I wrote a story whose message is obvious: The campus culture of binge drinking is toxic, and many rapists prey on drunk young women. I said that when women lose the capacity to be responsible for their actions, sexual predators target them for attack. As banal as these observations are, I knew this story would result in a torrent of outrage. Torrent it has been, so I wanted to characterize the responses and reply to some of my many critics. But it’s hard for me to know what to say when my story deploring the all-too-common sexual assault of women gets described in Feministing as “a rape denialism manifesto.” It’s also discouraging to see willful distortion of what I wrote, of which there was much. I never said in my piece that women shouldn’t drink, only that they shouldn’t get drunk to the point of incapacitation. So it’s baffling that that the Daily Mail would claim I said, “Don’t drink if you don’t want to get raped.”
The overwhelming majority of critics accused me of blaming the victim and promoting “rape culture.” They were outraged that my message about drinking was primarily aimed at women. I said in my piece, “The culture of binge drinking—whose pinnacle is the college campus—does not just harm women” and cited the injury both young men and women suffer. But I focused on a danger that overwhelmingly affects women: rape. Because of the strong evidence that intoxication and sexual assault are linked and that a kind of predator seeks out intoxicated women, I concentrated on informing young women that avoiding incapacitation could help them stay safe. But there was extreme offense taken to the idea that women should change their behavior in any way to protect themselves. One college professor summed it up when she wrote to me, “to reiterate the old Puritan line that women need to restrain and modify their pleasure-seeking behaviors is a big step backward.” Apparently I was mistaken that it is common sense to acknowledge that part of growing up for all is recognizing dangers and learning to restrain one’s pleasure-seeking behaviors in order to better avoid them.
Many others said I should have written a piece not focusing on women, but on men, who, after all, are the rapists. I did note in the story the importance of rape education—especially teaching young men and women what consent means and that a highly intoxicated woman can’t give it. But I agree with critics that the education of men is an important issue and I should have hit it harder. However, the argument went beyond that to declare that when it comes to sexual assault, women’s behavior is a verboten topic and the only thing to discuss is men. Many said college women don’t need to change their drinking habits—what has to change is a male culture of sexual entitlement. No doubt that culture should change, but at best it will do so slowly and incompletely. In the meantime, this weekend, some young, intoxicated women will wake up next to guys they never wanted to sleep with. I believe it’s worth talking about how keeping within a safe drinking limit can potentially help young women avoid such situations.
Critics, by the dozen, asserted my story should have consisted of the one simple, utopian message. Here’s a typical email: “Men should NOT RAPE. Period. End of story.” My Slate colleague, Amanda Hess, in her rebuttal to my piece, had a more sophisticated take. She wrote, “We can prevent the most rapes on campus by putting our efforts toward finding and punishing those perpetrators, not by warning their huge numbers of potential victims to skip out on parties.” I certainly think resources should be put toward finding and punishing rapists, but prosecutors, whose job it is to convict people of crimes, have a difficult time bringing cases of alcohol-facilitated sexual assault. Many college-student victims bring their complaint not to the police, but to campus authorities. It’s highly unlikely college administrators will do better than the criminal justice system at adjudicating these cases. So I remain puzzled why people would attack me for looking for ways to reduce the number of victims. And since I encouraged responsible drinking in my piece, it is simply a mischaracterization for Hess to say I said suggested women “skip out on parties.”
Hess writes that I harm college women by telling them that not getting drunk will decrease their chances of getting raped. She explains that this is because women who are raped suffer psychologically, often blaming themselves. That’s painfully true, and I want the blame squarely on the rapist. But it is a natural, human response after a terrible event to wonder if it could have been avoided. It seems counterproductive to say that in order to try to make victims less burdened by these feelings, we shouldn’t arm women with information about how to avoid being victims in the first place. I made a statement about wanting to warn women that there are rapists who use alcohol, not violence, to commit their crimes. In response, Hess says I’m trying to spread the idea that rape is not a violent crime if alcohol is involved. Let me clarify. I was describing a type of predator—not well enough known by the public and especially by young women—who does not brandish a weapon or twist arms to subdue his victim. She is already subdued by intoxication, and he often is able to simply lead her home where he then commits his assault.
I quoted University of Virginia Law professor Anne Coughlin in the piece about the need to tell young women they should protect themselves. After the article came out, a young woman wrote to Coughlin expressing concerns about this message. Coughlin replied to her in part:
Heavy consumption of alcohol and rape go hand-in-hand. The correlation is staggering, much too significant to ignore. And the women who are raped are hurt—very, very badly—so I have come to believe that I must give that practical advice, when people ask me the question … Over the years, I have had students tell me that feminists were doing them a disservice by not raising these questions. One student told me that she had been taught that we were living in a brave, new world for women, that women could drink as much as they wanted and that the women would be safe, that the law would somehow keep them safe. She and her friends learned, through hard experience, that the law—and new feminist views—could do no such thing, and she wished that she had received a more subtle, nuanced message about how to proceed in a changing culture.
Since the initial backlash against me, there’s been a growing backlash to the backlash. I am starting to hear from people who agree with me. One mother wrote, “My gut was to scream ‘victim blamer,’ then I read the article. I’m putting it aside for my girls when they get older.” Another woman thanked me and said she has to keep quiet about her reaction. She is a rape crisis advocate who’s worked with many intoxicated victims. She wants to warn young women about the perils of getting drunk but doesn’t know how to tell students “such risky behaviors can get them into trouble.” She says, “It shouldn’t be a controversial message, and the fact that it is disturbs me so much.” She acknowledges, “It’s an issue that’s so fraught with defensiveness and fear that it makes me feel like I’m walking on eggshells mentally.”
If this woman were to speak up, she’d be accused of being part of the “rape culture”—one of those elastic terms that’s used as a cudgel to shut people up. But when a woman who is counseling victims of rape feels constrained from giving practical advice to young women about the beneficial effects of keeping their wits about them, we really have a problem in the culture.
The need to close down discourse on difficult subjects was another popular response to my piece. This was best summed up in Jezebel’s rebuttal to my story, which stated: “DON'T write ‘how not to get raped’ columns in the first place.” It’s unfortunate that instead of wanting to engage in discussion of complicated, sensitive topics, a fellow journalist would prefer to dictate that only certain points of view are ideologically acceptable. As I was working on this story, several of my friends counseled me not do it. Talking about things women can do to protect themselves from rape is the third rail, they said. But why be a journalist unless you’re willing to dig into difficult subjects and report your findings? My story churned up a lot of outrage, but I remain hopeful it will start some conversations and prevent at least some sexual assaults.