The Bernie Sanders 'Rape Fantasy' Essay, Explained

Democratic presidential candidate and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) delivers remarks at a town meeting at the South Church May 27, 2015 in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. (Getty Images)
Democratic presidential candidate and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) delivers remarks at a town meeting at the South Church May 27, 2015 in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. (Getty Images)

Mother Jones dug up a 1972 essay that Bernie Sanders wrote for the Vermont Freeman, an alternative newspaper. The article, called, "Man-and-Woman," is a commentary on gender roles. But it's also caused a stir, as is bound to happen anytime a candidate mentions rape.

If you haven't been following the hubbub, read on for a rundown of what the controversy is all about.

So what did Bernie Sanders write and what did he say about rape?
The essay by the Vermont senator, who officially kicked off his presidential campaign this week, isn't long — only a page. Warning: The bit about rape comes at the very beginning, as does some not-totally-safe-for-work language:

"A man goes home and masturbates his typical fantasy. 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.

"The man and woman get dressed up on Sunday — and go to Church, or maybe to their 'revolutionary' political meeting.

"Have you ever looked at the Stag, Man, Hero, Tough magazines on the shelf of your local bookstore? Do you know why the newspaper with the articles like 'Girl 12 raped by 14 men' sell so well? To what in us are they appealing?"

Sanders then goes on to explain his ideas about gender roles and eventually gets at a sharper point — that traditional gender roles help create troubling dynamics in men's and women's sex lives.

"Many women seem to be walking a tightrope," he writes, as their "qualities of love, openness, and gentleness were too deeply enmeshed with qualities of dependency, subservience, and masochism."

He adds that men, likewise, are confused:

"What is it they want from a woman? Are they at fault? Are they perpetrating this man-woman situation? Are they oppressors?"

One way to read the essay is that Sanders was doing (in a supremely ham-handed way) what journalists do every day: draw the reader in with an attention-getting lede, then get to the meat of the article in the middle. Though he only sticks to his larger point for three paragraphs before getting back to his fictional couple, ending the essay with an imagined conversation:

"And she said, 'You wanted me not as a woman, or a lover, or a friend, but as a submissive woman, or submissive friend, or submissive lover...'

And he said, 'You're full of ______.'

And they never again made love together (which they had each liked to do more than anything) or never saw each other one more time."

What has the Sanders campaign said?
The Sanders campaign quickly tried to distance itself — and the candidate — from the 43-year-old essay. Campaign spokesman Michael Briggs called the essay a "dumb attempt at dark satire in an alternative publication" in an interview with CNN, adding that it "in no way reflects his views or record on women." He added, "It was intended to attack gender stereotypes of the '70s, but it looks as stupid today as it was then."

So what does this say about Sanders' attitude toward women?
You can draw divergent conclusions from the article itself. On the one hand, he's talking about liberating people from harmful gender norms. On the other, with his nameless hypothetical "man-and-woman" characters, he also seems to imply that men fantasize about raping women or that women fantasize about being raped.

The 2016 presidential field has been quiet about it, but conservative Erick Erickson jeered at Sanders supporters on Twitter.

Meanwhile, Bill Kristol and Town Hall's Katie Pavlich turned the essay on Bill Clinton, using it as an opening to mention past allegations of sexual misconduct on his part.

National Review writer Charles C.W. Cooke, though, dismissed the essay as insignificant:

"Nobody honestly believes that Bernie Sanders is a sexual pervert or that he is a misogynist or that he intends to do women any harm. Nobody suspects that he harbors a secret desire to pass intrusive legislation or to cut gang rapists a break. Really, there is only one reason that anyone would make hay of this story, and that is to damage the man politically."

Rather than criticize Sanders for something he wrote long ago, Cooke added, "until I see any sign of actual wrongdoing I'd much prefer to slam Sanders for his dangerous and ridiculous politics than to delve back into his past and embarrass him with a long-forgotten opinion."

Looking at his political life, it's true that Sanders' record shows an ongoing concern for women's rights. Katie McDonough at left-leaning Salon.com compiled a list of measures Sanders has supported or sponsored to protect women from violence and sexual assault.

Are there any lessons to draw from this?
Absolutely: if you're a politician — especially on the national level — everything you've ever written, said, or done can, and likely will, be dredged up for all the world to inspect and critique.

It's not the first time writings from long ago have resurfaced to be used against a candidate. Republican Bob McDonnell's 20-year-old thesis about his views on women was also used as a cudgel against him in his bid for governor of Virginia in 2009.

When Louisiana Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal's name began to surface as a potential vice-presidential candidate in 2012, the political world began writing about his 1994 essay about an exorcism he says he witnessed. (See here and here.) That, by the way, is sure to come up again if he runs in 2016 or any time in the future.

Many candidates have also faced plagiarism charges, like Democratic Sen. John Walsh of Montana, who dropped out of his reelection race last year after the New York Times reported he had lifted portions of the final paper he wrote to get his master's degree.

Vice President Joe Biden admitted in 1987 to cribbing a speech from a British politician, but said it wasn't "malevolent." In 2008, the Clinton campaign accused Barack Obama of lifting lines from his friend, then-Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick.

And then there are the countless officials who have been embarrassed in the media for sexual impropriety, including the aforementioned Bill Clinton. Eliot Spitzer. Anthony Weiner. David Vitter. John Ensign. Chris Lee. Vito Fossella. Mark Foley. Dennis Hastert.

It's not just elected officials — consider the flap over past comments in which now-Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor described herself as a "wise Latina." It's not plagiarism or an affair, but it created a headache for her during confirmation hearings.

The scrutiny is part of why so many people want nothing to do with the white hot spotlight that comes with running for office.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.