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College Women + Drinking = Rape?

When I saw the original headline late last night, I predicted waking up to an internet storm this morning.

Slate published an article by Emily Yoffe entitled College Women: Stop Getting Drunk. It references several studies that link sexual assault on college campuses with alcohol consumption. Well, duh. While it's good to have such studies with hard numbers, the real problem is what to do about it. College students are, by and large, adults who are on their own for the first time. And some are more naive than others. An excerpt:

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.

Although the facts are not in dispute, the tone of the article verges on blaming the victim. If the fastest way to stop campus rape is for women to stop drinking, then doesn't that put the responsibility for crime prevention solely on women's shoulders? So a young woman has one too many and wakes up to realize she's been sexually assaulted. Is it all her fault? That's not the message we want to send to young people.

Slate also posted a response from Amanda Hess, To Prevent Rape on College Campuses, Focus on the Rapists, Not the Victims, which articulated what many of the 3,000+ Slate commenters said.

Rape is a societal problem, not a self-help issue. Parents can tell their own daughters not to get drunk, but even if those women follow instructions, it won’t keep other people’s daughters safe. It will just force campus rapists who rely on alcohol to execute their crimes to find other targets. As Yoffe notes, the research of David Lisak suggests that most rapes are committed by a small group of predators who claim a large number of victims. We can prevent the most rapes on campus by putting our efforts toward finding and punishing those perpetrators, not by warning their huge number of potential victims to skip out on parties.

Similar responses came from HuffPo, The Atlantic, The Frisky, Jezebel, and other sites.

The controversy pits what is best for one person against what is best for society as a whole. Our culture would be better off placing the blame squarely on those who commit rape, but we have little control over other people before they act. Until men are specifically trained in how to properly seek consensual sex, starting at a fairly young age, we will have to deal with the "misunderstandings" and peer pressure that lead to rape, in addition to serial predators. Of course, we warn our daughters against putting themselves in situations where they may be raped. But if and when they do, they often feel responsible and might never seek justice. After all, they know they will be blamed for putting themselves in that situation, meaning they failed to protect themselves the way we told them to. Young men internalize this idea, too.

Treating our daughters as potential victims is only a short-term solution. Making nonconsensual sex as recognizable and shameful as say, burglary, and raising our sons as if they are going to date our daughters is the longterm solution. So I will continue to shares stories of cases like those in Steubenville, Ohio, and Maryville, Kansas, with my teenage daughters both as a warning and as a talking point about my anxieties regarding the difference between the way things are and the way they should be.   


I'm at a loss to understand why Yoffe's article is so offensive. She repeatedly and bluntly states that rapists are to blame for rape. She is not blaming the victim. She's advising potential victims to reduce their vulnerability to attack.

I have a right to walk alone, unarmed through a crime-ridden neighborhood in the middle of the night without being robbed. But that doesn't mean that it's a good idea.

A woman has a right to get very drunk the presence of possibly predatory men without being raped. But that doesn't mean it's a good idea.

It would be nice to create a culture where rape is regarded as the truly despicable act that it is. But an individual is not capable of enacting such change. An individual can, however, reduce his/her likelihood of being attacked. It's a matter of locus of control: focus on the things that you can change rather than what you cannot change.

Ms. Hess is correct that rape is a societal problem. But you, the individual, can't change society. You can, however, take steps to reduce the likelihood that you will be attacked by one of these monsters at loose in the world.
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It's not just a matter of raising our daughters on what to do/not do to become a rape victim, we need to teach our sons and daughters what is and is not consensual sex. "No means No" is a fine adage to start with, but how about "only Yes means Yes". If you don't get that consent, or, universe forbid, you don't have a conversation with a new partner, especially when both parties are young adults, about what is and is not about to happen with your partner prior to sex, then you don't go through with it. If they are too drunk to say no, then that is not tantamount to saying yes.
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