Right after we learn of what Matt Barnett did to Daisy Coleman, one Emily Yoffe over at Slate gives us an essay that should be titled, “I will not let feminists ruin the self-righteous buzz of blaming women’s drinking for rape.” The advice she offers is pretty much indistinguishable from what everyone else on the Internet jumps up to say whenever we hear of yet another young woman having been sexually violated, but her thesis is that we’re not doing enough to send women the message that their behavior is to blame for their victimization.
Rather than merely rail against the evils of victim-blaming, I will make a few minor adjustments to Yoffe’s essay to make its advice more productive. In places where her writing is so absurd that mere translation is insufficient, I have screen-capped her exact words for your edification.
College Men: Stop Your Drunken Partying.
In one awful high-profile case after another—the U.S. Naval Academy; Steubenville, Ohio; now the allegations in Maryville, Mo.—we read about a young woman, sometimes only a girl, who goes to a party and ends up being raped. As soon as the school year begins, so do reports of female students sexually assaulted by their male classmates. A common denominator in these cases is alcohol, often copious amounts, enough to render the young woman incapacitated. But a misplaced fear of tarring all men with the same brush has made it somehow unacceptable to warn inexperienced young men that when they get wasted, they are putting others in potential peril.
A 2009 study of campus sexual assault found that by the time they are seniors, almost 20 percent of college women will become victims, overwhelmingly of a fellow classmate. Very few will ever report it to authorities. The same study states that more than 80 percent of campus sexual assaults involve alcohol. Frequently both the man and the woman have been drinking. The men tend to use the drinking to justify their behavior, as this survey of research on alcohol-related campus sexual assault by Antonia Abbey, professor of psychology at Wayne State University, illustrates, while for many of the women, having been drunk becomes a source of guilt and shame. Sometimes the woman is the only one drunk and runs into a particular type of shrewd—and sober—sexual predator who lurks where women drink like a lion at a watering hole. For women like these, the presence of men around alcohol has made campuses a dangerous environment. I’ve spoken to three recent college graduates who were the victims of such assailants, and their stories are chilling.
Let’s be totally clear: Perpetrators are the ones responsible for committing their crimes, and they should be brought to justice. But we are failing to let men know that when they get involved in heavy drinking, terrible things can be done by them. Young men are getting a distorted message that their right to ply women with alcohol is a sexual freedom issue. The real sex-positive message should be that when you impair someone else’s judgment, you drastically increase the chances that you will behave like someone who, shall we say, doesn’t have her best interest at heart. That’s not tarring all men as rapists, that’s acknowledging the circumstances in which rapists operate.
Experts I spoke to who wanted young men to get this information said they were aware of how loaded it has become to give warnings to men about their behavior. “I’m always feeling defensive that my main advice is: ‘Control yourself. Don’t make yourself uninhibited to the point of losing your cognitive faculties,’ ” says Anne Coughlin, a professor at the University of Virginia School of Law, who has written on rape and teaches feminist jurisprudence. She adds that by not telling them the truth—that they are responsible for keeping their hands to themselves—she worries that we are “infantilizing men.”
The “Campus Sexual Assault Study” of 2007, undertaken for the Department of Justice, found that the popular belief that many young rape victims have been slipped “date rape” drugs is false. “Most sexual assaults occur after voluntary consumption of alcohol by the victim and assailant,” the report states. But the researchers noted that this crucial point is not being articulated to young and naïve men: “Despite the link between male substance abuse and sexual assault it appears that few sexual assault and/or risk reduction programs address the relationship between substance use and sexual assault.” The report added, somewhat plaintively, “Students may also be unaware of the reasons why men are attracted to situations with high alcohol consumption.”
“I’m not saying every man is guilty of rape,” says Christopher Krebs, one of the authors of that study and others on campus sexual assault. “But when your judgment is compromised, your risk is elevated of perpetrating sexual violence against someone smaller than you.”
The culture of binge drinking—whose pinnacle is the college campus—does not just harm women. Surveys find that more than 40 percent of college students binge drink, defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as consuming five or more drinks for a man and four or more for a woman in about two hours. Of those drinkers, many end their sessions on gurneys: The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism estimates that about 600,000 students a year are injured due to their drinking, and about 700,000 are assaulted by a classmate in a drunken encounter. Some end up on slabs: About 1,800 students a year die as a consequence of alcohol intake.
The site Compelled to Act, started by the grief-stricken father of a college-student son who died because of a drunken snowmobile accident, keeps a tally of alcohol-related death, including reports of students who perish due to alcohol overdoses, falls, and drownings. The typical opening weeks of school (except perhaps at Brigham Young University) result in stories like this one at the University of Maryland: In the first three weeks of the semester, 24 students were taken to the hospital for alcohol-related causes. Then police were called to an off-campus bar known for serving freshman to investigate a stabbing involving underage students.
