Yesterday I shared this article by Emily Yoffe (the woman who writes the “Dear Prudence” column for Slate) on Facebook. It is about the role alcohol plays in sexual assaults on college campuses and it advocates putting a greater emphasis on warning young women about the risks inherent in drinking excessively, which unfortunately include rape. I shared it because this is a topic that I have very strong feelings about–strong enough that I am willing to risk being told that I don’t understand rape culture and am insensitive to the experiences of rape victims. I am perfectly aware that I never took a women’s studies class and am not super-clear on what constitutes “rape culture.” The term “rape culture” wasn’t really bandied about when I was studying feminism. I did manage to get a handle on the definition of rape. I’m a late-twentieth century kind of gal. I’m not interested in blaming anyone for getting raped. I really don’t see the point of that, even if it weren’t an extremely ignorant and cruel thing to do. I am interested in women not getting raped, and the fact is that excessive alcohol consumption plays a major role in many sexual assaults on college campuses.
I’m going to come right out and admit that I have never been raped. I don’t claim to know what it’s like to be raped. But as a woman, I do understand how unfair it is that women have to walk around ever-conscious of the dangers that they face just because they’re women. As the old survey said, women are afraid that men will hurt them, beat them, rape them; men are afraid that women will laugh at them. These are not comparable fears. I also like to think that I’m a reasonably empathetic person. While I have no first-hand knowledge of rape–for which I am grateful and take no personal credit because that’s just how my life has shaken out thusfar–when I hear the experiences of women who have been raped, I imagine that I would feel and react in similar ways if I were in their place. It breaks my heart when I hear or read stories about girls who got drunk, passed out, and were raped, sometimes by multiple assailants. In the internet age there is also the possibility that their assaults will be documented and publicized by those who find it amusing to humiliate people when they’re helpless. When I find out that a rape victim was drunk, I don’t think, “Well, what did she expect? She should have known better.” I think, “I want this to stop happening.”
This response to Yoffe’s article, by Amanda Hess (also on Slate), argues that the way to stop these sexual assaults is to focus on the rapists, not the victims. I think that when it comes to assigning blame, one can safely focus like a laser beam on the rapists, since they’re the reason rapes occur. However, I found the following quote from psychologist Antonia Abbey naive in the extreme: “If the costs of sexual assault are obvious, undesirable and immediate, then intoxication-driven sexual assaults are less likely to occur because the potential perpetrator cannot forget about the likely, undesirable consequences.” Certainly the costs of sexual assault should be obvious, undesirable and immediate. It does not follow, however, that a potential perpetrator will find it impossible to forget about the “likely, undesirable consequences,” even when they’re drunk. I mean, really? Have you ever seen a drunk person? And someone who is evil enough to prey on drunk women while sober is probably not terribly concerned with the costs of sexual assault; they are only concerned about what they can get away with, and the fact is that if your victim is drunk, you can get away with a lot. It’s hard enough to prove rape under any circumstances, which is one reason so many women don’t even bother to report their rapes. (Why put yourself through that when the chances of prosecution, let alone successful prosecution, are so slim?) When the victim doesn’t even remember what happened or who did it to her or where she was at the time and there are no witnesses (aside from the people who have a vested interest in not testifying against themselves), how are these immediate and undesirable consequences going to assert themselves?
I think we have all seen the Rape Prevention Tips meme that addresses the potential rapist rather than the potential victim. “If you’re about to rape someone, STOP. Don’t do it.” “Carry a whistle with you. If you think you’re about to rape somebody, blow it as loud as you can.” Who doesn’t love that meme? But the reason we love it is that it appeals to our sense of how the world ought to be. In a just world, people wouldn’t have to be afraid of rape because no one would rape anyone. And let’s face it, it’s also funny to think about rapists stopping to think, “Wait…I’m not supposed to rape people. BWEEEEEEEEET!!! Somebody stop me!”—because that is something that would never happen on planet Earth. Are there men who rape without realizing that they’re raping? Are there women who are raped and blame themselves for their attack? Yes, and that is why it’s important to educate men and women about what rape is.
