Dave Ramsey and Dear Prudence: When good advice goes bad

Dave Ramsey and Dear Prudence: When good advice goes bad December 10, 2013

Emily Yoffe is, like Dave Ramsey, someone who provides advice for a living. Yoffe writes the “Dear Prudence” column for Slate where, like many an advice columnist before, she generally offers common-sense prescriptions to correspondents who, for the most part, already know what they need to hear but are writing to ask someone else to confirm it by nudging them in that direction.

And also like Dave Ramsey, Yoffe sometimes steps in it when she seems to reduce all the problems of the world to people who refuse to listen to her great wisdom. This problem is exacerbated by another Ramsey-ish trait — Yoffe’s thin-skinned defensiveness when she gets called out on this simplistic, reality-obscuring form of victim-blaming.

Here, I’m afraid we’re going to need a trigger warning, because discussing Yoffe’s variation of Ramsey’s bad advice will involve discussing rape, rape denialism, and the delusion that the problem of rape is about something other than the violent, predatory men who commit that crime.

This post by Alexandra Brodsky, addressed directly to Yoffe back in January, summarizes the problem — “Dear Prudence: How should I respond to your rape denialism?

This is the fourth letter in 12 months you’ve answered about a woman deeply affected by unremembered intercourse, and the third time you’ve insisted that such acts constitute an irresponsible drinker’s comeuppance or a fun, harmless night … but almost never rape.

  • Last January, you told another reader whose friend was considering pressing chargesagainst a man she believes raped her while she was drunk that “trying to ruin someone else’s life is a poor way to address one’s alcohol and self-control problems.”
  • Six months later, in the one column last year in which you accepted that intercourse with a drunk woman might be rape, you managed to spend a good  chunk of your response talking about how women set themselves up for assault by drinking; in a follow-up, you defended your victim-blaming as pragmatism. …

Doubting a given account doesn’t automatically make one a rape denialist, but a consistent track record of dismissing alleged assaults because the victims were drunk does. It’s not just these three women who are harmed by your facile dismissal of their experiences and subsequent masquerade of misogynistic popular myths about rape as expert wisdom. You betray all survivors who are stung by your harsh skepticism and all participants in our shared sexual culture whose partners’ expectations are, directly or indirectly, shaped by your downplaying of the importance of consent.

To be honest, though, rape denialism and victim-blaming in the mainstream media aren’t that surprising. What actually shocked me the most about your letters, Prudence, was your lack of empathy.

This criticism only led Yoffe to double down on her insistence that victims are to blame for not taking her advice and not making the best choices. While most of the country was recoiling in horror from the predatory behavior of teenage boys in Steubenville  and Maryville, Yoffe saw those crimes as an opportunity to reinforce her message that predators are not to blame for taking advantage of people who have put themselves in a vulnerable position. “Sexual assault and drinking: Teach women the connection,” was the headline of Yoffe’s manifesto — this despite the fact that her examples from Steubenville and Maryville involved young girls — children — not grown women.

Yoffe, like Dave Ramsey, seems to think of herself as a tough-minded provider of tough love. “A misplaced fear of blaming the victim has made it somehow unacceptable to warn inexperienced young women that when they get wasted, they are putting themselves in potential peril,” she writes, wanting readers to know she’s not “afraid” of blaming the victim.

Prudence and common-sense tell us that it’s safer to stay in the center of the sardine-globe. The fish on the outside being eaten by the shark ought to have made better choices. (Photo by Jason Heller.)

” The rise of female binge drinking has made campuses a prey-rich environment,” Yoffe says. She doesn’t exactly like the fact that a “prey-rich environment” can only exist in a predator-rich environment, but she sees that as a given — something that just is, about which nothing can or should be done.

“Let’s be totally clear: Perpetrators are the ones responsible for committing their crimes, and they should be brought to justice,” she writes. But the next word is but. “But we are failing to let women know that when they render themselves defenseless, terrible things can be done to them.”

