Sexual Assault Is Not A Force Of Nature

A creatively annotated screencap of Yoffe's Slate piece.[Content note: sexual assault, victim blaming]

Remember my intent piece? This week we saw a great example of what I was talking about. Slate’s advice columnist, Emily Yoffe, wrote a piece that can basically be summarized as, “I don’t intend to blame the victim or anything…but here’s why women shouldn’t get drunk or else they’ll get raped.”

Frankly, Slate has been on a disturbing trend lately of publishing needlessly provocative articles with even more needlessly provocative headlines. I find this tactic patronizing and harmful (s.e. smith has a great piece about it). I expect more from progressive media outlets.

So, I’m committing to not sending Slate any more pageviews, but I also feel that this article is very important to discuss. So, here’s a PDF of it that you can read. And here are some great responses that have already been written by Jessica Valenti, Ann Friedman, Amanda Hess, Roxane Gay, and Feministing’s Alexandra. (Seriously, read those first, because they get into the nitty-gritty details of why Yoffe is wrong and I’ve decided not to reinvent the wheel here.)

Almost as infuriating as the inaccuracy and poor reasoning exhibited by the article is Yoffe’s insistence that we as a society are “reluctant” to tell women to prevent their own rapes. I have nothing but contempt for people who take popular, extremely widespread ideas and try to pass them off as something new. But I don’t believe that Yoffe is really so clueless as to believe that telling women not to drink so they don’t get raped is controversial in our culture at large.

Rather, she seems to be aiming her article at the progressive community as a sort of plea for us to be “reasonable” and stop getting our knickers in a bunch over some so-called victim blaming. The solution to sexual assault is just within our reach and yet we won’t reach out and grasp it because of some silly political qualms.

Except that rape survivors do not grow up in cozy progressive bubbles where nobody ever gives them harmful, useless “advice” that makes them feel like shit.

They get it from everyone. Families. Cops. Teachers. Educational posters. Friends. College orientation. TV shows. Magazines. Advice columnists. There is no shortage of people telling women not to drink or they’ll get raped. None at all. It is a long and storied tradition that Yoffe is joining.

Yoffe comes across as though she thinks her views are unpopular because people just can’t handle the truth. But sometimes, opinions are detested and ridiculed not because they’re just 2 BRAVE 4 U, but because they’re wrong and harmful. Yoffe does not examine any of the negative externalities of telling women not to drink or else they’ll get raped, so here are some:

  • Rape survivors who were attacked while drinking may feel (even more than they already do) that it was their fault–as if coping with the rape itself weren’t enough.
  • Cops will focus on telling women not to drink rather than on finding their rapists.
  • Believing that rape is the result of an individual failing (on the part of the victim, not the rapist, no less) rather than a systemic problem, people will fail to organize meaningful collective action to end sexual violence.
  • Assuming that they’ll be blamed for drinking, survivors will be less likely to go to the police or reach out to others for emotional support.
  • Gender inequality will be exacerbated. Men can drink but women can’t? What kind of 1950s bullshit is this?
  • This is the most important one. Rapists (or would-be rapists) will know that they are not going to face any consequences. This, not any lifestyle choice on the part of the victim, is one of the biggest reasons people rape.

We’re accustomed to thinking of people or organizations or perhaps even institutions as harmful, but ideas and opinions, many believe, are “just an idea” or “just an opinion” and should be respected no matter what.

But they can be harmful. They can have negative consequences. Yoffe’s do.

I’ve seen a few people online defending Yoffe’s piece by saying that binge drinking culture is dangerous and that we need to talk about it. Yes, we do. But Yoffe is not contributing anything useful to that discussion, either.

People seem to worry more about binge drinking when it’s women doing it. Men have been binge drinking since alcohol entered human culture. For women in Western societies, however, partying and drinking a lot–especially without the company of boyfriends or husbands–hasn’t been a socially acceptable option until relatively recently. Sometimes equality means that risky or unhealthy behaviors that had previously been restricted to one gender are now available to everyone. It’s unfortunate that this means that more people are doing the thing, but that’s part of what it means to have an equal society. Promoting inequality is not, in my opinion, a justifiable way to reduce unhealthy behavior.

So, the problem with binge drinking is not that women do it too. There are a lot of interesting and important issues around alcohol in our culture, such as:

  • many people feel that they need alcohol just to be comfortable socially
  • there are relatively few social options for non-drinkers, especially in college and generally before people start having children
  • if you’re interested in certain things, such as sports or live music, alcohol is often part of the package
  • many people lack access to or knowledge of the mental healthcare they need, so they self-medicate with alcohol
  • if you don’t drink, you are likely to be pressured to drink
  • it is socially acceptable for men to use alcohol to manipulate women sexually

But Yoffe is not discussing these issues. In fact, she completely ignores that last item, which is crucial.

Yoffe treats women who get drunk and then get raped like people who get drunk and then throw up. Throwing up is a natural consequence of drinking too much. It’s a physiological reality. If you don’t want to risk throwing up, be very careful about how much you drink, or don’t drink at all.

