How To Fix The ‘College Women Need To Stop Drinking’ Narrative

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College men: Stop getting drunk. It’s closely associated with sexual assault. And yet we’re reluctant to tell men to stop doing it.

Slate’s Emily Yoffe lit up a firestorm in social media with an article earlier this morning with the headline and subtitle, “College Women: Stop Getting Drunk. It’s closely associated with sexual assault. And yet we’re reluctant to tell women to stop doing it.” As a writer, I know that article titles are not written by authors and can actually even undermine the point of a piece. But, that’s not what happened here. Yoffe carefully provides gender-neutral statistics regarding sexual assault and binge drinking on campus.

Her conclusions? “A common denominator in these cases is alcohol, often copious amounts, enough to render the young woman incapacitated.”

How about: “A common denominator in these cases is a lack of education, often a copious lack, about consent and what constitutes rape.”

She went on to write: “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.”

A better way to write it would be: “A misplaced fear of women’s unconstrained sexuality and a reluctance to address sexual double standards has made it somehow unacceptable to warn young men and women about the realities of sexual assault and predatory rape.”

Yoffe goes on to quote Christopher Krebs, the author of several studies of campus sexual assault: “I’m not saying a woman is responsible for being sexually victimized. But when your judgment is compromised, your risk is elevated of having sexual violence perpetrated against you.”

Adds Yoffe, “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.”

Here’s what I say: “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 drunk or engage in sexual activity with someone who is drunk and incapable of consent, they are at higher risk for being rapists and face terrible consequences.”

Yoffe concludes: “If I had a son, I would tell him that it’s in his self-interest not to be the drunken frat boy who finds himself accused of raping a drunken classmate.”

Really? “Finds himself” like he’s wandering blindly through the woods?

Parents and educators have roughly 18 years in which to educate their children prior to college. They are failing. And they are failing because we live in a society in which pleasure, especially for women, is illicit and sex is still steeped in shame and silence. Binge drinking and sexual assault, especially one in which victim blaming plays a significant role, share a common root: puritanism. The same culture that teaches that sex is shameful, dangerous and illicit is the one that significantly increases the likelihood of alcohol abuse. American children going into college explode in anti-repressive frenzy of “freedom” borne of a laughable but dangerous denial of healthy teenage development.

Colleges have, until recently being forced to confront the issue, had incredibly high tolerance for sexual assault. They routinely fail to hold rapists accountable, pass out ridiculous penalties for admitted rapists, lie about rates of assault on campus and more. Yoffe gives a cursory nod to “Title IX pressures” (interesting choice of words), but she fails to see how the “coercion, enforcement, and social engineering” required to end a culture of alcohol abuse are equally relevant to ending institutional tolerance for sexual abuse.

Yoffe concludes, so very oddly, that this is feminism’s fault. “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.”

The only “real feminist message” about this subject is that non-consensual sex is rape, that drunk people cannot consent to rape and that rapists, not their victims, should be held accountable.

The solution to keeping girls safe, which is Yoffe’s intent in this article, is to educate boys and girls as early as possible about consent, bodily integrity, respect, open communication and safety. Long before they are thrown into an alcohol-fog. Like in elementary school.
It really isn’t funny how articles re college, sexual assault & alcohol rarely focus on boys not drinking to avoid higher risk of being jailed for risky behavior, like rape and sexual assault.

We should be dismantling double standards and victim-blaming rape mythologies, not contributing to them. Yoffe wants to keep her daughter safe, which is understandable, we all do, but this was counter productive. There was a time when it was culturally acceptable for drunk people to express themselves in racist and homophobic ways. Over time, that has changed so that this is not acceptable and shame accrues to the racist or homophobe, not to the person assaulted. Some people have a hard time putting sexual assault in the same category and envisioning rape as rare instead of the commonplace crime that it is. If people are concerned about nuances and confusion then they should eliminate ambiguity by educating children. Not telling women not to get drunk is just click-bait, victim-shaming 101.

Soraya Chemaly is a media critic and feminist writer whose work appears in Salon, the Guardian, the Huffington Post, RHReality Check, Role Root and other media. She blogs at NewNorms. You can find her on Tumblr, where an earlier version of this column was published, and on Twitter at @schemaly.

“Stock Photo: Young Man Drinking Beer Alone” on Shutterstock

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