What Did We Learn From the Overheated Bernie Sanders ‘Rape Fantasy’ Story?

Looking back at a typically mishandled media outrage.

Senator Bernie Sanders, an Independent from Vermont and 2016 U.S. presidential candidate, left, takes a 'selfie' photograph with an attendee during a town hall meeting in Davenport, Iowa, U.S., on Thursday, May 28, 2015.

Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

Now that the saga has run its course, it's worth dissecting. On May 26, just an hour after Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders held a kickoff rally for his presidential bid, Mother Jones reporter Tim Murphy appeared to bury a lede. He published a profile on Sanders’s early days as a shambling left-wing activist, working odd jobs and crashing in friends’ homes. Sanders even contributed “a stream-of-consciousness essay on the nature of male-female sexual dynamics,” wrote Murphy.

That was the cue for “Man and Woman,” a 1972 essay by “Bernard Sanders” on the subject of sexual repression in a time of sexual revolution. “A man goes home and masturbates his typical fantasy,” wrote Sanders. “A woman on her knees, a woman tied up, a woman abused. A woman enjoys intercourse with her man—as she fantasizes being raped by 3 men simultaneously.”

Murphy embedded the story, but did not quote it. That job was taken on gleefully by pundits and conservatives who asked whether Sanders’s 43-year-old essay would hobble him out of the gate. He said “rape.” He theorized a woman who fantasized about rape. Surely, in the cause of fairness, his campaign needed to eat dirt.

“We have seen this play out before, that rape comments can essentially be disqualifiers,” mused CNN's Nia-Malika Henderson. “We saw that with Todd Akin.”

“Can you imagine if Jeb Bush had written something like that?” asked Fox Business personality Bernard McGuirk. “The outrage?”

“I can't imagine anything that a Democratic strategist would like to read more than this essay if it were written by Ted Cruz,” said National Review reporter Joel Gehrke on Fox News. “If this essay had Ted Cruz's byline on it, liberal heads would be exploding everywhere.”

Gehrke went on to say that “if we tried to shame Bernie Sanders out of public life because he thought something stupid about gender roles 40 years ago, the standard for who gets to be a public servant is pretty terrible,” and that generally captured the conservative response to the essay. There was no real desire to hound Sanders out of politics; instead, there was question-begging about how a Republican would have been treated had he written this. Surely, he would have been demonized as a rape apologist.

Well, probably. That's because the pundit class generally prefers hyperventilation and narrative to any serious analysis of a text. Todd Akin's Senate candidacy in Missouri imploded over a rape quote, therefore rape quotes are dangerous. It hardly matters that Akin argued that “the woman's body” automatically could prevent pregnancy from “legitimate rape,” a pseudoscientific belief with real policy implications. (If violent rape could not cause pregnancies, the rape exception to abortion laws would not be necessary.) In 2012, Indiana's Republican U.S. Senate candidate, Richard Mourdock, said something quite different than Akin—that “life is a gift from God” even if it results from rape—and lost an election.

Mourdock got railroaded. His point was entirely different than Akin's, but he had talked about rape, and candidates were not supposed to do that. The lesson learned by the media was that any talk of rape was offensive and dangerous. That was the lesson learned by candidates, too. Led by the Susan B. Anthony List, an anti-abortion PAC, candidates were murder-boarded out of ever directly answering a question about how to think about pregnancies that resulted from rape. Policy didn't change, but politics became a little less honest.

The Sanders situation was even sillier. Anyone who read the essay looking for a point, rather than a gaffe, could tell that a 30-year old amateur psychologist was wondering whether violent sexual fantasies were the result of shattered gender norms. Sanders's hypothetical woman with a “typical fantasy” of gang rape would be discovered by psychological researchers. According to a 2010 summary of the data in Psychology Today, around four in 10 women have violent fantasies like this at least once a month, and more imagine being “overpowered.” As journalist Lindsey Beyerstein wrote:

Over forty years ago, Sanders argued that these fantasies were a symptom of the trauma of a sexist society. Agree with him or disagree with him. I tend to disagree. But let's be clear: Sanders wasn't advocating rape. He was advocating for a sexual revolution that he expected to sweep away these “hangups.” He was making a social conservative and/or radical feminist argument. 

Pundits, who have over-learned the rule that if you're explaining, you're losing, argue that any distraction like this is a distraction from a candidate's message. Fair enough—but there's no unescapable gravity that demands reporters ignore the point of a speech or essay and only cover the gaffe. They likely don't know how the gaffe will land. In the pursuit of savviness, political analysts pretend that they have no savvy at all.

In the short period since Murphy's story ran, there's been no polling (and no real reporting) to find whether voters would hold it against Sanders. The candidate apologized for the essay basically along the lines argued by Beyerstein.

“It was very poorly written,” Sanders said on Meet the Press. “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. Something like Fifty Shades of Grey—very poorly written 40 years ago.”

Murphy himself recognized the piece as “undoubtedly something people would want to dig into.” He did not, as speculated, get it in an oppo dump. His story was about the young Sanders.

“I read it as a critique of some sort,” Murphy said of the essay in an e-mail interview. “Sanders psychoanalyzing some hypothetical/fictional relationship dynamic, or some depiction of such that had been bugging him in the media. (His interest in psychology is a running theme during this time, as is his intense disdain for corporate media.) The third graf, which mentions the magazines, has that 'this is a social commentary' feel. But it was a bad piece in a weird style written for a niche publication in the 70s, so it's a bit confusing. Much clearer than the writing was that he was at a point in his career where he'd actually write and publish something like that, which spoke to his aimlessness, lack of a filter, and need for a freelance check.”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.