Being raped is not a natural consequence of drinking. It happens because people (especially men) are taught that you can and should use alcohol to get sex. They are taught that drunk people are “fair game,” “asking for it” by getting drunk. Whether she intends to or not, Yoffe is participating in this education.

Sexual assault is not a force of nature or a law of physics. It may not be fully preventable, but neither is it something we have to resign ourselves to living with, the way we accept the fact that our bodies need oxygen or that things fall when dropped.

Many people–Yoffe’s intellectual predecessors–used to accept many things that we’d now consider unacceptable, such as women not having the right to vote and husbands being legally allowed to beat and rape their wives. But others throughout history have fought and dedicated their whole lives to making things better. There is nothing courageous about stating that that can’t be done. Rather, it’s the definition of cowardice.

Advising women to prevent their own rapes is not brave. It is not original. It is not edgy. It’s the damn status quo.

Northwestern: Even More Racist than We Thought

Northwestern’s not known for being an oasis of tolerance. (Examples: here, here, and here.)

But a few members of our student body have decided to sink this school to a new low this past weekend by hosting a party/drinking game called the “Beer Olympics.” A student who saw the event described it this way:

[W]hat I saw Saturday afternoon was really just the “Racist Olympics.” In this backyard were at least 50 kids dressed up as some particular ethnic group or nationality. There were 6 teams: Canada, Ireland, Bangladesh, South Africa, Uganda, and Navajo Nation. All teams but Canada and Ireland signified via horribly racist and offensive mock-ups of these cultures. The noise I had heard came from the “Navajo Nation,” although almost every student in this yard participated in the “Indian call.” Moreover, these students are dressed up in headdresses, leather vests and other stereotypical indigenous garb.

Uganda was represented by students wearing tribalized Kony 2012 shirts. Students representing South Africa seemed to take a much simpler approach. In my presence, a passerby asked why the group chose to wear white t-shirts and black jeans. The response: “We’re South Africa! White on top, black on bottom!” Finally, the Bangladesh group simply dressed themselves in beads and painted red dots on their foreheads (the overwhelming majority of the population in Bengaldesh aren’t Hindi, but Muslim). These chants, the minstrelsy aimed at the expense of the dignity of non-Europeans and the sheer ecstasy of the partiers was sickening and traumatizing.

Apparently the group responsible for this has since released a “statement,” which you can read in the letter that I linked to.

Now, first of all. In case there’s any confusion, this is racist. If you don’t know why, here are some resources.

Second, I wish someone could explain to me this: why? Why do this? We all know college students need no excuse to get drunk, and there’s no reason why drinking games would be any less fun without racism involved.

Third, I feel that the Northwestern community needs to know which group was responsible for this. (Several people I’ve been discussing this with on Facebook have an idea of which group it might be, based on the apparent location of the photos and past traditions, but I won’t accidentally libel anybody.) It’s great that they’ve released a statement and have had “meetings” or whatever it is they’ve had, but ultimately, students who would like to avoid groups that hold big racist drinking games should probably be able to do so. (Yup, it’s the ski team.)

Fourth, when people are being drunk and doing shitty things, I often hear the argument that “Yeah well they’re drunk, what do you expect.” Okay, no. Once you’re an adult, you’re responsible for your actions–all of them–regardless of how much you’ve had to drink. This means that you need to either learn how to behave like a decent human being even if you’ve been drinking, or you need to stop drinking.

Finally, before anybody even goes there, yes, this is free speech. All free speech is legal. Not all free speech contributes anything to our society, and some of it actively harms that society. Let’s stop excusing terrible behavior simply because it happens to be legal.

Northwestern’s administration has been holding all sorts of “forums” on racial issues and proposing various “diversity initiatives,” but honestly, I don’t think any of it’s going to help. (Granted, that isn’t an excuse to just do nothing.) No matter how tolerant Northwestern’s environment is, it won’t undo 18 years of living in a society that perpetuates the stereotypes that these students poked fun at, and–even more insidiously–that teaches us that perpetuating these stereotypes is okay.

Unlearning these lessons is much harder than going to a required orientation program about diversity. After the infamous Northwestern blackface incident of 2009, Josh Feigelson, who used to be a rabbi here, wrote this:

I have long imagined a university in which every junior takes a seminar with a handful of others, drawn from diverse backgrounds, and whose common project is to learn to tell their own story and listen to the stories of others. What would it look like for Northwestern, or for other self-proclaimed secular universities, to actually enact the value of diversity–knowledge of oneself and others in a context of community–in not only its approach to student affairs, but into the heart of the curriculum itself?

I don’t know what that would look like. But I’d really like to know. I hope that Northwestern students, staff, and faculty keep talking about it and trying to imagine it. We shouldn’t abandon it just because it’s hard.

Why Hookup Culture Sucks

This week’s Daily column.

Most people over the age of 35 would probably tell you that the college hookup culture is a terrible thing.

