“If a girl is drunk, is it OK to have sex with her?”
That’s the question that television personality Dr. Phil McGraw posed to his 1.1 million Twitter followers on Tuesday evening, along with the hashtag #teensaccused. After the tweet sparked considerable backlash, he quickly deleted it, but not before Twitter users were able to grab a screenshot:
A spokesperson for Dr. Phil’s show quickly tried to walk it back, telling Buzzfeed that the tweet wasn’t intended to be viewed as a joke about sexual assault. “This tweet was intended to evoke discussion leading into a very serious show topic. It was not intended to be taken lightly,” the spokesperson said. “It’s based upon a recent news story, hence the #teensaccused label.” In a longer statement provided to Deadline, the spokesperson added, “This was a research post in preparation for a show, not a personal post and Dr. Phil deleted it the second he saw it. It was clearly ill-advised. We sincerely apologize that it suggested anything other than what was intended, data gathering.”
That’s not good enough for sexual assault prevention advocates, who say that Dr. Phil’s deleted tweet is a dangerous endorsement of rape culture — the pervasive societal attitude toward rape that blurs the lines of consent and suggests that women’s actions (like drinking alcohol) can invite assailants to commit sexual crimes against them.
Carmen Rios, a feminist activist and blogger, launched a Change.org petition asking Dr. Phil to take concrete steps to use his platform to educate Americans about the realities of sexual assault. “This respected television doctor is questioning whether sex with a person who is incapacitated is rape at all,” the petition reads. “There is no question, Dr Phil: rape is rape.”
In an interview with ThinkProgress, Rios explained that even if Dr. Phil was trying to foster a discussion about a news story for an upcoming episode of his show, his tweet missed the point. By presenting rape as something that’s up for debate — and by framing the discussion around the teens who have been accused of sexual crimes, rather than the people who have had those crimes perpetrated against them — the tweet essentially invalidated sexual assault victims’ experiences.
“Rape is in the news, and we need to talk about it — but we need to stop treating it like a misunderstanding,” Rios said. “Rape cases aren’t about whether or not it’s okay to have sex with drunk girls. They’re about someone being violated, someone being attacked, someone being hurt… I think when celebrities make mistakes that carry huge consequences, it’s completely in the right for activists and advocates to call them out. When people with platforms use them to perpetuate societal ills, that’s not okay.”
Instead of focusing on accused rapists, as much of the coverage surrounding the Steubenville trial did, Rios suggests that Dr. Phil could take a different tact with his upcoming show.
“I’d much rather see a show about how this epidemic has affected the lives of teenage girls; how teenage survivors are coping and what support and resources they’re missing; how we can reach people about how important it is to end this horrible, ongoing tragedy in our culture and why that’s so, so important,” she said. “We need to trust survivors, and we need to listen to them. They need to be the priority.”
That sentiment has recently been echoed by hundreds of college activists across the country who are joining forces to combat rape culture on their own campuses. Students are working together to hold their college administrations accountable for mishandling rape cases, brushing aside rape victims, failing to punish rapists, and ultimately sweeping the issue of sexual assault under the rug. This past year, an increasing number of federal complaints about universities’ insufficient sexual assault policies have sparked investigations — and, ultimately, some slow progress. A similar situation is also unfolding within the U.S. military: After evidence of a rampant sexual assault epidemic came to light, service members have been working from the inside out to reform the current system, which often disempowers rape victims.
While Dr. Phil’s tweet doesn’t directly impact the policies on college campuses or military bases, Rios says it fits into the broader sexual assault epidemic that activists are working to address. “When authority figures and role models and media figureheads begin to stand with survivors, so will the rest of us. That’s just how it works,” she told ThinkProgress. “And I don’t plan to let anyone off the hook until we live in that rape-free world.”