Some of what she goes on to say is unassailably sensible advice — not just for women, but for everyone. But like Ramsey, Yoffe makes this part of her advice difficult to take by weirdly presenting the most banal common sense as though it were her own unique insight and not just a no-duh repackaging of the obvious. Ramsey advises people not to buy things they can’t afford and not to borrow money they can’t pay back. Gee, thanks Dave. Nobody ever thought of that before.

The condescension that accompanies the common-sense aspects of their advice could be shrugged off if Yoffe and Ramsey didn’t take the next ugly step — the sweeping implication that it is the “prey” who are primarily responsible for being preyed upon in their “prey-rich environment.” Here’s how Ramsey put it, explicitly: “The only variable in the discussion you can personally control is YOU. … You can make better choices and have better results.”

And for both Ramsey and Yoffe, the implication is clear: If you’ve had bad “results,” then you must have made bad choices.

All of which makes people like Ramsey and Yoffe invaluable for predators.

Sure, there’s a slight downside in that their “advice” might make some percentage of the potential population of prey marginally more cautious or less vulnerable. But that’s nothing compared to the service they provide by legitimating predation itself. They practically institutionalize it, placing it’s existence beyond question as an eternal, unchanging fact of life that all tough-minded, tough-loving, tough people must be tough enough to accept as a given. The logic of their advice says that predators have a right to be predators. Whether it’s rape or usury, those predators are legitimated and almost praised by Ramsey and Yoffe for illustrating the “comeuppance” due to those who make “bad choices” and who irresponsibly disregard the advice of the professional advice-givers.

I would point out that legitimating such behavior is evil and wrong, but unlike Ramsey and Yoffe, I don’t feel the need to puff myself up by telling you what you already know and pretending it’s my own unique insight.

Ugh. After getting down into that muck I need a refresher, so here’s Siouxsie Sue. It’s beautiful, and so are you. Look around:



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  • Sandrilene

    Hang on a minute. Even if someone is a rape apololgist, it is never appropriate to make comments like this. There is no one who deserves rape.

  • Sandrilene

    But women have ALREADY heard all these tips.
    We hear anti-rape tips before we’re even old enough to understand what rape is. You are not offering any new advice.
    Also, the vast majority of rapists are someone the victim knows. It is not strangers we need to worry about.

  • $7768756

    No, I don’t think that you get to magically reframe what was drunken sex into rape because you feel uncomfortable. If you get drunk and have sex, you might not be happy about who you wake up with. DEAL WITH IT.

  • $7768756

    I’m not saying this is radically new information. I’m saying that offering it isn’t colluding with the rapists, any more than telling someone “you should make sure to lock your doors” is colluding with burglars. That’s Fred’s and Caretaker’s claim- that offering that advice does harm. I think, yeah, we don’t need constant refresher courses on it, although it should be offered to, say, incoming college students. But it’s no more harmful than a sign on the road saying “buckle up.”

  • No, what you can’t deal with, is that there is a world of difference between waking up uncomfortable, and waking up raped. Count yourself lucky, instead of deciding you get to reframe other’s experiences for them.

  • $7768756

    Except, that as this woman explicitly states in her letter to Yoffe- for her, there is not. She woke up uncomfortable, and therefore, NOT because of anything else, but solely based on that feeling of discomfort- decided she’d been raped.

  • $7768756

    “Do you still not see that the informedness of the consent given under such circumstances is open to question and therefore cannot be relied upon?”

    Yep. That’s why, as previously stated, unless i’m drunk and making poor judgements myself, i don’t sleep with drunk women.

    That being said, a standard of “drunk consent isn’t consent” is simply ridiculous, from biological, feminist, and practical standpoints.

    We’ve already discussed the other two- from a practical standpoint, drunk people are going to hook up. It’s practically what drunk was invented for. pretending that isn’t the reality. It’s pointless to suggest that we simply demonize all drunken sex instead of encouraging safe behavior and, you know, maybe not falling all over ourselves to tell people that get blackout drunk and made poor choices that they have no responsibility for getting blackout drunk.

    I’m sorry the young lady had a crappy sexual experience. But what a responsible friend would be doing is pointing out “this isn’t the first time you’ve gotten this drunk, this isn’t the first time you’ve made a seriously bad choice while drunk, it’s time to start reconsidering your drinking habits.”