To them, the truth is plain to see — casual sex leads to sexual assault, has all sorts of negative psychological consequences, and is usually a sign of low self-esteem. Popular books like Laura Sessions Stepp’s Unhooked and Miriam Grossman’s Unprotected, along with countless news stories and opinion pieces, promote this viewpoint tirelessly.

I agree that the hookup culture as it currently exists is unhealthy, but not for those reasons. The way I see it, the problems writers like Stepp and Grossman identify within the hookup culture are very real, but they are not caused by casual sex itself. Rather, they’re caused by a lack of education and communication.

For instance, two possible negative consequences of hooking up — sexually transmitted infections and accidental pregnancy — could be eliminated almost entirely if people knew how to protect themselves from them. Of course, the issue of obtaining access to contraceptives is also a valid one, particularly given recent political events.

Sexual assault, too, can be curbed by educating people — and no, I don’t mean educating women not to drink too much or walk home alone. According to a 2010 study in the United Kingdom, two-thirds of people think that victims of rape are partially to blame if they initially got into bed with the rapist, and about one-fourth think that the victims are partially to blame if they dressed provocatively. It’s difficult to end rape on college campuses and in our society in general if so many people still don’t realize that rape is caused by rapists, not by revealing clothes.

Furthermore, our culture is saturated with TV shows, songs and other media that make it seem acceptable to “get” people drunk in order to make them willing to have sex, and I would not be surprised if some people take that message to heart. Of course, a drunk person cannot legally consent to sex, so people who try to get potential partners by using alcohol may not realize that they are actually making them legally unable to provide consent. A Columbia University study implicates alcohol in 90 percent of sexual assault cases on college campuses, showing that the relationship between alcohol and sex is not an entirely healthy one.

Even if the hookup is completely consensual, communication frequently gets the shaft. We’ve all seen movies like “The Notebook,” which usually climax with two people having sex for the first time without uttering a single word. Yet the sex still manages to turn out fantastic. I hate to rain on the parade, but that’s not really how it works. Sure, there’s a chance you’ll go to a party one night and meet someone who just happens to like having sex the exact same way you do, but it’s a pretty small chance.

Those lucky people can probably skip the rest of this column, but the rest of us should remember that you can’t get what you want if you don’t ask for it.

Unfortunately, expressing yourself clearly isn’t easy when you’re slurring your words, which brings me right to my next point: In order for hooking up to be safe and fun, we need to stop depending on alcohol as a social lubricant. According to a study done at Syracuse University, nearly two-thirds of hookups involve alcohol. Though drinking can be great for letting go of inhibitions, it also tends to make people less willing and able to speak up when something’s not right and to treat others with respect.

Respect might seem like an outdated word to use, but I hope it isn’t. I’m sure there are people out there who truly don’t care whether or not their hookup partner respects them, but I think most people do.

One common justification I hear from people who like to hook up is that, “It’s okay if they use me, because I’m using them too.” That is a terrible way to look at it. Just because you’re only spending one night with someone doesn’t mean you should treat him or her like an object.

Besides, the hookup can’t be that enjoyable if each person is simply “using” the other’s body, because sex requires a certain amount of teamwork.

Luckily, Northwestern does not ignore these issues. This past fall, the Essential NU program for freshmen was revamped to include an updated presentation on sexual health and assault. Staged in the form of a play, it emphasized the need for open communication between sexual partners and for challenging the cultural scripts that lead to both bad sex and rape. But this is a conversation that we need to have more often than just once a year during freshman orientation.

Though we do discuss issues like this on occasion — such as in meetings and events planned by organizations like College Feminists, Sexual Health & Assault Peer Educators, and Rainbow Alliance — they need to be higher up on the agenda.

Unlike the authors who write books with titles like “Unhooked” and “Unprotected,” I don’t think that casual sex is intrinsically wrong, unhealthy, or dangerous. I do think, however, that most of us are going about it the wrong way. For those people who want no-strings-attached sex, hookup culture could be a great thing — just not the hookup culture that we currently have.

Northwestern Will Survive Without the Keg (Or: Actions Have Consequences)

[Snark Warning]

The Northwestern community is abuzz this week with the news that the Keg, Evanston’s trashiest, craziest, collegiest bar, has had its liquor license revoked for continually allowing underage drinking. The loss of the license means that the Keg can no longer sell alcohol, meaning that its demise is probably imminent.

Naturally, Northwestern students (many of whom admit to never even having visited the Keg) are enraged. They see the license revocation not only as the end of a place they like to frequent (“like” being used only in the vaguest sense here), but as yet another tyrannical attempt by the city government to disrupt the Northwestern way of life.

I must admit that if my life revolved around drinking, I might see some sense in that view. But then again, I might not, given how many bars, frats, and off-campus apartments there are around me–and the latter two usually don’t even charge, let alone card.

