In the past two weeks, Slate’s advice columnist Emily Yoffe incurred the wrath of many feminists in the Twitterverse and blogosphere over her latest article titled: College Women: Stop Getting Drunk. The tagline is “It’s closely associated with sexual assault. And yet we’re reluctant to tell women to stop doing it.” I admit that reading the title and tagline alone invoked a visceral reaction in me to automatically dismiss her as a victim-blamer. But I proceeded to read her article nonetheless, and although I thought it was rife with problems, I do not think she was intentionally trying to blame the victim. Before I delve into my reasons, I do think it is important to highlight two major problems I found with her article.
The obvious problem is that the imbalance she creates by primarily focusing on advising college women to change their drinking behaviours in order to lower their chances of being raped is dangerous because it serves to bolster the notion that women have control over sexual violence that is inflicted upon them. Although she does qualify her statements in the beginning of her article by putting the blame directly on rapists who are ” the ones responsible for committing their crimes”, she places the burden of regulating the social behaviours of college men (who may have the potential to rape when drunk) squarely on the shoulders of women. By advising “female college students [to] start moderating their drinking as a way of looking out for their own self-interest” with the hope that “their restraint trickles down to the men” is another way of saying that it is college women’s responsibility to regulate not only their own behaviour, but the behaviour of the men around them as well. In other words, if college women stop binge-drinking, they will be able to fend off a drunken frat boy and in turn, this will stop the drunken frat boy from raping someone. Voila, a crime has been prevented. Somehow this notion seems too naïve, and it places too high of a burden on women for a crime that is mostly perpetrated against them.
The other danger of presenting such a one-sided argument on the risks of binge-drinking is that it indirectly includes a woman’s drinking behaviour into the question of causation. In her response to her critics, Yoffe writes that “it is a natural, human response after a terrible event to wonder if it could have been avoided” which is why she is arming “women with information [i.e. stop binge-drinking] about how to avoid being victims in the first place.” However, if we are only “arming” women with information on the ill effects of binge-drinking, we are risking that this will in turn become a societal standard in which women must be in control of their alcohol in-take as a method of lowering the risk of being raped. If this becomes a societal norm (some would argue it already is because Yoffe’s argument is an age-old idea that has been unfortunately widely accepted in society), then it will be “natural” to ask whether or not a woman was drunk when she was raped. Once we deem this a “natural” inquiry and part of our human intuition to question when wondering if the terrible event could have been prevented, we begin to qualify how morally wrong the rape actually is. No doubt a sober woman raped by her drunken friend will elicit more sympathy than a drunken woman raped by her drunken friend. This is treacherous territory as it will only lead to indirectly blaming the victim when we consider her actions as part of the causation question. Remember, there is no such thing as a first degree or second degree rape. Rape is rape, and we need to understand that regardless of what state the woman is in when the crime was committed, questioning her level of intoxication will only lead us to start adopting Whoopi Goldberg’s infamous and ill-conceived idea that some rapes aren’t actually “rape-rape”.
Despite these major issues, I do not think Yoffe was intentionally trying to be a victim-blamer because I sense that part of her motivation for the article is attributed to the fact that her daughter will be starting college soon. When a child is leaving the nest, most mothers hope they have prepared them well for a dangerous world. Considering Yoffe paints the college social scene as rampant with alcohol abuse, drunken college boys, and “predator[s] who lurk where women drink like a lion at a watering hole”, it is not surprising that she is trying to prepare her daughter as best as she can by telling her “that it’s her responsibility to take steps to protect herself” and this includes limiting her drinks to two in which she should sip them slowly. And of course, “no shots!” She then ends her article using herself as an example of how to have “fun without being drunk”. I think many of us have heard similar messages before from our own parents and after-school specials. Although well-intentioned, telling her daughter and other college women to control their alcohol intake at college as their responsibility to “protect” themselves does not actually help advance long-term solutions to a systemic problem that goes beyond just the actions of the potential victim and eventual rapist. Preventing rapes that occur out of college binge-drinking parties requires that college men are held accountable for their actions, no matter how drunk they are, by the rest of the party-goers.
