Alcohol Education Is Not Rape Apology

It’s not victim-blaming to educate women—and men—on alcohol’s connection to sexual assault.
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(Elaine Thompson/AP)

Yesterday, Slate writer Emily Yoffe published a story on the importance of teaching college women that binge drinking raises their risk of being raped. It was a story your mom probably would have approved of—prescriptive, groaningly fuddy-duddyish (“it’s possible to have fun without being drunk”), with the cadences of a health education video.

But the basic point seemed to me indisputably sensible: College-aged women should be taught that moderating their alcohol use is an important tool in staying safe from sexual assault. In this age of beer pong and Jäger bombs, when 64 percent of college women drink more than the recommended weekly amount, this seems well worth repeating.

The Internet, apparently, did not agree. Within hours of publication, the story was generating furious responses.

The popular blog Feministing called the piece a “rape denialism manifesto,” and accused Yoffe of “blaming women for their own rapes.”

Salon called the piece “rape apologia,” and said Yoffe was helping promote “rape culture.”

Writer Jessica Valenti tweeted, “I hope Emily Yoffe can sleep well tonight knowing she made the world a little bit safer for rapists.”

These responses are distressing. The link between drinking and the risk of sexual assault is indisputable. And teaching women this fact should be seen as empowering, not victim-blaming.

As Yoffe wrote, sexual assault is horrifyingly common on college campuses. A full 20 percent of college women will be sexually assaulted before graduation (men are not immune either; 1 in 10 rape victims are male). Eighty percent of the time, alcohol will be involved.

“Most sexual assaults occurred after women voluntarily consumed alcohol,” reported a study in the American Journal of College Health.

Another study published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs showed that colleges with the most drinking had the highest rates of sexual assault.

“The high proportion of rapes found to occur when women were intoxicated indicates the need for alcohol prevention programs on campuses that address sexual assault, both to educate men about what constitutes rape and to advise women of risky situations,” it concluded.

Regrettably, Yoffe did not write about the first part of this prescription: educating men about alcohol and rape. Men need this education just as much as women. Drunk young men are also at higher risk of violence, sexual and otherwise. Men also need to understand that having sex with an incapacitated woman is rape, pure and simple.

Some colleges are beginning to address this in increasingly creative ways. The University of California, Los Angeles’ 7000 in Solidarity Campaign asks students to sign a pledge promising to practice consent and to intervene when witnessing non-consensual sexual activity. The University of Oregon’s anti-sexual assault initiative prints drink coasters with information about the definition of sexual consent, which it distributes to popular local student bars.

These are small but positive signs. But colleges—and society at large—must do much more to fight rape culture, through education, cultural change, and criminal action. This is a topic that deserves many, many articles.

The fact that Yoffe didn't discuss men in her story is troubling. It frames rape as a women’s issue rather than an everybody issue, which I assume was not her intent.

But this doesn't make her points about women and drinking any less true. Educating women on the factors that make them vulnerable to assault is not victim-blaming. It is simply practical advice backed up by data. We tell travelers to be aware of their surroundings in unfamiliar cities to reduce the risk of mugging. We teach new drivers defensive strategies to avoid being hit by drunks and speeders. This should not be any different.

Some critics said Yoffe was merely rehashing tired, hysterical old warnings about alcohol and rape, which “all” women have already heard.

Yet many available sources of information on sexual assault prevention skirt the issue of drunkenness without directly addressing it. They urge alertness and awareness: Trust your gut, walk purposefully, keep your keys handy, scan your surroundings when alone at night, note the locations of emergency phones. But these are all things that drunkenness make impossible. Why not address that directly?

Reducing sexual assault risk for women doesn't have to mean denying them their right to a wild Friday night, either. Though Yoffe, a mother of a soon-to-be college-bound teen girl, mom-ishly suggests that women stick to two drinks, there are other ways of reducing risk besides near-sobriety. We could teach young people to go out clubbing with a sober buddy, to never leave a drunk friend alone at a party, to always arrange safe transport home after they've been drinking.

Rapists are criminals who are solely responsible for their crimes. But until rape is eradicated from the face of the earth, women must be empowered to do what they can to protect themselves. 

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Emily Matchar is the author of the forthcoming book Homeward Bound: The New Cult of Domesticity.

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