In a perfect world, the Keg wouldn’t be closing. Why? Because the legal drinking age would be 18, just like the age of consent, enfranchisement, and conscription. In that perfect world, our culture would pay enough attention to mental health that people wouldn’t need alcohol to relax or socialize, meaning that binge drinking would be much less common.

But, clearly, we don’t live in that world yet, and for now, as in the future, we are obligated to follow the laws created by our elected government. The Keg’s ownership has proven over and over that it does not take the issue of underage drinking seriously, and it should not be permitted to flagrantly violate the law as it currently stands.

In one of the very few intelligent responses to this news that I have seen from NU students, my fellow columnist at the Daily Northwestern points out that closing the Keg will not stop underage drinking. That is correct. Nothing can stop underage drinking among college students aside from lowering the drinking age.

However, not revoking the Keg’s liquor license despite its violations of federal law send the message that we value profit and fun over law enforcement. Nowhere in the Constitution are we guaranteed the right to drink alcohol without any reasonable limits. What we are guaranteed, however, is a government with the power to make and enforce laws.

(My friend and fellow blogger Michael also writes about why revoking the Keg’s liquor license is not the evil tyrannical anti-capitalist move that some students seem to think it is.)

Furthermore, while closing the Keg will not prevent underage drinking, neither will ticketing speeders prevent speeding, or cleaning up litter prevent littering. yet both must be done for the sake of a fair and orderly society.

Many NU students, of course, don’t look at it this way and have no desire to. They react like a toddler reaching for her fifth piece of candy and having it taken away. In fact, they reacted by creating a fake Twitter account for Evanston mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl. Read it and weep.

(The fake Twitter account is partially a nod to the fact that the Keg’s “unofficial” Twitter was, according to students, the reason for its untimely demise, as Tisdahl pointed out the references to underage drinking in the satirical tweets. However, students who pretend that the Keg is closing due to a fake Twitter account are creating a straw man. It’s closing because of constant, documented violations of the law.)

Anyway, one of the writers over at the blog Sherman Ave responds to the attacks on Tisdahl with much more punch than I could ever muster:

Also, if you are attacking Mayor Tisdahl you are an idiot. You may not think you are an idiot, but you are. I’m sorry, but anyone who scapegoats an elected official for enforcing the law deserves the title of idiot. And that’s that.

For what it’s worth, I applaud Tisdahl for doing something “uncool,” since that’s something that many Northwestern students are apparently incapable of.

I’ve also seen a lot of comments from other students bemoaning the fact that the Keg’s closing means that their social lives are, for all intents and purposes, dead. I don’t know how many of these are “ironic” as opposed to genuine, but I do know that “irony” is a defense frequently trotted out by people who have been caught saying something idiotic.

If any of those comments do have any truth to them, I have only this to say–if your entire social life consists of getting wasted in a grimy bar, that is really sad.

Finally, and perhaps most irritatingly, many students are reacting to the closure of the Keg as though some irrevocable, unique part of Northwestern culture is gone. An article to this effect was even published at North by Northwestern.

People. Seriously. Seedy bars where you can get piss-drunk are a dime a dozen. Go to any college town in the country and you’ll see that.

For people like me, who observe what most call “college life” only from the sidelines, the Keg’s imminent closure is both a cause of celebration and, well, of consternation. The former for obvious reasons, and the latter because it’s quite disappointing to see one’s fellow students ranting and raving over the closing of some dumb bar as though they’ve just gotten rejected from their favorite country club or something.

For now, though, I’ll leave you with this hilarious take on the Keg’s closure from Sherman Ave. Don’t watch if you’re easily offended.

Memo to Northwestern Students: You're Not Cool

This is the guide we wish we had before we came to our schools. It will tell you everything you need to know about social life, party scene, and even some academics (those of us who get in to these schools need to stay at them) if you are a normal girl that happens to be smart enough to get into a top university. It’s biased, it’s blunt, and many people will be offended…but those people shouldn’t be reading this in the first place.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is when you know beyond a doubt that whatever follows is going to be absolute drivel.

The preceding quote is from a new anonymous blog called “We are the We.” Like College ACB but without the community, “We” prides itself on being the one and only voice of campus social life. Tellingly, the blog only covers a few campuses for now, and mine is one of them. The tagline? “Top schools, normal girls.”

Let’s take a look at what We has to say about life at Northwestern:

Typically fluctuating between SigEp, Lodge, Pike and SAE, every freshman girl learns within the first couple days that your chances of joining a Top Tier sorority in the winter instantly increase by being seen and associated with by Top Tier boys, and are fucked if you mess around with some girl from a Top Tier’s ex.

~~~

The amount of hook up overlaps solely from freshman year could put state schools to shame, and by sophomore year most best friends have hooked up with generally the same exact people. Though girls complain about the lack of options, they have no problem picking the guy their roommate hooked up with the night before as their prey.