There are two scenarios in which one can reasonably assume that a woman consents to sex: 1) Your wedding night. 2) When you say, “Hey, let’s have sex,” and she says, “Yes, let’s do that!” Aside from that, there is always ambiguity, and you would do best to clear that up before you put down the whistle, so to speak. …I’m not really sure what I just said. But back to my point. Even if it is your wedding night, it’s probably a good idea to nail down some specifics beforehand. For example, “Do you want to have sex at the wedding breakfast or wait until we get to the hotel?” Are there a lot of non-verbal cues people give each other to indicate that they would like to have sex? Yes. Can you be 100% positive that the message you’re receiving is the one she intended to give? Not unless it’s accompanied by an explicit “Yes, that is what I meant—definitely want to have sex with you!” I know that sounds unromantic, and most established couples certainly don’t follow that protocol with any consistency, but it is the best way to make sure you’re not raping anyone.
At minimum, you must understand that if someone is unconscious, they don’t want to have sex with you. They’re incapable of wanting it; they’re unconscious. If you have sex with them while they’re unconscious, you are raping them. Stop! Blow the whistle!
Also: If you need to use a weapon or threats or drugs to get a “yes,” you are raping someone. Stop! Blow the whistle! Call a friend and ask them to come immediately and remove you from the situation. If you don’t have any friends, call the police.
Now that we’re done with that, let’s talk about alcohol intoxication and sexual assault.
How many sexual assaults involve alcohol consumption on the part of one or both (or all) parties? The study that Yoffe cites says 80 percent of campus assaults involve alcohol. I’m not super-big on studies, but even if the number isn’t 80 percent (no one can know the real number), it seems intuitively obvious that alcohol consumption would be a major contributor to sexual assault on college campuses, given how alcohol impairs people’s judgment and given how much alcohol college students consume. How common is it that women (and girls) have too much to drink, lose their ability to consent or to make informed decisions, and are sexually assaulted by men who have intentionally taken advantage of their vulnerability and use their alcohol consumption as an excuse—or alternatively, were honestly drunk off their asses themselves and didn’t quite “get” that the girls didn’t (technically) consent, or just didn’t remember what exactly happened? I’m imagining it’s very common, and my imagination isn’t that remarkable. Women metabolize alcohol differently than men; they get drunker faster and are therefore more vulnerable to assault. Women are more vulnerable to assault in the first place because very few women are physically capable of overpowering a man who intends to rape them. There is a good reason to warn young women—even lecture them–about the dangers of drinking to excess. It is dangerous for a woman to get drunk. It is dangerous for anyone to get drunk, for obvious reasons, but women are the ones who are getting raped, not men. (Which is not to say that men are never raped while drunk; it is just much less statistically likely, for whatever sexist reason you want to assign.)
To say what is indisputably true—that getting drunk increases a woman’s risk of sexual assault—is not to blame the victim. Advising girls and young women about danger and risk is not teaching them to blame themselves if they are raped—not any more than advising people about safe sexual practices (condom use; committed, monogamous relationships) is teaching them to blame themselves if they get AIDS. It’s doing them a favor. You aren’t telling them that it’s their own fault if they get raped. As a woman, you can’t be confident that you will never be raped—unfortunately. If you have never been raped, it is not due to being smart; it is due to being lucky. That doesn’t mean you can’t also be smart. If you habitually avoid getting drunk and thereby losing your ability to give consent, you reduce your risk of sexual assault. That doesn’t mean you are immune from risk. That doesn’t mean that if you do get drunk, you are giving a man (or men) permission to rape you. Rapists don’t need permission. They only need opportunity. Fewer drunk women = decreased opportunity for rapists = good for women. Yes, it does.
