DWEFB: Drinking While Existing in a Female Body

The latest offering from Emily Yoffe is this shit:

College Women: Don’t Depend on “Bystanders” to Rescue You from Assault. Rescue Yourselves.

So what is her advice to young women for “rescuing themselves,” I wonder?

(Those scare quotes around “bystanders” are VERY REASSURING.)

Teaching young people to intervene when they suspect sexual assault is an important tool in reducing such crimes on college campuses. An article by Michael Winerip in theNew York Times on “bystander intervention” describes these programs that teach young people how to spot suspicious behavior and what to do about it and points to some early successes. Winerip writes, “The hope is that bystander programs will have the same impact on campus culture that the designated driver campaign has had in reducing drunken driving deaths.” He adds, “Both take the same tack: Drinking to excess can’t be stopped but the collateral damage can.”

Someone has evidence-based advice for reducing the incidence of rape on college campuses! Don’t worry, Yoffe is here to derail it.

The bystander programs are an excellent idea. But let’s not just shrug and agree that “drinking to excess can’t be stopped.” (Think where we’d be in the war on tobacco if we just assumed smoking couldn’t be stopped.) I worry about an unintended consequence of bystander education: It is dangerous to give young people—particularly women—the false sense that there will always be someone around looking out for them, someone more intent on guarding their safety than they are themselves.

“Unintended consequence of bystander education:” Young women might get the impression that they’re not all alone, and the whole world ISN’T leaving them to twist in the wind following a brief surrender to vulnerability. People might start moving in a direction that actually makes young people safer from sexual violence, rather than just shaming young women for drinking. People might even start acting like sexual violence can be prevented more easily than heavy drinking, and THEN what would the Emily Yoffes of the world do with themselves?

Of course the rise of the designated driver has helped cut the toll—which remains heartbreakingly high—of drunk driving deaths. But the anti–drunk driving movement was about more than creating the idea of the “designated driver.” It was about getting the culture to change its attitude about anyone getting behind the wheel drunk.

Does this mean she’s going to compare rapists to drunk drivers? A glimmer of hope?

Last fall I wrote an article in Slate about how avoiding intoxication was a crucial way for young women to reduce their chances of becoming victims of rape.


Just as we’ve turned cigarette smoking from sexy to repulsive, we must continue to work at shifting the culture of campus binge drinking. Right now extreme drunkenness is a normal, even celebrated condition on many campuses. But I’ve yet to hear a good argument in favor of people—women and men—regularly getting so wasted that they are no longer able to make good decisions. And the examples in Winerip’s story illustrate that well.

One gets the impression that Emily Yoffe cares more about discouraging people from drinking than about discouraging people from committing sexual assault.

In January the Obama administration announced a task force to address campus sexual assault, noting the appalling fact that college parties are one of the most likely places for young women to be raped. Vice President Biden made a powerful and important plea for young men to reduce this toll by stopping their male classmates from becoming offenders. “Men have to take more responsibility; men have to intervene,” he said. But I wish he and the president had added some remarks about the dangers to both sexes of getting blind drunk. In Winerip’s article he notes that between 2005 to 2010, more than 60 percent of the sexual violence claims made to a leading insurer of colleges and universities “involved young women who were so drunk they had no clear memory of the assault.”

Vice President Biden is the original author of the Violence Against Women Act, which has actually had some success in cutting down on gender-based and sexual violence. So now Ms. Yoffe is going to wring her hands over his failure to join her in victim-focused finger-wagging which has saturated our culture for centuries but has done precisely jack shit to reduce the incidence of rape.

Both Winerip and Obama mention the serial predators who commit many of the campus sexual offenses. These stealthy sociopaths often pretend to help a classmate who’s had too much to drink, then take her back to her room and rape her, as described in studies by Antonia Abbey and David Lisak. They can slip below the radar because they are canny at choosing victims who aren’t able to clearly remember the crime. I’m glad everyone is finally talking about how dangerous campus parties can be for women and about the need to do something about it. I applaud the movement to teach young people to look out for each other. I just wish it were more socially acceptable to tell them that they must also look out for themselves.


Well, at least that article was short.

Alright, here’s a flaw in the article that Yoffe has decided to hijack for her ongoing campaign of drunk-shaming: bystander initiatives are not comparable to the designated driver culture. A designated driver is a buddy to the person who might otherwise get behind the wheel after drinking. The potential drunk driver has some agency in the matter, and the designated driver provides an alternative to making a bad decision. The bystander in a wild college campus party is not a friend to the rapist—this person gets in the way of the rapist—but their actions on behalf of the potential victim are not comparable to a designated driver. You see, the young person who is targeted for rape after imbibing too much alcohol is in no way comparable to a drunk driver. She (we seem to be focused on women as rape victims) does not have agency in what is done to her when she is drunk. She is not the one who is doing something that might hurt someone else due to her intoxication. THE VICTIM IS NOT THE ONE GETTING BEHIND THE WHEEL. The equivalent vehicular scenario would be if you’re sitting quietly in the passenger seat of your car, sleeping off your latest drinking binge, and some asshole decides to carjack you because you’re too vulnerable to put up a fight. The intervening bystander would be the random pedestrian at the scene who distracts the carjacker and gives you time to exit the car and walk away. THERE IS NO DESIGNATED DRIVER involved in preventing rape. You don’t get free Cokes for getting between potential rapists and their targets, although you certainly deserve cookies! It’s a poor analogy.

