In recent months there’s been much discussion about how, and how badly, colleges, as a whole, have failed students who have been victims of sexual assault. Much of the dialogue has centered on the “victim-blaming” that goes on (and on). Victim-blaming is telling a survivor of assault that she “asked for it” through any number of actions or behaviors, including but not limited to: what she wore; how many men she’d had sex with previously; whether or not she ever flirted with her attacker, or knew him, or willingly went someplace with him; and how much she drank on the night in question.
None of these things are factors that indicate permission, of course, or excuse sex without consent. As one popular slogan goes, “Blame rapists. Not boobs.” It is not a woman’s responsibility to mitigate a man’s sexual desire or prevent—or even anticipate—his tendency towards violence. There is no excuse for sexual assault. Survivors shoulder zero blame.
And yet, as a woman—as well as a mother—I have to ask: Is advising women going off to college—or out dancing, for that matter—to be as safe as they can be given what we know about our dangerous world, filled with dangerous people, a way of condoning victim-blaming? Or is it simply encouraging good common sense?
I’m talking about getting drunk—so drunk that you can’t remember things, like in the case of the Hobart and William Smith College rape survivor whose story was told last weekend in the New York Times. The fact that she had blacked out much of the night of her assault was not entirely unique. Extreme drinking happens frequently among college students, both male and female. And, while it’s a woman’s right to do so without the expectation of being violently assaulted, does that make it a good idea?
When my daughter went off to school, I talked to her about being safe. I talked to her about how you couldn’t rely on others to protect you. That included staying in enough control that she would not have to rely on the goodness of others; goodness that, unfortunately, we’ve come to learn does not always exist. A pessimistic outlook, perhaps, but realistic, too.
The suggestion that women avoid excessive drinking is not meant to suggest that drinking excessively will get a girl raped, or that a drunk woman is more responsible for her own rape than a sober one. A woman is never at fault if she is raped, whether she is intoxicated or completely sober. If a woman is too drunk to consent, she has not consented. That said, not drinking to excess doesn’t mean you won’t get raped. But I’m just not convinced that just because you can drink until you black out you should.
Part of raising modern women whose voices are heard over the din of a largely male-dominated culture must mean letting them know that they are strong enough to take care of themselves, and often times, take care of themselves they must. And that just as it’s not your fault if you leave your laptop and pricey sunglasses on the front seat and your car gets broken into, surely, there are smarter moves. Acknowledging as much is not excusing the thief, or implicating the driver in any way; applying similar logic to campus rape is not excusing the rapist or implicating the victim. It’s just recognizing that the world we live in is has many terrible individuals who may seize upon a situation just because they think they can. It’s recognizing that jurors, even female ones, are known to be more judgmental in rape cases if the victim was drinking. It’s recognizing that colleges still have much work to do in their treatment of sexual assault on campus. If rape is an epidemic—and it is—so, it seems, are college administrations’ ineffective or inappropriate responses to it. And until there’s more consistency in offering victims support and justice without hurdles, a woman may need to recognize that the most reliable person to count on to do the right thing is herself. Sure: “Because you can” is a reason to drink to excess. Just not a very good one.