Vaccines vs. Misogyny

The skeptical blogosphere is abuzz. Unfortunately it’s because the founder of the anti-vaccination group Generation Rescue (GR), JB Handley, has managed to distract everyone from the issue of vaccines with an ad hominem attack against Amy Wallace, of Wired.

Before I continue, I want to defend my label of this group as anti-vaccination. For example, GR claims to be mainly interested in autism and are of the belief that autism is caused by childhood vaccines. But recently they backed the case of Desiree Jennings, a 28-year-old cheerleader who allegedly developed dystonia after her vaccination. It appears to actually be a psychogenic disorder and not a “vaccine injury”. Notably, GR denies the concept of psychogenic disorders, which also suggests that they are ill-informed about mental health and they may in fact be contributing to her symptoms with this attention. In no way is this case related to autism and as Orac, of Respectful Insolence, astutely (and colorfully) points out:

…maybe Generation Rescue will explain why, if it is an “autism advocacy” organization rather than an anti-vaccine organization, it spends so much verbiage on the flu vaccine and the HPV vaccine, when neither could, even in the most fevered imaginations of anti-vaccine loons, be linked with autism.

Anyway, Wallace wrote an article for Wired about vaccines called “An Epidemic of Fear: How Panicked Parents Skipping Shots Endangers Us All“. Rather than address any of her carefully-crafted points, Handley decided to… well, I’ll let Wallace tell it:

J.B. Handley, the founder of Generation Rescue, the anti-vaccine group that actress Jenny McCarthy helps promote, sent an essay title” “Paul Offit Rapes (intellectually) Amy Wallace and Wired Magazine.” In it, he implied that Offit had slipped me a date rape drug. “The roofie cocktails at Paul Offit’s house must be damn good,” he wrote. Later, he sent a revised version that omitted rape and replaced it with the image of me drinking Offit’s Kool-aid. That one was later posted at the anti-vaccine blog Age of Autism.

I’ve been told I’ll think differently “if you live to grow up.” I’ve been warned that “this article will haunt you for a long time.” Just now, I got an email so sexually explicit that I can’t paraphrase it here. Except to say it contained the c-word and a reference to dead fish.

So apparently Handley wasn’t the only culprit of this sexually-loaded vitriol. Super. But as I have no further information on the other perpetrators, I’ll stick to the one that has gotten the most attention. Handley now explains in the comments of his Age of Autism blog post (the title of which still implying that Wallace is incapable of thinking for herself):

With some reflection, I decided that although “intellectual rape”, a relatively commonly used term, and “sexual rape” were very different things, the use of the word “rape” was ultimately in poor taste, would distract from the article, and would most certainly offend some readers, and could appear demeaning of women, which wasn’t remotely the intention of the piece or my words. So, I changed the article to the one you all have read, and then AoA ran it the next day. And, I sent Ms. Wallace, via email, the new piece.

The only reason you are reading about a non-published draft of my essay is because Ms. Wallace chose to write about it. That’s certainly her right, and it’s certainly my mistake, in my fury over her horrible article, for sending it to her in the first place before I had time to reflect.

Hmm.

So he angrily sends her an article draft with a provocative title (and content) and she’s not supposed to react in any way? Apparently despite the fact that “intellectual rape” is not a commonly used term, unless you’re blissfully unaware of what that word means (similar to evolution-deniers’ use of the words “Nazi” and “holocaust”), the current backlash is Wallace’s responsibility? I have a hard time believing that Handley would have written the same thing (“rape” and “roofies”) about/to a male author, but he dismisses Wallace’s reaction to the comments – that he went out of his way to send her – as “distracting”. So again, the current distraction is her responsibility?

There are several ways to express an “ism” that range from passive and covert to aggressive and overt. In this case, sexually-themed comments were made toward a woman that would probably not have been made toward a man. Those comments were then -ahem- corrected with equally insulting assumptions that implied blind obedience to a male expert’s authority and criticized her intelligence and professionalism rather than addressing her argument. The responsibility of the resulting backlash was then blamed on the “victim” for 1) angering him and eliciting his response in the first place, 2) publicizing the information, and 3) having a negative public reaction to his comments.

Regardless of his own apparent ignorance of the social context of his words, IMO, the sexism is not in question. I can see how some men might have a hard time grasping how certain things qualify as sexism towards women, because they don’t experience it (that’s not to say men don’t experience sexism – what I mean is, they don’t experience the same sexism that women do). However, it’s disheartening that women not only have to still put up with this behaviour, but they are then blamed for any resulting fallout if they defend themselves. The people who made these comments are responsible for themselves and the consequences of their words, not Ms. Wallace.

That being said, I do feel that the resulting squabble has distracted from the issue at hand: vaccines. Essentially Handley et al. managed to avoid having to provide a coherent answer to Wallace’s article. Rather, they are just arguing a particularly insulting and inflammatory ad hominem. Although it is important to call out this blatant sexism, the more skeptical blogs focus on misogyny, the less vaccines get discussed.

The tone is difficult to get past, I admit. If you click on the link above to read Handley’s article, you will see many more ad hominems (some more subtle than others, including a reference to the line “Anyone? Bueller?”) because certainly if someone disagrees with GR, it’s must be because they are complete morons and not because they did any sort of independent, objective research. Right?

After the rather insulting title and intro, and a few more points peppered with insults, he brings up a few questionable sources of evidence. Finally the meat of his response. He references the Age of Autism blog itself, a website for cases of injury that are alleged to be caused by vaccines (but have never been conclusively documented), and he even brings up 14 Studies. That is one lean counter-argument. Eventually he descends into complete incoherence:

If you had 100,000 doctors in a room, and you asked them what would happen to a baby if you gave that many shots, 99,999 would say every single child would immediately die, and well before the 100,0000th vaccine! Makes you sound like a madman? I know the answer to that question.

What?

Apparently, Handley has no valuable contribution to the current discourse on vaccines. Let’s not give him much more attention for his ad hominem foot stomping. While it was horrible that Wallace was attacked in this manner, now that he has been called out, some focus should be redirected towards the content of GR and Age of Autism’s current claims. Especially considering that we are in the middle of an outbreak, with active vaccination clinics, and GR apparently has a problem with the flu vaccine as well.

If Handley is interested in true intellectual discourse, I invite him to rewrite his article and eliminate the insulting and sexist language. Meanwhile the rest of us can continue to promote rational, science-based information about vaccines.

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  • Kim Hebert

    Kim H├ębert is an occupational therapist. She is interested in the promotion of science and reason, particularly regarding therapeutic health interventions. She blogs occasionally about occupational therapy and other health topics at Science-Based Therapy. Her hobbies are art and astronomy. **All views expressed by Kim are her personal views alone, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of current or former employers, associations, or other affiliations. All information is provided for discussion purposes only, and should not be used as a replacement for consultation with a licensed and accredited health professional.