Talking to Your Children About Rape and Alcohol

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

In an effort to reduce “the high risk of the rapid consumption of hard alcohol,” Stanford University on Monday announced a ban on liquors 40 proof or higher from undergrad parties on campus, while also prohibiting undergrads from having hard-alcohol containers that are 750 milliliters or larger in student residences. One reader suspects that Stanford is just trying to cover its own tail:

This new policy will accomplish virtually nothing. It’s merely a liability reduction program for Stanford. Kids will continue to get shit-faced and young women will continue to be raped, but merely off campus, where Stanford has no jurisdiction, responsibility, or liability.

Another reader agrees, calling the policy “stupid and unenforceable”—and he speaks from experience:

My college banned hard liquor entirely on campus, and it never really stopped anyone. That was at a very small school (1,800-2,000 students) where the chance of enforcement was much higher. [Stanford has about 7,000 undergrads.] Sure, every now and then they’d confiscate some things after searching the dorms, but not enough to make any difference I ever noticed.

This next reader, on the other hand, applauds the move from Stanford:

On a dispassionate examination of the variety of factors related to sexual assaults on campus, the primacy of alcohol as a contributing factor cannot be overstated. If this policy is indeed a response to the sexual assault situation (and there are numerous other benefits to reducing the prevalence of consumption of hard liquor on campus), then it should be praised for being a bloody obvious thing to do.

Another reader broaches the context that many believe drove this decision:

I doubt whether this Stanford policy will be very effective at curbing binge drinking among students, but I suppose it probably won’t hurt too much to try. I am looking at it as a general attempt to reduce dangerous binge drinking, rather than as a direct, or particular, response to Brock Turner’s crime. Otherwise it does, indeed, begin to stink of an attempt to cast alcohol as a substance that inspires heinous criminal behavior in and of itself.

All that aside, I understand that “sexual assault” is sometimes a useful euphemism, especially in this age of safe spaces and trigger warnings, but I don’t think we should mince words in this case: Brock Turner raped an unconscious woman. He raped her. It was rape. I believe it’s wrong to neuter the language we use to talk about horrible things like this. It’s important to use plain, unpalatable, uncomfortable terms when discussing the bad things people do, or we risk finding ourselves in a quagmire of waffling equivocations down the line.

Brock Turner, as you probably recall, is the Stanford swimmer who was convicted in June of sexual assault (and using that term isn’t equivocating here; he was specifically convicted of “assault with intent to rape an intoxicated woman, sexually penetrating an intoxicated person with a foreign object, and sexually penetrating an unconscious person with a foreign object,” since prosecutors had dropped the “rape” charges months earlier.) Those foul crimes resulted in just a six-month jail term that effectively ends on September 2—his expected release date—despite a powerful letter read by the rape victim during his sentencing hearing. Turner’s light sentencing set off a firestorm of controversy, including a campaign to recall the judge in the case.

Instead of debating the case, we convened a reader discussion about how parents can talk to their children—from a very young age to their teen years—about rape and sexual assault. To continue that thread, here’s Renie, a long-time reader and mother of two daughters:

I think that most of your readers’ comments about teaching children about their bodies and their right to keep their bodies safe from unwanted behaviors from others are fine for younger children. I think that most of us have been doing a good job with younger children.

But when it comes to teens and young adults, I think we are still tiptoeing around the elephant in the room: booze.

I’m about as politically correct a person as you can imagine, but I refuse to pretend that there is nothing a woman can do to make rape less likely. Staying in control of one’s faculties may not prevent all attacks, but it will make them less likely to happen. Rapists choose their victims for their vulnerability, and a woman fully aware of her own surroundings is safer than one who is drunk—not absolutely safe, but certainly safer.

I’ve lived near a major college for a very long time, and there is no question that alcohol abuse is involved in almost every case of campus rape, whether it’s stranger rape or acquaintance rape. [CB note: “almost every case” is very unlikely; “At least 50% of college student sexual assaults are associated with alcohol use,” according to Campus Safety magazine, which provides more data here.] Alcohol also been involved in a number of cases of murder here. Most recently one drunken student stabbed another drunken student to death because of something nasty one said to the other as they left a bar.  

That does not mean that I believe that women who are drunk “asked for it” or that drunken rapists are not responsible for their behavior or that the guy who was murdered “asked for it” because he was drunk and said something he shouldn’t have. I am repulsed by the judge in California who apparently believed that the Stanford swimmer was not responsible for committing rape because he was drunk and that an unconscious woman gave consent.