~~~

The longer you’re at Northwestern, the more you realize there are some students who truly don’t deserve to be walking within a 15 mile radius of the campus you worked your ass off the first 18 years of your life to attend. It’s no surprise that like most elite schools, it’s possible for some dumbasses to slip through the cracks, but now we actually have to, like, deal with them.

~~~

Shocking new revelation just in: girls in college love to drink. Though there are still a few high-and-mighty girls unwilling to get shitfaced with everyone else, the majority of females find a few nights a weeks to make an appearance at a frat, bar, or Greek event. You’ll learn in the first few days on campus that NU students have a relatively set schedule for going out, and you’re bound to get a “Keg tonight?” text on Mondays and Saturdays or a “Deucin’?” one on Thursdays from guys or friends.

Had enough? I sure have.

The Northwestern depicted in this blog is catty, superficial, judgmental, uninterested in any sort of learning, and, I’m proud to say, has nothing to do with the lives we actually live at this school. I’m sure there are people here that this describes to a T, but despite claiming to be “everything you need to know” about campus life, the blog falls hilariously short of describing us.

The assumptions and prejudices catalogued here are too many to list. First, the idea that people who are “unwilling to get shitfaced” are just too “high-and-mighty.” False. It might surprise some people to know that non-drinkers (or moderate drinkers, really) might actually have other things to do with their lives besides drink–imagine that! Maybe that’s beyond the scope of We writers’ collective imaginations, but I assure you that it is true.

Beyond that, one has to pick through a cesspool of “men are x, women are y” tropes in order to understand what We is trying to say about Northwestern social life. Men are douchey players. Women are nasty sluts. Etc., etc.

I’ll give the writers props for recognizing, as they do in the quote with which I opened this post, that they’re going to offend people. But then they refuse to take responsibility for being so abhorrent by claiming that people who get offended “shouldn’t be reading this in the first place.” Why the hell not? Is it the secret diary of Northwestern’s “elite?” If so, they might want to make it a bit more private.

In a section titled “Who are ‘the we’?”, the writers say, “We know what we are talking about. Trust us. We are anonymous for a reason, but this reason is not because we are not legit.”

Don’t worry everyone, they’re legit! I shouldn’t have worried. Of course, they don’t elaborate on this mysterious reason for which they’re choosing to stay anonymous, but my guess is that it has something to do with the fact that nobody likes nasty, shallow people who post hateful bullshit on the internet. Were these writers to use their real names, their precious social lives would probably suffer.

I also took issue with the blog’s tagline: “Top schools, normal girls.” First of all, define “normal,” and explain why “normal” is preferable to whatever its antonym is. If by “normal” they mean “statistically mainstream,” they’re simply wrong. The majority of NU students do not belong to a Greek organization, for instance, and most of those who do, belong to what stuck-up cretins like We refer to as “lower-tier” houses. Meaning, as I understand from my friends in the Greek system, houses that are more concerned with having fun and making friends than with high school-esque notions of “popularity.”

Similarly, most Northwestern students drink in moderation or not at all, and relatively few have lots of casual sex. Those who do tend to hook up with friends or acquaintances rather than strangers at bars or frat parties. Does this make them less “cool?” Apparently. But nobody who lives the life they want is going to care.

And if by “normal” We means “desirable,” well, all I can say is that they need a serious attitude adjustment.

The last thing that pisses me off about this blog is the name. “The We.” This conjures up an image of a ruling class of socially skilled and designer jeans-clad heiresses who preside over the campus like royalty. “We” implies that these writers speak for all of us. Well, they don’t. Count me the fuck out of this “we,” because it has nothing to do with me or anybody I know at Northwestern.

It never fails to amuse me that some Northwestern students are so desperate to project their Mean Girls-ish vision of social life onto our school. People. You’re not cool. Stop trying to be cool. The harder you try, the more idiotic you look, and the more you forget what you actually came here for.

Nobody at this school is “normal” in any sense of the word. We are abnormal by definition. We’re some of the brightest students in the nation. Letting loose and forgetting that every once in a while is great, but creating a whole blog to showcase your superficiality to the entire world is just not.

You Don't Need Alcohol

[This is my first column for the Daily Northwestern, NU’s student newspaper. I can’t find the link on their website so I’m not linking to it, but here’s the full piece.]

You don’t need alcohol.

Wait, hear me out. You really don’t need it.

Before I came to college, I obviously expected that there’d be a lot of drinking and partying going on here. What I didn’t know is why. I grew up in a large, loud Russian family, where alcohol flows freely at dinner parties and camping trips, but never takes center stage. My parents seem mosty the same to me whether they’ve had five drinks each or not a single drop, and they seemed to have just as much fun without alcohol or with it.

I was puzzled, then, when I came to college and found that alcohol was often–not always, but often–the main event. As far as I knew, most people readily admit that they don’t like the taste of alcohol, at least not of the sort usually served at college parties. Dealing with the unpleasant consequences of drinking too much is a drag. Meaningful connections aren’t usually made while one is drunk. So why?

The answer both suprised and disappointed me: people think they need it.