  • Carstonio

    You still seem to be missing my point. Yoffe’s error was in not blaming or acknowledging rape culture. Our society still doesn’t accept that sex with an intoxicated woman constitutes rape. Most men still believe that the burden is on the woman to say no. Yoffe wasn’t necessarily blaming the victim, but she was still framing rape as about what women do or don’t do.

    And Yoffe’s error was also in implying that young women selfishly pursue hedonistic behavior without thought of the consequences. This is the same woman who lectures women who are childless by choice, belittling their preference and insisting that they’ll regret it later. In both cases, that’s not offering advice, that’s presuming that young women don’t know what is best for them. A big reason I prefer Carolyn Hax, who advises readers to own their preferences and choices. Yoffe doesn’t consider that women might feel pressured to binge drink for the same reason they might feel pressured to have sex.

    In another context, civil rights leaders often tell young blacks the virtues of responsibility, but they stress implicitly and explicitly that this is because the society is gamed against them. It’s one thing for such a leader, or a black parent, to advise the young blacks to be polite and nonconfrontational with police. But if the person spoke that way to a general audience, it would endorse white prejudices regardless of the person’s intention.

    Sexism and racism are both structural. Taking about “rapists” as though they’re distinct from other men is too much like the fallacy Chris Rock debunked, that one has to consciously want to hurt blacks to be a racist. It cannot be stressed enough that men don’t rape because they’re out of control or hard-wired to be sexual hunters, they do so because they believe women own them sex.

  • Rowsdower

    “You still seem to be missing my point. Yoffe’s error was in not blaming or acknowledging rape culture.”
    I understand your point, I just don’t think much of it. Yoffe can do a lot more good telling women that binge-drinking parties are dangerous than she can railing against rape culture. You think she should spend half her column talking about rape culture; I say that would be half her column wasted, accomplishing nothing more than demonstrating her Anti-Rape Cred* to your satisfaction, perhaps. Or perhaps not.
    Mind you, I do think there needs to be a discussion on rape culture, men need to be taught not to devalue women in even subtle accidental ways, and so on. But a “Dear Prudence” column is not the right place for it. The topic of rape culture most likely has to involve actual literal discussion, exploration of recent local events, personal experiences, confronting opposing points of view, and so on. That’s a lot to expect of an advice column, in fact I say that’s an unreasonable amount to expect of an advice column.
    But avoiding binge-drinking parties … ? Yeah, I say that falls under the category of “advice” and can be reasonably communicated in “Dear Prudence”.
    *: Which is why civil rights speakers have to be so damn careful about what they say, so that nobody can accuse them of being Uncle Toms. Personally I think it’s idiotic that they have to keep proving and re-proving that they aren’t in fact Uncle Ruckus; just mentioning it once and then moving on should be sufficient. Just as Yoffe says that rapists are responsible for rape, and that ought to be enough for people to quit calling her a rape apologist. Ought to be.

  • It’s harmful when it’s being offered as “What we should do to stop rape” and extra harmful when it’s offered as “Here is what you have to have done for us to toake your claim of having been raped seriously”. No one actually says that we shouldn’t teach people about the dangers of drinking or going to bad neighborhoods. THey really don’t. Rape apologists deliberately misinterpret them to be saying those things in order to justify rape.

  • DO you REALLY think that there are women out there who have NEVER been told that binge drinking may be dangerous? DO you even think that there are women out there who haven’t been told that if they go to a bing drinking party they might get raped? DO you even think that there are women out there who haven’t had it intimated to them that if they went to a bing-drinking party and got rape, it would be their own fault?
    ANd if you do, do you have any basis for this other than “Well women still get raped, so they must not have heard.”?
    Because that bit, “Well women still get raped, so we gotta tell them not to binge drink harder” — THAT’S THE PROBLEM.

  • Rowsdower

    The issue isn’t that they haven’t heard the advice ever, only that they don’t think it could happen to them.
    You used a lot of caps so I think you really, really, really hate rape. Good for you Ross! But I would still tell my daughter not to binge-drink while off at college, and I wouldn’t mind Yoffe reminding her either.