A lot of children begin to drink dangerously long before they go off to college. More begin to do it when they leave home for college or once they are out of high school and working. Too often, I’ve heard other parents talk about their children’s drunken behavior with a rueful sense of inevitability. Don’t laugh about it, and even more importantly, look at your own behavior and the behavior of adults close to you. Children learn from the behavior that is modeled in front of them. Be sure you are a good role model and don’t excuse the behavior of your family and friends. Be honest with your children. Every single adult alcoholic or drug abuser was once a child who learned from the behavior of others. It’s not enough to just say no; you need to make sure you are modeling healthy behavior yourself.

Finally, I’d add to my own children if they were going off to college now: Stay away from large, drunken parties and fraternity houses that are often the site of those parties. Believe it or not, you do not have to participate in the drunken behavior and most students don’t. Even at a large party school, there are many students who don’t spend their time drunk and stoned. Choose friends who don’t drink to get falling-down drunk every weekend. And if you are the person getting drunk all the time, admit that you have a problem that needs to be addressed and either change the behavior. If you can't change the behavior on your own, get help. It is not normal behavior to spend every weekend drunk or stoned.

Renie followed up:

I realize I was writing as a mother of two daughters and left out much of what we must say to our sons. First of all, fathers as well as mothers need to talk to their children about difficult topics. Just as women can talk about a woman’s perspective with more knowledge about women, so can fathers talk better about men and sex.

And both need to talk very frankly with their children that consent is required at any point in a sexual encounter. No consent means: time to stop. It doesn’t matter at what point. And consent requires that a partner be able to consent. If a woman passes out during a sexual encounter, that means stop now. The judge in the Stanford case clearly had not learned that lesson. (Along with that discussion, it’s important to also discuss the role of pornography in normalizing rape.)

And, finally, for both young men and young women, we need to let them know about the joy of sex in a loving relationship. I’m not saying “no sex before marriage”; what I am saying is that sex between two people who know each other and care for each other and want to please each other and be pleased is so much better than drunken encounters, even if rape is not involved.

Another reader also warns against drunken encounters:

I don’t have kids, but my alma mater is being audited by the Department of Education for its handling of allegations of sexual assault on campus, so I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately. There’s no question that alcohol needs to be addressed in the conversation—not in terms of promiscuity or “hook up culture,” but in terms of rape. Most of the reader comments I’ve read so far focus on building empathy and respect (all well and good), but at some point you have to say, “If you have sex with someone who is intoxicated, you’re committing rape and you should know that you can be prosecuted for that.”

Part of what makes Turners case exceptional is that its so clear cut, but there are many other cases where there arent witnesses or the woman isnt unconscious. I cant tell you how often I heard in college some variation of I hooked up with so-and-so last night when we were so drunk.” I really wish that during college orientation someone had laid out exactly what constituted consent and rape—namely, that someone who is intoxicated cant consent to sex, and that if you cant tell if someone is too intoxicated to consent, you shouldnt have sex with them.

***

A reader recalls a horrible experience:

Almost 15 years ago, when I was a freshman in college, I was raped by a classmate. But unlike the woman in the Stanford case, I didn’t report it.

I had been drinking at a campus-wide party that night and a small group eventually moved to the dorm room of someone everyone knew, someone I trusted. I remember him plying me with shots of expensive vodka: “See, you can’t even taste it!”

And then, suddenly, everyone was gone, and only the two of us remained. He asked if I wanted to watch a movie and I said “sure.” I must have passed out soon after; I couldn’t tell you which movie he selected.

When I regained consciousness, he was having sex with me, without a condom, muttering to himself about how much he liked it. When he went to roll over, I grabbed my things and ran. I crawled into the window of my own dorm room and then collapsed on the floor, sobbing uncontrollably. My roommate woke up and, not knowing what to do, called another friend. Together they sat with me and comforted me until I was ready to talk.

And eventually I did talk, but only to them. At that time, my understanding was that rape involved force and not just lack of consent. He didn’t hold me down when I tried to run away, I told myself. And maybe I had given him some idea that I was interested. I did stay behind, I agreed to watch a movie. Was this really rape?

If I ever had a case that it was rape, I blew it with my next move: I went on a date with him. He asked me to dinner and I agreed, but the date ended without even a kiss goodnight. My repulsion of him did not ebb over that plate of pasta.

In the years since, I have puzzled over this. Why would I agree to go on a date with this man? What on earth was I thinking?

The best answer I can give is that I didn’t want to be a rape victim. At that time, I had only had sex with one other person. I didn’t want my second sexual encounter to be a rape. I wanted to believe that he cared about me. I wanted it to all be a big misunderstanding.

But it wasn’t a misunderstanding. I learned later that there were other girls—girls that came before me and girls that came after. Yet no one ever said a thing. Our perpetrator kept perpetrating and we kept blaming ourselves.

I am so proud of the brave young woman at the center of the Stanford case, for speaking up and telling her story, for doing what my classmates and I did not have the courage to do 15 years ago.