The dialogue on rape prevention should go further than just focusing on the actions of the rapist and victim. Although it is extremely important to have education programs that inform boys and young men about rape prevention, consent, and respecting when a woman says “no”, there is not enough focus on the duty of the rest of the members of society. Perhaps one of the reasons why promoting the idea that it is every person’s responsibility to prevent rape is difficult is because we often view rape as an individualistic crime in which only two people are involved. Most of us also do not identify with the crime because we do not see ourselves a potential victim or rapist. Every time we hear stories of rape in the media, we tend to think “that could never happen to me” or “I would never do that to anyone”. In other words, we do not view ourselves as responsible for prevention because we do not think it is a crime that will affect us. This is extremely problematic because rape is tied to the arcane idea that men are entitled to women’s bodies, and it is directly related to power and control. Even though we may accept that most men who grew up in the past few decades have been taught that this arcane notion is completely false, the only way to reinforce that it is indeed a falsity is through societal intervention.
Yoffe cites a study that found “men tend to use the drinking to justify their behaviour”. But as a society, we need to remind these men that even if that is the tendency, it is not justifiable and on the contrary, is completely unacceptable. Alcohol is often coined “liquid courage” as people are aware that alcohol can help one shed his inhibitions. I have attended many parties where a guy would purposely get drunk so he can get the “courage” to approach a girl he has been interested in for a while. Sadly, this approach tends to involve taking liberties as he inappropriately touches the girl without explicit consent. Then, when he is rejected because of his horrid behaviour, he immediately says, “I’m sorry; it’s just that I’m really drunk.” And for some reason, people accept that as excusable behaviour because we rationalize that his intoxication means there is a lack of intent. Thus, he is less blameworthy for his actions. That societal attitude must change because it should not matter if there is an intention from the perpetrator – what matters is that the woman has had her bodily integrity violated, she feels threatened, and there is potential for danger. And the response to this type of situation should not be that it is her sole responsibility to fight him off, but it is for the rest of the party-goers to step in and tell him that his actions are inexcusable regardless of how drunk he is. We need to reinforce the message that just because you are intoxicated does not mean that your behaviour is acceptable or understandable. Social norms should not be thrown out the window just because one is too drunk to keep his hands to himself.
Intervention can be quite organic and I would argue that many of us already do this to a certain extent in any social setting that includes our friends. Let me illustrate. A few years ago, I attended a party at a friend’s house where everyone was drinking. A drunk guy friend of mine was being very flirtatious with one of my girl friends, who was also quite intoxicated. I was across the room but I noticed their interaction, and kept an eye on them while I was socializing with some people. At a certain point, I noticed that he had grabbed her, put her on his lap, and had his arms around her waist. She had a look of discomfort and said, “I don’t think this is right.” However, she was a bit too intoxicated to physically get out of his grasp, and he kept asking for a kiss on the cheek, which she repeatedly declined to give him. Before I even got out of my seat, my boyfriend walked over (he is a good friend of both individuals), and asked our girl friend if she wanted to join us on the other side of the room. She confirmed that she did, but our guy friend hung onto her and tried to convince her to stay. Immediately, my boyfriend said, “she said she didn’t want to”, and he helped her up and led her to where I was sitting. I stuck with her for the rest of the night, and our guy friend eventually found his way back to us. However, his demeanour changed and he was definitely not as bold. He kept his physical distance even though he still tried to charm her with some witless pick-up lines. At the end of the night, my girl friend and I took a cab home together. So, if we think of bystander intervention as a duty, which is inherently part of our definition of friendship, then it will be easier to extend the same courtesy to strangers in the same social setting.
I want to emphasize that I think rape prevention education programs are extremely important. However, the messages that are provided to young men must become learned behaviour, which can only occur if other people hold them accountable for their actions when their behaviours run contrary to what they have learned is the social norm. By standing by and electing to do nothing, people are essentially contributing to the unravelling of the message that the violation of a woman’s bodily integrity is wrong. When we choose to speak up in defence of the woman who is being threatened and thereby calling out the man (intoxicated or not) for his reprehensible action, we will be aiding in changing societal attitudes towards these types of crimes. Changing such attitudes requires the aid of all members of society and not just the perpetrator and the victim.
At the end of the day, I do not think Yoffe was intentionally trying to blame the victim. I simply find it disappointing that the strongest rape prevention method she could present is one that merely bolsters the idea that women are somehow in control of these violent crimes that are perpetrated against them. She acknowledges that binge-drinking is a problem amongst college students, and I do not deny that it is. But for attitudes such as Yoffe’s to change, rape prevention strategies must be directed at the drunken men who are perpetrating such crimes. It is not up to women to control men’s drunken behaviour by controlling their own alcohol intake. Men must take responsibility for the effect drinking may have on their judgement and actions, and the rest of us must hold them accountable for their deplorable actions regardless if they are drunk or not.