I don’t believe any of these statistics will move in the right direction until binge drinking in a poorly controlled environment joins drunk driving and domestic abuse as behaviors that were once typical and are now unacceptable. Reducing binge drinking is going to require education, enforcement, and a change in campus social culture. These days the weekend stretches over half the week and front-loading and boot and rally are major extracurricular activities. Pressuring younger students to drink, spiking the punch bowl, and forcing yourself on unwilling women have to stop being considered hilarious escapades or proud war stories and become a source of disgust and embarrassment.
As a parent with a son heading off to college next year, I’ve noted with dismay that in some college guidebooks almost as much space is devoted to alcohol as academics. School spirit is one thing, but according to The Insider’s Guide to the Colleges, when the University of Florida plays Florida State University, “Die-hard gator fans start drinking at 8 am. No joke.” I guess I’m supposed to be reassured to read that at the University of Idaho, “Not everyone is an alcoholic.”
“High-risk alcohol use is the one thing connected to all, and I mean all, the negative impacts in higher education,” says Peter Lake, director of the Center for Excellence in Higher Education Law and Policy at Stetson University College of Law and author of The Rights and Responsibilities of the Modern University. He cites the problems of early student attrition and perpetually disappointing graduation rates.
I’ve told my son that it’s his responsibility to withdraw from situations that might lead to violent behavior. (“I hear you! Stop!”) The biological reality is that women do not metabolize alcohol the same way as men, and that means drink for drink women will get drunker faster. I tell him I know alcohol will be widely available (even though it’s illegal for most college students) but that he’ll have a good chance of knowing when to stop if he limits himself to no more than two drinks, sipped slowly—no shots!—and doesn’t put anything extra in any punch bowls. If male college students start moderating their drinking as a way of self-regulating—and learning to regulate your own behavior is a crucial part of growing up—I hope their restraint trickles down to the women.
If I had a daughter, I would tell her that it’s in her self-interest not to be the drunken party girl who can’t remember what happened to her last night. Surely this University of Richmond student, acquitted in one of the extremely rare cases in which a campus rape accusation led to a criminal trial, would confirm that.
The federal government has taken steps to acknowledge the campus sexual assault problem by using the pressure of Title IX, which prevents sex discrimination in education, to require schools to improve programs to protect students from sexual assault and to deal more effectively with it. (Occidental College students filed a Title IX complaint against the school after administrators allowed a serial rapist to continue his studies.) Educating students about rape, teaching them that by definition a very drunk woman can’t consent to sex, is crucial. Also important are bystander programs that instruct students in how to intervene to prevent sexual assault on drunk classmates and about the need to get dangerously intoxicated ones medical treatment.
But nothing is going to be as effective at preventing alcohol-facilitated assaults as a reduction in men’s alcohol consumption. The 2009 campus sexual assault study, co-authored by Krebs, found campus alcohol education programs “seldom emphasize the important link” between men’s voluntary alcohol and drug use “and becoming a perpetrator of sexual assault.” It goes on to say students must get the explicit message that limiting alcohol intake and avoiding drugs “are important sexual assault sex protection strategies.” I think it would be beneficial for male students to hear accounts of alcohol-facilitated sexual assault from female juniors and seniors who’ve lived through it.
Of course, only the actual perpetrators should be treated like criminals. But when you are dealing with rape culture, there are the built-in complications of treating women like liars and men like wild animals. To establish if a driver is too drunk to be behind the wheel, all it takes is a quick test to see if his or her blood alcohol exceeds the legal limit. There isn’t such honesty when it comes to alcohol and sex. According to “Prosecuting Alcohol-Facilitated Sexual Assault,” a study by the National District Attorneys Association: “Generally, there is not a willingness to acknowledge when an assailant has consciously chosen an intoxicated woman because of her inability to escape.” Keeping these discussions from getting hopelessly derailed is, the study notes, “an extreme challenge.” And college student victims rarely turn to law enforcement. Instead, often days later, they bring a complaint to campus authorities to adjudicate.
Some think changing the campus drinking culture requires lowering the drinking age from 21 years. The Amethyst Initiative, started by chancellors and presidents of universities and colleges, and the group Choose Responsibility both make the case that since most college drinking is illegal, that gives it the allure of the forbidden, encourages excess, and increases danger because students are reluctant to turn to the authorities when drinking gets out of hand. But changing the drinking age is a policy that’s gotten little traction.