If women never went out at night alone—if they never went out anywhere, except in groups and with chaperones—I reckon fewer women would get raped. But it’s not reasonable to expect a woman to restrict her movements and her personal liberty just to avoid getting raped. Not getting drunk decreases a woman’s risk of getting raped; it increases her safety; and it is something any woman can do without suffering an unreasonable restriction of her liberty. In fact, not getting drunk will increase her personal liberty because you are always freer when you have your wits about you than you are when you’ve lost control of all your faculties. As I said elsewhere (i.e. Facebook), I can hardly think of anything less empowering for women than the implication that they can’t do anything to decrease their risk of sexual assault, which is exactly what you are implying when you fail to give her adequate warning about the increased risk inherent in binge drinking because you don’t want to be seen as blaming the victim. That is a frightening world for a woman to live in. It infantilizes her and renders her helpless.
I’m 100 percent certain that no one in the “telling women not to get drunk is blaming them for their own rapes” camp wants to infantilize women or make them feel helpless. On the contrary, they want women to be empowered by the understanding that they have the right not to be raped, regardless of where they were, what they were wearing, or how much they’d been drinking. And it’s true—women have the right not to be raped, regardless of where they are, what they’re wearing, or how much they’ve been drinking. I buy the argument that women won’t really be safe from rape until men stop raping. It’s true—women will never be safe from rape until men stop raping. It would be wrong to tell women that they’re responsible for preventing themselves from getting raped—because that is not true; rape is not a thing you do to yourself. But there’s such a thing as throwing out the baby with the bath water. Teaching people what rape is and holding rapists accountable does not preclude a campaign advising women to take reasonable measures on behalf of their personal safety. It is 100 percent reasonable to tell women to avoid binge drinking. It is 100 percent reasonable to tell men to avoid binge drinking; binge drinking pretty much does no one any good. But as I said earlier, it’s the women who are getting raped; they have that much more incentive not to engage in that particular pastime.
If a woman tells you she was raped when she was passed out drunk, the correct response is, “That’s terrible! How can we catch the person responsible and bring them to justice?” If a woman tells you she’s planning to go out to a party and get wasted, the correct response is, “Are you insane? Don’t do that!” (Stop! Blow the whistle!)
In fairness, Yoffe also says something in her article that is pretty darn naïve—that if women stop imbibing excessively, perhaps their restraint will “trickle down” to the men. Yeah, I wouldn’t count on that. Which is why something else she says earlier is so important:
I don’t believe any of these statistics will move in the right direction until binge drinking joins smoking, drunk driving, and domestic abuse as behaviors that were once typical and are now unacceptable. … Puking in your hair, peeing in your pants, and engaging in dangerous behaviors have to stop being considered hilarious escapades or proud war stories and become a source of disgust and embarrassment.
Definitely teach your sons not to rape, but also teach them not to drink so much that they lose their good judgment and end up doing something they probably wouldn’t do sober—something like have sex with a woman without her consent. Stop thinking and talking about getting wasted as if it’s something funny and harmless, a rite of passage for young people sowing their wild oats. It’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt (or raped or killed).
And now is when I sound like a scold and a square—the middle-aged Mormon lady who’s never had a drink in her life is lecturing people on the evils of alcohol. Believe me, I’m well aware that I wouldn’t know anything about the pleasures of alcohol consumption. I have no experience in that area. I can certainly understand—or imagine, rather—why having a drink or two would be appealing to some people. It’s not appealing to me personally because I’m pretty attached to my inhibitions, and I can’t really afford to make my brain fuzzier than it is. I enjoy knowing what’s going on. Still, that’s just me. I know plenty of folks who drink responsibly, and if they say it improves their quality of life, I believe them. I can think of plenty of things that would improve my quality of life that other people probably don’t need to be happy. So the issue isn’t drinking alcohol. It’s getting drunk, which I don’t get the appeal of. I met a lot of drunk people when I was in college; none of them seemed happy to me. Frankly, they just seemed rude, inconsiderate, and ridiculous (in a pathetic, not funny, way), and they smelled bad. Occasionally they were lying in their own vomit and/or feces, which also seemed incompatible with a state of happiness. And that was before they were hung over. But that’s neither here nor there. The point is that no matter how much fun it is to get drunk—and I’ll just have to take your word for it—it can’t possibly be worth the damage it does. Why is the right to get drunk at parties a feminist hill to die on?