I started hearing the same story from almost everyone I asked. “I don’t really feel comfortable with people unless I’ve been drinking.” “I can’t talk to girls without a few drinks.” “I could never hook up with someone if we’re not both drunk.”

One friend even confided to me that he literally can’t have sex if he’s not drunk. “Why not?” I asked. “I’m more of a traditional person,” he said. “I don’t feel comfortable doing that with someone I don’t really know if I’m sober.”

Could it really be that the brilliant, accomplished people I go to school with can’t make friends or hook up without alcohol?

The answer, I think, is no. I think we’ve been deluding ourselves. Sure, it can be fun to get drunk. But should it ever be something we “need” to function socially?

I think I can attest to the fact that it’s not necessary. I used to be painfully shy and incapable of having a conversation with anyone my age. Since coming to college, I’ve truly branched out and made many friends. Yet I’ve never been drunk and can count the number of parties I’ve been to on the fingers of one hand. People, if the girl who used to bring encyclopedias to read at birthday parties can do it, anyone can.

I also don’t think we should be using alcohol to help us ignore our own values. If you’re just not the sort of person who wants to sleep with people you don’t know, that’s totally fine. I’m not either. If you think it’s perfectly okay but feel too insecure to do it without alcohol, that’s something you can work on.

That applies to making friends, too. This school is full of really cool, really interesting people. You’re going to find people who think you’re awesome. It’s just a matter of convincing yourself of that. So practice in front of the mirror, get friends to introduce you, do whatever you have to do. Having the confidence to approach people and connect with them is a wonderful thing, and it’ll be with you always–long after the party’s over and the alcohol’s all gone.

The Myth of Everyone

It’s right up there with Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and true love–the Myth of Everyone.

The Myth of Everyone is invoked whenever someone attempts to justify their own or someone else’s shitty actions by saying, “Oh, come on, everyone does that.” For instance, my recent article against the Greek system generated arguments that all people and all groups of people do the sort of stuff I accused the Greek system of perpetuating, so it’s unfair to criticize the Greek system on those grounds. (I should’ve asked these people to find me examples of photography clubs paddling new members, or of a knitting circle forcing people to do keg stands, but I suppose that’s besides the point.)

At other times, the Myth of Everyone is invoked to explain even nastier, more specific examples of human behavior. For instance, a few months ago, a 17-year-old was gang-raped by a group of college men at a party. One of the lawyers representing the group of men stated, “This wasn’t anyone’s finest moment. It was 20-year-olds at a party behaving like 20-year-olds at a party.” Clearly, the lawyer wanted us to believe that gang-raping a teenage girl is what “everyone” would do in this situation.

Who is this mysterious Everyone? Why do they have such a hold over our collective imagination? Luckily, the field of psychology has an answer for that. It’s called the False Consensus Effect.

The false consensus effect is a cognitive bias that most people have that causes them to overestimate the degree to which their particular beliefs, values, goals, and opinions are shared by the majority of people–hence, a false consensus.

Psychologists believe that this effect occurs because people have a need to fit in and to believe that others share their mindsets. Feeling “normal” increases one’s self-esteem.

The effect is particularly prominent among members of a tight-knit group that rarely interacts with non-group members, and therefore is rarely forced to encounter divergent viewpoints. It becomes really easy for members of such a group to assume that their beliefs are shared by the larger population, even when they actually aren’t. An example of this would be, say, members of a sorority or fraternity.

This aspect of human psychology probably evolved to keep people happy and feeling accepted by society. In prehistoric times, it would’ve been adaptive to keep believing you’re pretty normal up until people convinced you otherwise–for instance, by excluding you from the tribe. But today, it’s become all too easy to convince yourself that “Everyone” shares your viewpoints, since our society is fragmented and we can choose people just like us to interact with.

Unfortunately, this is exactly how things like sexual assault, binge drinking, and all sorts of other problems get delegitimized and ignored. I’ve heard my fellow students making ridiculously overgeneralized statements like “Everyone hooks up” and “Everyone goes out and gets drunk” and even “All guys try to pressure girls into having sex with them.”

It would shock many of these students to know some statistics on these things. Namely, at least at my school, nearly 50% of the student body has not had sex in the past year. 23% percent of Northwestern students do not drink alcohol–AT ALL!–and 60% do not binge drink, meaning that they have four or less drinks each time they go out. (This includes the students who don’t drink at all, too.) This puts the percentage of students who do go crazy and get drunk at a little over one-third of the student body–a sizable minority, to be sure, but hardly the overwhelmingly dominant lifestyle people seem to think it is.

I can’t cite these statistics because I received them directly from Northwestern’s Department of Health Promotion and Wellness, which does official surveys on this sort of stuff. (The surveys are distributed to a representative random sample of the undergraduate student body.) If you’re curious, though, I have contacts in that department and I could probably obtain a report for you.

So, who is this mysterious “Everyone” who has tons of sex, drinks tons of alcohol, and pressures everyone into doing the same? It’s not the average Northwestern student, that’s for sure.

