In Her Own Words

06.23.11

The Bristol Date-Rape Question

In Bristol Palin’s new memoir, she describes losing her virginity to Levi Johnston in a blurry scenario that sounds like drunken sex to some—and sexual assault to others.

Bristol Palin’s new memoir, Not Afraid of Life: My Journey So Far, opens with a story the author claims never to have told before. It begins with a lie to her mother, so she can go camping with her boyfriend, Levi. She tells of surrendering to the “woozy charms” of wine coolers and passing out drunk. She awoke the next morning, she writes, to discover that she’d had sex for the first time. “Suddenly, I wondered why it was called ‘losing your virginity,’” Bristol writes. “Because it felt more like it had been stolen.”

The passage has already stirred the kind of controversy only a Palin can generate. Bristol has been accused of making the story up as a way of avoiding responsibility; writing about it to make Levi, the father of her son, Tripp, look bad (The National Journal called the entire thing a “burn book” a la Mean Girls); even capitalizing on it in order to stay in the headlines and sell some books along the way. Levi Johnston declined to comment; we may have to wait for his own memoir, Deer in the Headlights, which comes out this fall, to hear his side of the story.

In the meantime, some, of course, will write off Bristol’s version as just another episode in a cringe-worthy tale involving two young people with an insatiable thirst for fame, one that’s already involved accusations of cheating and multiple brushes with reality television. But her story raises a serious issue about the often blurry line between drunken sex and sexual assault—and how our culture responds to both. Legally, being drunk means being of diminished capacity, which means being unable to give meaningful consent (though what constitutes legal intoxication varies state by state).

“It could be that a young woman from a very conservative family that traffics in circles that regularly deny that date rape exists would have a hard time naming it.”

Notably, Bristol never uses the word “rape” to describe what happened, and the passage is couched in vague language. Women’s groups and sexual-assault organizations have been reluctant to comment. “It is not a feminist’s job, and it never has been a feminist’s job, to define someone’s sexual experience for them,” says Jennifer L. Pozner, executive director of Women in Media & News. “I think feminists might be really hesitant to jump into a story like this when the language itself is so ambiguous.”

But the experience Bristol describes is also far from unusual, and it’s probably safe to say that more people can relate to regretting a fumbling, alcohol-fueled sexual encounter than can’t. Mike Domitrz of the Date Safe Project says that’s exactly the problem. “Using alcohol to facilitate sexual activity is ingrained in our culture,” he says. “Society reacts to say, ‘Well, that’s not a sexual assault because if it is, that means that I’m a rapist or my friend’s a rapist… or that’s happened to me and I’m not ready to acknowledge that I was sexually assaulted.”

Pozner notes that given decades of media coverage that has amounted to rape victims being “tarred and feathered,” “the idea that a woman would always feel comfortable using the word ‘rape’ to describe a situation that legally meets the definition of rape is unfortunately not the reality.” That discomfort may be even more pronounced given Palin’s political roots, not to mention her speaking career. “I question whether she was using intentionally murky language because she is a very prominent, extremely well-paid abstinence speaker and not having willingly had sex could bolster her position and reduce criticisms from those who consider her a hypocrite,” Pozner says. “But it could also be that a young woman from a very conservative family that traffics in circles that regularly deny that date rape exists would have a hard time naming it. We don’t know. It could be that she doesn’t even know.”