Sanders Addresses 1972 Essay

[Content Note: Sexual violence.]

Democratic candidate for president Senator Bernie Sanders appeared on Meet the Press this weekend, and host Chuck Todd asked him about his prolematic 1972 essay, which a campaign spokesperson had dismissed as "dark satire" and "stupid." Here's what Sanders had to say:

Todd: —found out what it's like to become a nationally, uh, recognized candidate for president and potentially a threat to somebody—a leaking of an essay you wrote in the '70s [Sanders chuckles] for an alternative weekly. Ah, your campaign described it as satire. I'll be honest with you, Senator Sanders, it's uncomfortable to read. The only excerpt I'm gonna put up is—you wrote this in February of '72; it was sort of a fantasy of men and women; you said: "A woman enjoys intercourse with her man—as she fantasizes being raped by three men simultaneously." Ah, your campaign described it as satire; can you explain this essay?

Sanders: Sure. Look, this is a piece of fiction that I wrote in nineteen seventy-two, I think. That was forty-three years ago. It was very poorly written, and, if you read it, what it was dealing with [was] gender stereotypes—why some men like to oppress women; why other women like to be submissive. You know, something like "Fifty Shades of Grey." Very poorly written, forty-three years ago. What I am focusing on right now are the issues impacting the American people today, and that's what I will continue to focus on, and what I think the American people want to hear—and, by the way, on broader issues, what I think when we talk about issues— Chuck, we need a lot more debates.

Todd: Right.

Sanders: In this campaign, I hope very much that we can begin with the Democratic candidates' debates as early as July, and have some Republicans in those debates as well.

Todd: All right!
So, it's either poorly-written satire or it was poorly-written fiction like Fifty Shades of Grey, just whatever description makes people STFU and move on to REAL ISSUES. Like including Republican candidates in Democratic debates, apparently.

I've seen some progressive supporters of Sanders praise his response as being rightly defiant of even being questioned about the essay. Here, for example, Sanders is described as "unapologetically strong" and his response "perfect." And I understand this interpretation, if you genuinely believe this is just a piece of shitty muckraking that doesn't matter.

But one of the things about shitty muckraking in political campaigns is that how candidates respond to it matters, even if one believes that the underlying issue doesn't.

And this was an opportunity for Sanders to respond in a way that conveys his current position on gender equality. He could have answered with the same strategy—pivoting to a more important issue—by saying something like: "Chuck, this essay was a poorly conceived attempt at addressing gender stereotypes that was terribly executed, but gender equality is still a relevant issue today. I wrote that essay forty-three years ago, and it's a pretty good example of how men often fail to speak sensitively and competently on women's issues. I've learned a lot in those intervening forty-three years, and my hope is that I'm a better advocate for women and gender equality now than I was then. If there's any takeaway from this, let it be that we needed then and need still for men to support women's equality with seriousness and thoughtfulness. There are real issues facing women today that we need to talk about, like..."

But, instead, Sanders chose to greet the question with nothing but contempt. His campaign has evidently calculated that it's better to dismiss feminist critics as oversensitive hysterics who don't understand how politics works and are taking the muckraking bait to distract from "real issues" than it would to be to alienate bros by being meaningfully accountable.

Or to disappear us altogether to suggest it's simply rightwingers who are objecting to the essay, pretending to care about women's issues in order to smear Sanders.

Which is precisely why I'm more angry about Sanders' response than I was about the essay. His response tells us something about his current priorities and sensitivities, and I don't like what we're being told.

I want to hear that Sanders understands his essay was problematic, not merely "poorly written." I want to hear that Sanders understands it was problematic even at the time, that the fact it was forty-three years ago doesn't situate it in a context in which there weren't women (and men) who were writing then, and long before, on gender inequality safely and sensitively. I want to hear that Sanders has learned something about how to advocate for women, not just behave as though it's taken as read that every man learns that with age (because they don't). I want to hear that Sanders understands the language and imagery used to discuss women's issues matters right now, and that it is a "real issue."

And the reason I want to hear these things is because the President of the United States will be contending with a Republican caucus, currently the majority in both houses of Congress, who are deeply hostile to women's issues. Who have tried to block the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. Who have tried to pass a dangerous abortion ban. Whose every economic policy, from indifference to the pay gap to the defunding of social services, will disproportionately affect poor women of color and their children. And ditto their social policies, from ENDA to immigration.

I want to know I can trust a progressive presidential candidate to take women's issues seriously. And women's concerns.

The fact that it is still controversial to ask a man to acknowledge that it's indecent, not just bad writing, to use sexual violence against women in a flippant and insensitive way is indicative of the fact that this shit does matter. That this is a real issue, today.

I expect more from progressive men. Asking them not to be wildly insensitive about sexual violence isn't some sort of unfair attack. It isn't an unfair expectation. It's the bare minimum of what we should want from male politicians.

I know, and I am glad, that Sanders has been solid on policy around women's issues during his tenure in the Senate. That is, as far as I'm concerned, the argument for why he should be accountable on this, rather than the argument for why he doesn't need to be.

There are times during campaigns when old garbage is dredged up, and I absolutely want candidates to respond with nothing but the contempt it deserves. This is not one of those times.

Shakesville is run as a safe space. First-time commenters: Please read Shakesville's Commenting Policy and Feminism 101 Section before commenting. We also do lots of in-thread moderation, so we ask that everyone read the entirety of any thread before commenting, to ensure compliance with any in-thread moderation. Thank you.

blog comments powered by Disqus