The problem of false consensus goes way beyond the college campus. It helps explain why some people think that cheating, shoplifting, accepting bribes, or using drugs isn’t a big deal (“Oh, come on, everyone does that!”), why right-wing politicians think Americans want to stop gay marriage (when, in fact, 53% of Americans believe in full marriage rights for the LGBT community), and why some people persist in telling racist/sexist jokes, believing that everyone’s still living in the 1950s.

Nowadays, when someone tries to tell me that “Everyone” is doing something, I take that with a grain of salt. Such statements probably tell you more about the person making them than about the majority of people, since most people don’t bother to actually go out and find statistics about things like I’ve just done.

Reason: it’s so inconvenient, isn’t it?

Mental Illness as a Spectator Sport

Step right up, ladies and gents, see the amazing inhuman hoarders here!

Our culture seems to have three ways of relating to people with mental illnesses–either they’re pathetic losers who need to “snap out of it”, or they’re crazies who need to be locked away (think schizophrenia in popular culture), or they’re here for our pleasure and entertainment. That last one is a relative newcomer, and that’s the one I want to write about here.

Just look at our celebrities–specifically, the ones with substance abuse problems. When it comes to them, it’s all fun and games till someone dies. While the late Amy Winehouse was still alive, blogs and magazines loved to publish photos of her visibly drunk, putting her up for public ridicule. Sure, everyone knew she could use some rehab–she sang about it herself–but there was never an ounce of compassion in how we, as a society, related to her.

And take Charlie Sheen, clearly a troubled individual. I don’t even remember how many days went by that articles making fun of him littered my Google Reader feed. With him, there isn’t even any ambiguity regarding the diagnosis, but he was still treated like a circus animal, and everyone sat back in their seats, made some popcorn, and watched.

Take TV shows like A&E’s Hoarders, Intervention, and Obsessed. These shows literally turn mental illness–and the treatment thereof–into entertainment. You can laugh as the poor OCD sufferer cries when forced to touch a gas pump nozzle with her bare hands, or gag as that creepy hoarder guy reveals his apartment full of old snack wrappers and rotting food.

I’m not saying that it’s wrong to inform people about the lives of those with mental disorders. What I’m saying is that this informing should be done in a compassionate, humanizing way, and reality TV isn’t always the best format for that. For instance, the show In Treatment, which describes a (fictional) therapist and his clients, is a far cry from the carnival sideshow-like feel of the reality shows. I’m not exactly a big fan of reality TV in general, but as a medium for educating the public about mental illness, it’s even worse than usual, because it creates an environment in which people view their fellow human beings as freaks to be gawked at, not as peers to be sympathized with. (A counselor quoted on Everyday Health calls it “exploitanment.”) This happens on virtually every reality show–think how much the people on Jersey Shore and American Idol get made fun of. The difference is that the people on Jersey Shore and American Idol (arguably) do not have a serious mental illness.

Ultimately, all media companies want to provide stuff that sells, and in the case of magazines that publish photos of drunken celebrities (with witty commentary, of course) and TV networks that produce shows putting people with mental disorders up for display, the money’s definitely talking–people love it. But the quality of mental healthcare in the U.S. will never improve while our culture continues to treat people with mental disorders as amusing distractions and not as people.

An Indictment of Party Pop

Just when you thought I was finally done writing about alcohol and partying, here I go with yet another post about it!

Before I start talking about party pop, though, I need to clarify what exactly I’m talking about, because apparently some people still don’t get it. Every once in a while someone who doesn’t know me too well says something like “OMG I READ YOUR BLOG AND I GUESS YOU HATE FUN HAHA.” Um no.

So let me explain. I do not hate alcohol. I do not hate parties. I do not hate fun. I do not hate people who drink and party, except when they’re infringing on my personal space. What I hate is something I call “party culture,” which, by my definition, contains the following components:

  • the belief, prevalent among people of all ages, that partying is the one and only acceptable way for young people to spend their free time and socialize
  • the glorification and normalization of binge drinking (formally defined as drinking five or more drinks in a row, but I also use it generally to refer to drinking in a way that jeopardizes one’s health and safety)
  • the use of alcohol as a means to coerce women and excuse sexual assault
  • the idea that people who choose not to party are deficient in some way
  • pressuring people to drink and party (This is truly unique in college. I was never pressured to join clubs, go to football games, explore Chicago, attend dorm events, or do any other social activity quite like I was pressured to party.)
  • the belief that alcohol is something people “need” in order to relax, talk to people, hook up, have fun, etc.
So there’s party culture for you. As for party pop, I read a piece about it in this summer’s issue of Bitch magazine. The piece was actually a really interesting analysis of the changes that this sort of music has gone through; whereas drunk girls in pop culture used to exist basically as a spectacle for men’s benefit, more recently they seem to be partying for themselves (the article mentions Ke$ha and Katy Perry as examples). Anyway, you’d really have to read the whole article to see all of the points it makes, but that’s the gist of it, and the author sees this as a positive development–female empowerment and blahblah.
However, where the article falls short is that it still seems to present party pop as a symbol of rebellion:
