I spent much of last week in a haze of rather complicated freelance deadlines, sweet victories and friends visiting from abroad, but one thing I did wonder whenever I popped my head above the water to open my Google Reader was: why are none (well, almost none) of the American feminist bloggers I read talking about the Bristol Palin memoir?
Specifically, why wasn’t anyone calling out the centre-left bloggers who are arguing that the story of “stolen” virginity loss with which Bristol begins her book must be a case of self-serving fiction because, you know, she’s from a family of lying liars who lie.
So I was glad to see Jessica Valenti’s refreshingly level headed piece in the Washington Post over the weekend.
If you’re not up on the details of the incident, it begins with a classic teenage untruth: Bristol tells Sarah she’ll be sleeping over at a girlfriend’s house, when really she’s going on a camping trip with her boyfriend Levi and a bunch of their friends.
There is alcohol involved, and lots of it. Bristol isn’t an experienced drinker - the implication is that she has never consumed alcohol before. And like many inexperienced drinkers, she admits she “definitely had no idea what ‘tolerance’ was and how to pace your drinking to make sure you don’t do things you’ll regret.”
At first the alcohol feels good - it makes “the crisp night air” feel crisper, and Bristol felt “young and carefree” as “Levi kept replacing my empty bottles from his large stash”. But unbeknownst to Bristol, “I was about to hit a wall - that awful wall - that takes you past a comfortable level of libation - the happy buzz - into the dark abyss of drunkenness.”
She blacks out, and wakes up the next morning alone in her tent, Levi’s empty sleeping back next to hers. Something feels amiss. So she texts her friend, who comes to her tent and tells her that she and Levi “definitely had sex”.
"Suddenly I wondered why it was called ‘losing your virginity’, because it felt more like it had been stolen," Bristol writes. She is angry, distraught, devastated. She tries not to vomit. She confronts Levi, saying, “You knew I didn’t want to have sex until I was married! How could you?” But she also “knows”, she writes, that she will marry him. ”I had to now,” she explains.
As writers like Valenti and Jennifer Pozner have commented, it’s not the role of feminists to tell women whether or not they have been raped: it is up the woman in question to define her experience. And indeed, Bristol never uses the word “rape” to describe what happened between her and Levi. She does, however, describe what is quite clearly - in her view as well as my own - an unwanted, nonconsensual sexual experience.
It’s probably not surprising that there are people - and lots of them - who blame the above on Bristol’s own actions (she shouldn’t have been drinking, she shouldn’t have lied to her mother), who say she’s probably making it up (for publicity, for a paycheck, to exonerate herself to her parents and to God), or who question her behaviour after the event (having sex with Levi again, having his baby, even getting engaged to him).
All these lines of argument are exactly what we’ve grown used to hearing whenever a woman speaks out against sexual assault. They’re gross, but they’re not surprising.
What I have been surprised by is what, Jessica’s article aside, seems to have been a complete lack of response to these cliched lines of argument from those who are usually first to respond to them. I get that the Palins are problematic. I get that “people like us” don’t like them. But just as people we otherwise like and admire can commit sexual assault, so too can people we don’t like or admire be victims of it.
Valenti wonders what impact Bristol’s story will have on the thousands of young women who read her memoir: “Not calling it assault — and blaming herself, as she does in the book — sends a dangerous message to young women who may have similar experiences.” She writes that Bristol’s sense that she had “sinned” and “had” to marry Johnston “broke [her] heart a bit”. Mine too.
But I actually wonder if Bristol’s story, with all its heartache and ambiguity, might actually serve as a bit of entry level feminism for her readers. What transpired between Bristol and Levi, after all, was not remotely uncommon, and nor was Bristol’s reaction: her anger, her confusion, her blaming herself. The fact that she stays with Levi despite her better judgement (if she has sex with someone she has to marry them, after all). The fact that she never calls it rape.
Thinking back to my own time as a teenager, and my own (comparatively petty) worries, I remember finding politics and solace not just in the “right” analysis or lessons - although I loved those stories, too - but in the muddy, lived experience of others going through the same things. And from the little I’ve seen (you can read the opening pages here) Bristol Palin’s memoir is Jessica Valenti’s The Purity Myth in action.
Elsewhere: Is Bristol Palin’s new memoir the story of a rape survivor speaking out? (Washington Post)
Bristol Palin clarifies words on her ‘stolen’ virginity (Jezebel)
Bristol Palin: Levi raped me (Dan Savage)
Bristol Palin memoir on how she lost her virginity: was it date rape? (Daily Beast)
Bristol’s innocence (Andrew Sullivan)
Bristol’s innocence, Ctd (Andrew Sullivan)
Bristol very much Palin (Andrew Sullivan)