Women, rape, and alcohol

I sent this provocative Emily Yoffe piece on women, alcohol, and rape to my Gender & Politics class and it definitely led to the most passionate and heated class discussion we’ve had this semester.  I quite agree with Yoffe’s main contention:

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.

Experts I spoke to who wanted young women to get this information said they were aware of how loaded it has become to give warnings to women about their behavior. “I’m always feeling defensive that my main advice is: ‘Protect yourself. Don’t make yourself vulnerable to the point of losing your cognitive faculties,’ ” says Anne Coughlin, a professor at the University of Virginia School of Law, who has written on rape and teaches feminist jurisprudence. She adds that by not telling them the truth—that they are responsible for keeping their wits about them—she worries that we are “infantilizing women.”

Yes!  Is there not room for letting women know that they should not put themselves in situations where–empirical evidence is quite clear– they are at a much heightened risk of being victims of sexual violence without implying that they should be blamed?  Apparently, a lot of my female students thought so.   You shouldn’t walk through certain urban neighborhoods after dark but that doesn’t mean it’s your fault of you got mugged.  Much better if you had been made aware that you should have stayed away from that area.  But that in no way excused the mugger.  Anyway, like many of my students, Slate’s Amanda Hess also disagrees:

But Yoffe’s approach strikes me as myopic.

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. As Yoffe notes, the research of David Lisak suggests that most rapes are committed by a small group of predators who claim a large number of victims. We can prevent the most rapes on campus by putting our efforts toward finding and punishing those perpetrators, not by warning their huge number of potential victims to skip out on parties.

Here’s a thought for Hess– and what I argued in class– why not both?!  To try and properly warn young women in no way precludes also doing what we can to go after sexual predators.  Yoffe did not say that we should ignore perpetrators of rape, only that part of the solution is being more honest with young women about the risks they may be taking.

And here’s where I think Hess gets it really wrong, ” It will just force campus rapists who rely on alcohol to execute their crimes to find other targets.”  Okay, I’ll admit I’m no expert on campus rape, but I have to believe that this kind of acquaintance rape is, in substantial degree, a crime of opportunity.  These are decidedly not men stalking around campus looking for drunk victims.  They are men in their own fraternity houses, dorms, etc., who are taking advantage of the fact that their are seriously cognitively-impaired women in their midst.  You take away that alcohol-induced cognitive impairment and the crime doesn’t happen.  Place 10 totally drunk young women in a fraternity house and there’s significant odds that one will be a victim of a sexual assault.  Now, take those same 10 women and they’ve all stopped at two drinks, I would argue that the probability of a sexual crime taking place in a fraternity house that evening just declined substantially.  That frustrated guy is not going to go over to some other fraternity to find some girls drunk enough– he’s just not going to be taking advantage of somebody that night.  Like I said, I admit to minimal expertise on this issue, but from what I have read, opportunity is a big part of the issue.  Reduce the opportunity and reduce the number of women who get raped.  That sounds like a good thing to me.


About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

2 Responses to Women, rape, and alcohol

  1. H. Jenrette says:

    An addition to this discussion might address styles of women’s clothing. Society sends a mixed message to women and even little girls…..that their approval by others depends on messaging men and other competing women that they are desirable. Look at me – I am the most desirable!
    But not so desirable that some male has to act immediately and not wait for consent. He may think the clothing chosen by the girl to wear is the message. Some people are not real good at finding those social fine lines.
    How is a female able to determine that line? And then there is the downward spiral to the lowest common denominator. Follow the money.
    So, I agree that women should be advised how to protect themselves and that also people including the predators be warned about the consequences.
    There are a lot of those “fine lines” in cultures. Most members of the culture absorb them growing up but not all.
    A good reason to keep sociology and social psychology in the curriculum!

  2. itchy says:

    A few years back, my brother got his lung punctured after walking out of a bar drunk at 2am in a fairly shady part of town and stopping to talk to a pretty girl who had an accomplice jump him from behind with a knife.

    He was stupid, and he knows it. He isn’t to blame, but he told me himself he should have known better. But he was drunk, and there was a pretty girl talking to him.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: