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Martha McSally’s Sexual-Assault Story Isn’t about Feminist Politics

Sen. Martha McSally speaks during a Senate Armed Services Subcommittee hearing on preventing sexual assault, March 6, 2019. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

During a Senate hearing this afternoon, Republican senator Martha McSally (Ariz.) revealed publicly for the first time that she had been “preyed upon and then raped” by a superior officer when she was serving in the Air Force.

Jill Filipovic, a progressive attorney and feminist writer, decided that McSally’s heartrending story would make a good launching pad for reminding her Twitter followers that conservatives don’t care about preventing violence against women:

Filipovic went on to note that McSally supported the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, as if this is sufficient evidence that she doesn’t care about eliminating assault, and the entire thread implied that the senator is complicit in a culture of violence against women merely because she’s a conservative.

This moment shouldn’t be “complicated” at all, nor should it be about left-wing politics, the conservative movement, or third-wave feminism. There is no reasonable way to argue that McSally’s story is evidence of the Right’s failure to take sexual violence seriously or attempt to prevent it.

What’s more, it is third-wave feminists who so often insist that women’s accounts of assault always must be taken on their own terms, believed wholesale, and treated with total deference. Had a conservative commentator attempted to use a Democratic politician’s account of sexual assault to make a political argument, surely feminist pundits would have been outraged.

Filipovic pointed out, after I criticized her commentary, that she had called McSally “brave” and said that this is “an important moment.” But those qualifications in no way negate or alleviate the fact that she used someone else’s vulnerability to hammer home a political point, and an inaccurate one at that.

“I think McSally is incredibly brave for speaking out,” she reiterated. “I also believe the American right has done significant harm to rape survivors and other women who have experienced violence.”

But Filipovic produced not a shred of evidence to substantiate this claim, aside from noting that “men who closely adhere to gender stereotypes are men who are more likely to harm women” and claiming that the GOP “pushes those stereotypes.”

Using McSally’s story as a moment to criticize the GOP becomes even more ridiculous given that the Republican senator herself spoke today about how her experience led her to advocate changing policy to prevent future assaults. McSally said that she observed “weaknesses in the processes involving sexual assault prevention, investigation, and adjudication” while in the military and that her experience led her to “make recommendations to Air Force leaders, shaped my approach as a commander, and informed my advocacy for change while I remained in the military and since I have been in Congress.”

Debate over how particular policies and broader political optics affect the incidence of sexual assault is all well and good, though I’m highly wary of the third-wave feminist tendency to blame the conservative movement for violence against women without any effort to substantiate those claims. McSally’s story of having been raped is not an appropriate vehicle for the airing of those grievances.

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