Dueling articles regarding binge drinking and rape appeared on Slate today, an original piece by Emily Yoffe and a reply by Amanda Hess. I’m entirely on Yoffe’s side, but let’s go through it anyway because it addresses some interesting issues I’ve been meaning to get to anyway after Serena Williams was criticized for her comments about the Steubenville rape case. Also, I’ll focus on man-on-woman assaults in this post, even though, once prison is taken into account, more men than women are raped in the US.
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 blaming the victim has made it somehow unacceptable to warn inexperienced young women that when they get wasted, they are putting themselves in potential peril.
And the key paragraph:
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 women know that when they render themselves defenseless, terrible things can be done to them. Young women are getting a distorted message that their right to match men drink for drink is a feminist issue. The real feminist message should be that when you lose the ability to be responsible for yourself, you drastically increase the chances that you will attract the kinds of people who, shall we say, don’t have your best interest at heart. That’s not blaming the victim; that’s trying to prevent more victims.
As I said, I echo Yoffe’s points. It has always bothered me that a victim of rape immediately becomes immune from criticism that could be used to educate other women. A victim of a rape, or any crime, can take many steps to make the crime more or less likely, and each unfortunate instance of the crime is another data point that can be used to tell us what victims might do to endanger themselves. As Yoffe’s article demonstrates, binge drinking is strongly associated with danger for young women, and with sexual assault in particular. The fact that this is so doesn’t change anything about the culpability of the perpetrator. In fact, a victim’s actions don’t bear on the perpetrator’s in most crimes: walking down a dark alley doesn’t make a mugging somehow okay, and no one would argue that it did. To go to the extreme, if a young woman decided to take a stroll in a maximum security prison yard that is unsupervised by guards, anything that happened to her would be the fault of those that attacked her.
Yet whenever someone (like Serena above) points out that a victim engaged in a behavior that put them at risk, they’re accused of “blaming the victim.” It’s a misguided attempt to protect the feeling of the particular victim while putting many more potential victims at risk. We have learned that certain behaviors (say, binge drinking) or places (south side of Chicago), or even companions, are more dangerous than others. Not pointing this out to protect the feelings of someone who engaged in that behavior or went to such a place simply prevents other women from learning how to take care of themselves. Obviously we should minimize the harm to rape victims, but if we’re trying to minimize the harm to rape victims, the best way to do it is to minimize the number of rapes. In this case, doing what’s best for victims overall may not be what’s best for a particular victim, but I think all reasonable people would agree that preventing rapes is more important.
Amanda Hess is not reasonable. Starting:
Telling women that they can evade rape by not drinking will only exacerbate that problem [of women feeling guilty and shameful] when it does happen, through no fault of their own. One victim of alcohol-assisted rape Yoffe spoke with said that she was overwhelmed with “shame and guilt” following the assault, and only began to come to terms with the crime when “I realized it wasn’t my fault.” That realization felt like climbing out of a “deep, dark hole.” Victims should never be put in that hole in the first place—no matter how many drinks they’ve consumed. [Emphasis added.]
Hess probably doesn’t mean that the only effect of pointing out when a victim engaged in dangerous behaviors is that they’ll feel worse about themselves, but her sentence constructions (and her article) make you think that that’s all that matters. She refuses to acknowledge that “telling women that they can evade rape by not drinking” will also lower the incidence of rape. If that effect is large, as it probably would be, given campus rape statistics, perhaps some hurt feelings in the short run are worth it.
Hess continues with an excellent Nirvana fallacy:
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.
Yes, rape is a societal problem, but it obviously ALSO a self-help issue. Parents teaching their daughters to avoid dangerous behaviors aren’t protecting other people’s daughters, but it should count for something that they’re protecting their own child. And yes, sexual predators who lose one source of “prey” will move on to something else, but surely it’s a good thing that the victim pool is smaller and their crimes are more difficult. This should
Colleges can start changing those structures by refusing to put the onus on victims to prevent their own assaults, and instead holding perpetrators accountable for the crimes they commit—often, while drunk.
The latter part is obviously true. Many have even argued that universities have gone too far in going after alleged rapists while they’re still merely alleged, but never mind that now. The former part is an excellent strawman that is easily knocked down: yes, universities bear some responsibility for protecting their students, but students bear some responsibility for their own safety. Reminding them that some of their own behaviors are dangerous isn’t putting the onus on them any more than pointing out that pizza is fattening for students fighting the freshman fifteen.
In a perfect world, yes, a woman should be able to get blackout drunk in a fraternity basement and go home unharmed. That doesn’t mean that women should act like they live in a perfect world. Hess seems to be under the impression that girls protecting themselves somehow undermines the quest for this perfect world. Yoffe and I disagree. That doesn’t mean we don’t want to live in such a world.