A contrarian conservative group is saying no to “Yes All Women.”

The #YesAllWomen hashtag exploded on Twitter last month in the wake of the mass shooting in Isla Vista, California, committed by a former college student who, shortly before the massacre, recorded a missive detailing his violent frustrations with women who had denied him sexual gratification. The viral #YesAllWomen campaign led to a wider discussion about the extent of rape culture in the United States, a discussion that heightened an existing concern among some conservatives that the definition of sexual aggression was becoming too fuzzy and could lead to unchecked policymaking. 

In response to a White House initiative meant to address rape and sexual violence on college campuses, the Independent Women's Forum — a Washington-based advocacy group often accused by its critics of pushing anti-feminist agendas — is warning against a “potentially harmful hysteria” developing around the issue. For instance, the Department of Education recently proposed rules to strengthen the Clery Act, which requires universities receiving federal funding to report sexual assault and rape statistics and develop prevention initiatives.

But what IWF calls “hysteria” is what others see as much-needed attention being placed on an issue that has been ignored for too long. The majority of statistics show that rape remains vastly underreported, both on college campuses and in society in general. In November, following a panel study, the National Research Council reaffirmed the problem, reporting that federal statistics have been “undercounting” rape and sexual assault.  

It’s against this stubbornly persistent indicator that the term “rape culture” has worked its way into popular conversation. If Google Trends is to be believed, the term garnered relatively little interest before 2011. The phrase can be traced back to a 1975 documentary film that sought to expand what producers considered a narrow definition of rape. More recently, it is associated with the normalization of insidious sexual aggression against women, an attitude believed to subjugate women beyond the confines of physical assault.

Search requests for “rape culture” have grown steadily since last year (a high school student’s series of articles published in her school magazine appears to have piqued more interest in the term), and requests have particularly spiked over the last several months. Like any widely used term, there is no accepted definition, but it is concerned broadly with the dismissal of sexual violence — exemplified by issues such as focusing on a rape victim’s attire or brushing off catcalls and other forms of street harassment as harmless flirtation.

Search requests for "rape culture" show a spiked interest over the last several months.  Google Trends screenshot

Now IWF will attempt to tackle the subject in a panel discussion Thursday called, “Straight Talk: An Honest Conversation About ‘Rape Culture’ and Sexual Violence.” The quotes around “rape culture” are no accident. In a phone interview, Sabrina Schaeffer, IWF’s executive director, said the idea is not to deny that rape culture exists but rather to have a conversation about its meaning and potential effects on public policy.

“We put rape culture in quotes because this is not a settled idea,” she said. “It’s being used by women’s groups on the left, but it’s also being used by self-identified libertarians. I think we need to talk about what it means.”

In April, the White House Task Force to Protect Students From Sexual Assault — established by the Obama administration earlier this year — put out its first report. In it, officials cite a much-repeated statistic that one in five women is sexually assaulted in college. Schaeffer said the panel discussion was originally intended as a small event to discuss the statistic, but organizers decided it warranted a larger conversation following the #YesAllWomen campaign, which came in part as an answer to another social media campaign insisting that "Not All Men" are guilty of sexual aggression, and argued that all women have nonetheless been objectified or exploited at one time or another. 

Schaeffer said “you’d have to be living under a rock” to suggest that violence against women isn’t a serious problem, but she said IWF has become increasingly concerned about the aforementioned “hysteria” developing around the issue. “One of the concerns is that it’s being used to justify the expansion of government and new laws,” she said.

That concern was recently echoed by the veteran conservative commentator George F. Will, who was — and continues to be — widely criticized for a Washington Post column in which he both challenged the one-in-five statistic and put the term “sexual assault” in scare quotes after describing a scene in which a man had sex with a student without her consent. Will claimed that being a rape survivor has become a "coveted status that confers privileges." Critics contended that the 73-year-old pundit came off as particularly tone-deaf on an issue from which he is clearly far removed.

The statistic in question comes from a 2007 study by the Justice Department’s National Institute of Justice, but Schaeffer said it conflates key points, such as the difference between being intoxicated and being passed out.

The IWF panel was in development before Will’s column ran, but Schaeffer said the group invited him to speak at the event following the backlash. He declined, she said, citing scheduling conflicts. The four panelists included are decidedly right of center: longtime modern-feminism critic Christina Hoff Sommers; Andrea Bottner, director of the Office of International Women’s Issues in the George W. Bush administration; Reason magazine contributor Cathy Young; and the Brookings Institution fellow Stuart Taylor, a journalist on legal matters.

Asked why no one a bit more liberal was asked to participate, Schaeffer said there is already plenty of disagreement and debate within conservative circles to keep the event lively. “I suppose we could’ve invited someone like a [Feministing founder] Jessica Valenti, but we did not in this case,” she said.

An IWF spokeswoman said, as of Wednesday afternoon, 170 people had RSVP’d for the panel discussion. The free event begins Thursday at 6 p.m. EDT at the Fund for American Studies in Washington, D.C.

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