Lake says that administrators often take an overly simplistic approach to curbing alcohol consumption. In the 1990s that meant crackdowns, which he says sent a lot of drinking off campus, probably elevating the risks. He says binge drinking is so entrenched it requires a multifaceted approach that includes coercion, enforcement, and social engineering. For example, he says weekends often begin on Thursday because many colleges have few, if any, Friday classes. “In the alcohol wars, you can see where battlefields are and where booze has beaten the academy,” he says. “The academic program has receded, and they’ve given up on Friday.” He says a full day of classes should be scheduled on Friday, and it should be a standard day for tests and exams. He says since millennials (like young people forever) keep vampire hours, unless there are evening alternatives on campus, those purveying alcohol will win.
And who is it purveying alcohol? In some cases it’s a type of serial predator who encourages his victim to keep pouring the means of her incapacitation down her own throat. Researchers such as Abbey and David Lisak have explored how these men use alcohol, instead of violence, to commit their crimes. Lake observes that these offenders can be campus leaders, charming and well liked—something that comes in handy if they are accused of anything. “They work our mythology against us,” says Lake. “We would like to see our daughters hang out with nice boys in navy blue blazers.”
The three young women I spoke to who were victims of such men attended different colleges, but their stories are so distressingly similar that it sounds as if they were attacked by the same young man. In each case the woman lost track of how much she’d had to drink. Then a male classmate she knew took her by the hand and offered her an escort. Then she was raped by this “friend.” Only one, Laura Dunn, reported to authorities what happened, more than a year after the fact. In her case she was set upon by two classmates, and the university declined to take action against either one.
One of the rape victims was a senior who had been to a school-sponsored celebration where the wine flowed, then everyone went to a bar to continue the festivities. Her memories are fragmentary after that, but a male classmate came by. She remembers running down the street with him, then being in bed, then waking up the next day with her clothes inside out. She was sickened at herself for what she thought was cheating on her longtime boyfriend and confessed her infidelity to him. Ultimately that led to their breakup.
As she dealt with her shame and guilt, she talked to friends about that night, and the real story emerged. She was so intoxicated that her friends were worried about her when she stumbled out of the bar disoriented and without her shoes. They said they saw her being led away by the male classmate who was constantly hanging around drunk girls. She came to understand that she had been raped. “Since I realized it wasn’t my fault, I crawled out of a deep, dark hole,” she says. She also knew he’d done it before. “He had this reputation if he was nearby when you were drunk, he was probably going to rape you.”
The young woman laments the whole campus landscape of alcohol-soaked hookup sex. “Men are encouraged to do it, which creates all the risks for us,” she says. “You get embarrassed and ashamed, so you try to make light of it. Then women get violated and degraded, and men brag about it. Who does this culture benefit? Alcohol predators. It doesn’t liberate anybody.”
I get what all the beer bongs, flip cup, power hours, even butt chugging is about. (OK, maybe not butt chugging.) It’s fun. In Getting Wasted: Why College Students Drink Too Much and Party So Hard, Ohio University sociologist Thomas Vander Ven got an inside look at what he calls “the shit show.” He writes, “To some university students, the decision to drink at college is a redundancy. To them, college means drinking.” Vander Ven documents the pleasure that group intoxication brings: the suppression of inhibitions and self-consciousness, the collective hilarity, the thrill of engaging in potentially perilous adventures, and the sense of camaraderie. Even nursing hangovers and regrets becomes a group endeavor, a mutual post-battle support group. Collective intoxication is intoxicating, one of the reasons that it’s been so difficult to reduce the amount of binge drinking on campuses.
I know many people will reflect on their own bacchanalian college experiences with nostalgia and say the excesses didn’t hurt them—at least what they’re able to remember. So I will present myself as an example that it’s possible to have fun with girls without having alcohol involved. I enjoy moderate flirting and have only been slapped three times in my life. I have never been so creepy that I got the bouncer called to throw me out. Still, as a young dude, I did my share of fun, crazy, silly, stupid, and benevolently sexist things. But at least I always knew that I didn’t inflict serious trauma on anyone.
Lake says that it is unrealistic to expect colleges will ever be great at using women’s vigilance to control men’s behavior; that’s simply not their core mission. Colleges are supposed to be places where young people learn to behave compassionately when they see someone in a vulnerable state. Lake says, “The biggest change in going to college is that you have to understand safety begins with not behaving like a predator. For better or worse, fair or not, fun or not, you are not exempt from the consequences.” I’ll drink (in the privacy of my home) to that.
Blogger’s note: I started working on this post before I saw Ann Friedman’s post. I decided to proceed, as she only did the first half of the article.
Furthermore, if you want to see just what it was that Emily Yoffe said, I recommend watching my video here. It’s the same message but without the weasel words.