  • dpolicar

    I would still tell my daughter not to binge-drink while off at college

    Sure, me too.

    I would also tell my son this.
    I would also tell my children not to have sex with people sufficiently drunk that their judgment was impaired.
    I would also tell my children not to talk about doing this as though it were admirable.

    I would also tell my children to intervene if they saw others doing this, or talking about doing this as though it were admirable.

    I wouldn’t mind Yoffe reminding her either.

    Sure, me neither.

    That said, if whenever the subject of rape comes up Yoffe reminds my daughter not to binge-drink, and never brings up the other stuff… well, Yoffe is of course free to talk about and ignore whatever she chooses to, but I would encourage my children to get their advice elsewhere, because I don’t trust Yoffe’s priorities.

  • Rowsdower

    Fair enough. I say good advice remains good advice even if you don’t trust the adviser’s priorities.

    Two links I found:



    I present them without comment — they were interesting, they covered a lot of the concepts common to both Yoffe and her critics, make of them what you will. Or, you know, don’t.

  • dpolicar

    Taking up bandwidth to say “Don’t stick pencils in your ear” to teenagers is probably doing more harm than good, on balance… not because it isn’t true, but because true advice can leave someone worse off when it displaces higher-priority true advice.

    Taking up bandwidth to say “Don’t binge-drink” to teenagers is probably doing more good than harm, on balance.

    But I’d be cautious about letting it displace higher-priority good advice.

    Two links I found: […] I present them without comment

    I accept them the same way.

  • Carstonio

    I never called Yoffe a rape apologist and my point shouldn’t be misinterpreted that way. Her column wasn’t a Dear Prudence entry, but a general opinion column under her own name. And from my reading, she wasn’t necessarily advising women before the fact to avoid binge drinking, but ruminating after the fact that the women might not have been raped if they hadn’t been binge drinking. That’s the same thinking that Richard Cohen used over Trayvon Martin’s hoodie.

    Yoffe and Cohen probably don’t believe that the victims had it coming – I suspect it’s a natural human tendency to deny the randomness of the world’s suffering. Female jurors in rape trials are more likely than male ones to view the victim as provoking her attacker, rather than admit to themselves that they’re just as vulnerable. The writers are probably engaging in woulda-shoulda-coulda by proxy because the alternative is far more unsettling.

  • Rowsdower

    You haven’t called her a rape apologist, no, but plenty of people have. Even Fred, who is astoundingly spot-on with so many topics, feels that Yoffe is blaming the victim and doing so in a fashion on par with the shittiest of evangelical hucksters.
    Richard Cohen may be blaming the hoodie, but he IS the equivalent of a rape apologist — a racist apologist, I suppose. (Fun statistic for you: at the time of the ZImmerman trial, an amazing 45% of Republicans had a favorable opinion of Zimmerman. This is from a Fox News poll by the way. No other criterion — not age, gender, income, or even race — tracked with Zimmerman support as consistently as Republican affiliation. And I would say you can’t be a Zimmerman fan if you aren’t, at a minimum, convinced that black teenagers are criminals.)

  • Baby_Raptor

    When you rape apologize, you’re a rape apologist. It doesn’t matter how hardcore about it you are, or how polite, or how loud. You’re still rape apologizing.

    “Oh, but I said it nicely!” doesn’t change how a rape victim hears “It was your fault.”

  • smrnda

    Actually, I know of several tattoo parlors which will not give a tattoo to anyone while drunk. There may be a law about this, or it may be a policy of tattoo parlor to avoid the possibility that someone gets drunk and decides that they need a tattoo they will later regret. Either way, it is highly responsible for tattoo parlors *NOT* to give tattoos to drunk people.

    The idea is, when you are drunk, we tend to expect people to refrain from doing things that can harm others, but we accept that drunk people, having diminished capacity to reason, should be exempted from making some choices.

  • smrnda

    I want to disagree that getting drunk has similar effects on everyone. Anyone who has gotten drunk with enough people will note that people are very different drunk. Some people get very tired and lethargic quickly, some people become more extroverted, some people get belligerent. Some people experience greater motor impairment than others. Anyone who has done any amount of drinking will probably be able to classify people they see drunk based on their behavior.