(I have actually seen people compare rape victims, in so many words, to drunk drivers. It has happened in real online spaces, so even though Yoffe doesn’t quite come out and make the comparison, I know it’s not outside the realm of possibility. Given her track record, I strongly suspect that’s the analogy she has in mind.)

Here’s a way to write about rape prevention that encourages self-protection without victim-blaming: tell them about resources that are available to help them. For example, at my school there was (and I’m sure there still is) a service called Safe Ride, in which any student could call the phone number, at any time of night, and a university employee would drive out to wherever they were and give them a free, sober ride, no questions asked, back to campus. That is the sort of thing that may actually be helping some young women protect themselves from opportunistic rapists. But, see, that’s something that works to the benefit of students who need safe passage back to their dorm rooms regardless of intoxication status, NOT something that penalizes them for having drunk too much, so Yoffe has nothing to say about it.

I’m not opposed to the idea of women looking out for themselves. I do my best to look out for myself at all times. Looking out for ourselves is a much more complex, and controversial, matter than simply refusing to drink, however. It means the willingness to say NO when all your friends are twisting your arm to say yes. It means giving the cold shoulder to guys who seem like bad news for reasons you can’t quite articulate, while all your peers are standing around you and demanding to know why you can’t just give the guy a chance? It means, in short, the willingness to be called a bitch. It means using social skills that most girls are specifically socialized not to have. There will always be rapists who deliberately target women who clearly haven’t learned those skills. When those women become rape victims, the last thing they need is a lecture on the dangers of binge drinking in the presence of men. They need sympathy, support and compassion. They need to know that they’re okay, and what those assholes did to them is not acceptable under any circumstances. Anything along the lines of, “I’m not victim-blaming, BUT…” will only tell them it’s not safe to share their experiences with friends or family, much less report their rapes to the authorities. They don’t need to be told they shouldn’t have drunk so much. It’s not new and interesting information, and it only reinforces their shame at having been violated.

Shame is a major part of the confluence of factors that lead to under-reporting rape, which allows rapists to keep doing what they’re doing.

Educating young people in ways that actually combat rape culture means doing more than just telling them they shouldn’t get so wasted. It means challenging and deconstructing comfortably entrenched ideas about gender and sexuality, and that includes the assumption that rapists gonna rape no matter what. It means encouraging positive interventive behavior on the part of peers who don’t expect to gain any benefit from their actions except the knowledge that they’ve done the right thing. We have people like Winerip, Abbey and Lisak offering constructive advice about what we’re up against, and how to deal with it. Then we have people like Emily Yoffe, who are fixated on the enraging phenomenon of young women getting wasted and not feeling guilty about it. She expects us to tell her she’s giving us something brave and valuable by scolding college women about their drinking to excess. Her position is neither brave nor valuable. It is ineffective, damaging and depressingly common.  If she’s sad that it’s not more socially acceptable to focus on women’s drinking as a locus of sexual violence, perhaps that’s because people who genuinely care about combating that type of violence have moved on to more useful ideas. If it’s increasingly unpopular to talk about how college women (and all people who are at risk of rape) should stop binge drinking, then maybe you should either start learning about bigger, structural issues, or just admit that you don’t really give a fuck about rape victims, you just can’t stand the sight of women getting drunk. Based on her history as documented in the links above, I get the impression that Emily Yoffe’s angle is the latter; she doesn’t like it when women get hammered, and she uses rape as a way to pressure them into restraint.

There are other, more health-based arguments against excessive drinking. That’s not what Yoffe is talking about, though. She’s advocating something that’s been hammered into all our skulls for generations, and hasn’t gotten us anywhere except to reinforce the culture of shame on rape victims. That’s reprehensible, and her POV is not the least bit deserving of sympathy. Perhaps because she runs an advice column, she thinks her advice is always useful no matter how badly uninformed she is on the topic. On the issue of rape prevention, she is dangerously uninformed, and if she wants to be a useful voice, then she has a lot to learn. If she’s going to learn, then she needs to shut up and listen to people who have been there and done that and know what they’re dealing with.

If she doesn’t want to be a useful voice, just another enforcer of tradition, then by all means, she should keep doing what she’s doing.