffe — regular Slate contributor and author of their “Dear Prudence” column — has a long history of this sort of thing. Back in 2013, she penned the site’s notorious “College Women: Stop Getting Drunk” essay, in which she insists, “Colleges are supposed to be places where young people learn to be responsible for themselves” and blames “a misplaced fear of blaming the victim” for making it “somehow unacceptable to warn inexperienced young women that when they get wasted, they are putting themselves in potential peril.”

When you read her work on this subject in succession, the template for the Emily Yoffe “Calm Down About Campus Rape” piece becomes clear: the less-than-full-throated acknowledgments of the real problem (lines like, “Perpetrators are the ones responsible for committing their crimes, and they should be brought to justice” are tossed off as quickly as possible before returning to spin and victim-blaming); the smug land-grab for moral high ground (“as a young person, I did my share of fun, crazy, silly, stupid, and ill-advised things. But at least I always knew that I was responsible for my behavior, not the alcohol”); and, of course, the example of the falsely accused male student (“Surely this University of Richmond student…”), as though that were the rule, and not the exception to it.

Yoffe was also trotted out to perform her specialty back in December, shortly after the publication of Rolling Stone’s initial UVA campus rape story (of course), when Slate ran “The College Rape Overcorrection.” In it, she insists that government agencies and officials are “responding to the idea that colleges are in the grips of an epidemic — and the studies suggesting this epidemic don’t hold up to scrutiny,” claiming that “the studies make sensational assertions that are not supported by the underlying data.” She accuses schools and legislators of “attempting to legislate the bedroom behavior of students with rules and requirements that would be comic if their effects weren’t frequently so tragic,” dismissing affirmative consent regulations for dictating “how young adults in college make love, and that’s both ridiculous and quixotic.”

Still image from "The Hunting Ground"

For good measure, Yoffe doubles down on her “drunken hussy” argument (“The prohibition about discussing the connection between alcohol and sexual assault should be lifted”), longs for “a return to a standard of ‘clear and convincing evidence’” (as though such a thing weren’t, at best, a nebulous concept in cases of sexual assault), and insists “we bring some healthy skepticism” to campus rape numbers.

If you’ve read either of those pieces, it’s hard to imagine how anyone at Slate determined this was the right voice to appraise The Hunting Ground, director Kirby Dick and producer Amy Ziering’s scorching, powerful investigation of the issue. Then again, maybe it’s not hard; who needs the mediocre traffic of a (positive) review when you can get the hate-reads prompted by the head-shaking that follows each Yoffe manifesto?

“The film traffics in alarmist statistics and terrifying assertions,” Yoffe writes, “but fails to acknowledge both the recent changes in the way the government and universities approach sexual assault charges and the critiques that those changes go too far. By refusing to engage the current conversation about this issue, the film does its subjects—and us all — a disservice.” In other words, this film is a dishonest failure because it’s not having the same conversation — i.e., trafficking in the same cynicism and excuse-making — that Yoffe is.

You know that drill by now: defending the question of alcohol consumption (“presenting such questions as prima facie insensitivity is unfair”), dismissing the campus rape issue (she quotes a researcher who complains of “assertions of ‘an epidemic where one does not exist’”), dismissing the legal issues surrounding it (she criticizes the film for not including “one dramatic counterexample” of a reported and prosecuted gang rape on the Vanderbilt campus), and despairing for the poor, unfortunate accused (“The Hunting Ground never even makes a feint at acknowledging that dozens of young men like John Doe have filed similar lawsuits…”).

And, as usual, Yoffe counters Dick and company’s statistics with a data dump of her own. But one set does not cancel out the other, no matter how stridently she pushes them. Like comparing coverage of a news story on CNN, Fox, and MSNBC, it becomes a question of credibility — of whose numbers you trust, and the narrative that they’re using them in service of. And this, I’m sorry, is where Kirby Dick trumps Emily Yoffe; she just doesn’t have any credibility on this issue, particularly when her “reporting” is so transparently devoted to puncturing coverage and concern over this issue, for the purposes of… well, I’m not entirely sure.

Kamilah Willingham in "The Hunting Ground"

But the fact that we now have another “The Hunting Ground is lies!” piece, three months after the film’s release and pegged to nothing in particular (beyond the film’s “outsized influence”), speaks volumes about Yoffe’s motivation, and her bizarre obsession with perpetrating an “NBD” #hottake on campus rape. This new “closer look” seeks to discredit Kamilah Willingham, one of The Hunting Ground’s interview subjects, via an extensive and detailed investigation of the “voluminous record” surrounding the Willingham case. In doing so, she falls back on her usual crutches of substance-abuse smearing (“In a detail left out of The Hunting Ground, Willingham brought out cocaine”), continues to insist we’re making mountains out of molehills (she slams the filmmakers for attempting “to sound an alarm about what they believe to be rampant college rape,” emphasis ours), and engages in skin-crawling understatement (“Brandon Winston was hardly a perfect gentleman on the night of Jan. 15, 2011,” she charitably admits).

Duly noted: Yoffe discovers some inconsistencies in Willingham’s story — though, to be fair, when you are dealing with intoxication and sex, there are the built-in complications of incomplete memories and differing interpretations of intent and consent; not my words, Emily Yoffe’s — and with The Hunting Ground’s reporting of its aftermath. She also makes great hay of the recent acquittal (on most charges) of the man Willingham accused. These problems are all worth noting, and contemplating.

But it’s also worth contemplating what drove this writer and this outlet to attempt to discredit, with such dogged intensity, The Hunting Ground in particular and the campus rape issue in general. I can’t begin to guess at Yoffe’s personal motivations, but give her this much: she’s consistent, and when you ask her to write on this subject, or take her pitches on it, you know what you’re gonna get.

So why does Slate keep providing her with a soapbox for these noxious views? Well, the #Slatepitch hashtag wasn’t borne out of thin air, and hate-clicks are still clicks. The “stop getting drunk, college women” piece boasts 61.5k Facebook shares, 2.3k tweets, and 3.6k comments; the “college rape overcorrection” missive was shared 23.4k times, tweeted 2.6k times, and commented on 5.7k times. As of this writing, barely 24 hours after its publication, her Hunting Ground takedown registers over 300 tweets, nearly a thousand shares, and over a thousand comments.