  • $7768756

    It reduces reflex time, it acts as a depressant, reduces inhibitions- oh, the individual manifestations of the effects vary widely, but the underlying fact of the effects it has on your brain are pretty much the same.

  • $7768756

    ” There may be a law about this, or it may be a policy of tattoo parlor to avoid the possibility that someone gets drunk and decides that they need a tattoo they will later regret. Either way, it is highly responsible for tattoo parlors *NOT* to give tattoos to drunk people.”

    Actually, it’s because drunk people bleed more, and because they’re prone to violence, and yes, are sometimes too drunk to make permanent decisions.

    It is HIGHLY responsible, I completely agree, and it’s a good policy.

    But simply because someone is LESS than highly responsible doesn’t make them a rapist.

  • And if your daughter called you up in a panic and told you she’d been out binge-drinking and woke up in beith a strange man, physical indications of intercourse and no memory of how she got there?

  • Rowsdower

    Well obviously I’d call her a drunkard whore who got what she deserved, right? Is that the answer you were looking for?

    As I said in my very first post, once there has been a rape, the conversation needs to shift away from prevention tips. So in this scenario I would remind my daughter that I love her, I’ve got her back, and I’m coming immediately. I would also encourage her to talk to the rape crisis center since they are on-campus already and have the benefit of experience, and since the scenario you laid out has so little detail, I would also encourage her to talk to some friends to see if they can help piece together what happened. It could be that, once the panic has lifted and they’ve helped her recall the events of the evening, she’ll remember that the sex was consensual (if ill-advised).

  • Julie McGalliard

    Are you really unable to see the difference between telling college students in general that binge drinking is dangerous, and telling FEMALE students IN PARTICULAR that binge drinking is dangerous BECAUSE THEY COULD GET RAPED? “Don’t do it because rape” will always sound like a victim-blaming threat in a way “don’t do it because you could choke to death on your own vomit” doesn’t.

  • Rowsdower

    “Don’t do it because rape” will always sound like a victim-blaming threat if that’s the way you insist on hearing it. And apparently it is, since you put it in the category of “always”, meaning there is no way to express it that you won’t interpret as victim-blaming.

  • Julie McGalliard

    Right — that was my point. There is no way to express that particular thought — “girls, don’t do this thing, because you could get raped” — without it sounding like victim-blaming. There are ways to express DIFFERENT THOUGHTS associated with rape prevention which don’t come across as victim-blaming.

  • Rowsdower

    And here I thought the other guy was nuts for thinking that you need to maintain a 1:1 ratio between advising women to avoid rape traps and denouncing rape culture.

  • Julie McGalliard

    You might be trolling or sincerely misguided, but either way it’s obvious you’re not even attempting to understand my point. So, we’re done now.

  • Rowsdower

    What if you have a really dumb point? You don’t believe it is possible to warn women about the rape threat at binge-drinking parties without also blaming the victim; certainly you don’t think a person should even try, and should instead come up with strictly non-rape-related reasons to avoid binge-drinking parties.
    But you know what? I respect women enough to not treat them like babies. I think it’s possible to communicate to them that, among the risks of binge-drinking parties, is that you are at increased chance of being raped. I also think it’s possible to express that you can’t ever really prevent rape, all you can do is play the percentages and do your best, but even so there are no guarantees — and whenever a woman does get raped, whatever she did or didn’t do, it’s 100% the rapist’s fault.
    But what do I know, I am making like women are intelligent creatures who can understand things.

  • Actually, what I was looking for was for you to come up with a way to reconcile your victim blaming withthe fact that you know damned right well that it would be a monsterous thing to tell a rape victim.

  • Rowsdower

    Ah, the totally legal high an imbecile gets from self-righteousness, it’s your drug of choice, isn’t it?
    Here’s the difference between me and you: I would rather make sure women are aware of risks so that they can better avoid them, while your entire thing is assigning blame AFTER they’ve been raped. Guess which one of us might actually be helping them on some level? (Hint: it’s not you.)