Today’s party-girl pop continues down the avenue of non-explicitly politicized, pleasure-focused rebellion against gender norms carved out by flappers and disco divas.
And:
[Party-girl pop] is valuable in its large-scale reflection of changing the meaning of pleasure and autonomy among young women, both to create a culture for girls themselves and to give older people a peek into these changing mores.
Here’s the thing, though. Whereas the music from which party pop presumably draws inspiration, such as the Beastie Boys’ “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party!),” was actually made a time when partying was considered a subversive thing for people (especially women) to do, we’ve come quite a ways since then. Party culture has become normative. It’s not partying, rather than partying, that now draws judgment and scorn. Trust me, I’d know.

The truth is, even my socially conservative parents and their white middle-class friends think that partying is just what the kids do these days. For some reason, though, the party lifestyle continues to hold this impenetrable veneer of revolutionary coolness.

When I listen to music that glorifies party culture and hear people ranting about how rebellious and groundbreaking and cool it is, I imagine someone making music about how awesome it is not to live on a farm or to be able to live past age 50. Like, okay, cool, but I thought we were over that by now.

Maybe what we should be talking about instead is the fact that party pop contributes to a culture in which alcohol is viewed as the one and only means to having a worthwhile and enjoyable life, and partying is seen as something “everyone” does. And I’m not even making random unbased claims here: studies have shown that college students overestimate how much their peers drink, and that the more they think others drink, the more they drink themselves. That’s why, when I went through training to be an RA at Northwestern, we were told to provide our residents with the results of surveys done at NU that showed how much students actually drink. Because when you think that everybody is just constantly going out and knocking back six vodkas in a night, you’re more likely to try to do that, too.

Furthermore, I disagree with the Bitch article’s assertion that party pop is helping to redefine gender roles for women. The line of argument here is that because these women party for their own pleasure, they are paving the way for our culture to accept women as autonomous and equal to men. I don’t think it really works that way, though. I think that now, rather than having one function–pleasing men–women have two functions–pleasing men and getting shitfaced. I don’t see how this helps society recognize the right of women to hold positions of power, contribute to scientific research, control their own reproductive health, or generally do much of anything that doesn’t involve getting intimate with a toilet bowl at the end of the night. (As for the shitshow that consists of male-created party pop, I’m not even going to get into that now.)

The very artists that the author of the article considers pioneers in this regard have other songs (which the author conveniently ignored) that completely contradict the supposedly revolutionary message. For instance, here are some lyrics from a recent song by Katy Perry:

Kiss me, ki-ki-kiss me
Infect me with your love and
Fill me with your poison
Take me, ta-ta-take me
Wanna be a victim
Ready for abduction
That’s empowering, alright. As for Ke$ha:
I don’t care what people say
The rush is worth the price I pay
I get so high when you’re with me
But crash and crave you when you are away
Pardon my skepticism, but I really fail to see how this music is promoting women’s autonomy. What I do see, though, is that it promotes the dangerous party culture that has infected basically every college campus–and JUST A REMINDER, by “party culture” I mean the stuff listed with bullet points above. I’m not saying this music is inherently “bad” or that we shouldn’t listen to it (that would not only be a specious argument, but it would also be a hypocritical one since I listen to a lot of this stuff myself). I do think, though, that we should make a big-ass pause before we start painting it with Beastie Boys-esque shades of rebelliousness.
Pop music, and pop culture in general, is the pulse of our society and its values. I think that if we listen closely to it, we can discern the pressures and expectations that people face from the world around them. And right now, pop music is saying that partying is the epitome of what young people should do with their lives. I think that’s an unfortunately narrow-minded view.
So if you’re too school for cool,
And you’re treated like a fool,
You can choose to let it go
We can always, we can always
Party on our own
–P!nk, “Raise Your Glass”

What Does Drinking Have to do with Feminism?

Well, for most feminist bloggers, the answer seems to be absolutely nothing.

An article at the Frisky called Why Being Drunk is a Feminist Issue is causing quite a stir in the blogosphere. The article makes an argument that I have attempted to make numerous times–although rape is always the fault of the rapist and not the person who’s being raped, no matter what that person was wearing or doing or drinking at the time, the unfortunate reality is that we live in a world where rape still happens–and alcohol makes rape more likely. The Frisky article puts it like this:

In an ideal world, rape wouldn’t exist. In an ideal world, it wouldn’t matter how much a woman had to drink, what she was wearing, or what overtures she had given—no man would ever consider sex without explicit consent and would recognize that anyone who is deeply intoxicated is unable to give consent. But we don’t live in that world. Unfortunately, short of some Herculean sensitivity raising effort, we do not have control over what men, drunk or sober, will do when presented with our drunkeness. What we do have control over is our side of the equation—how much we drink.

Of course, this suggestion always has the effect of immediately infuriating virtually all feminists. How dare they suggest that there are things women can do to prevent themselves from getting raped? We should be able to walk alone down a street at 4 AM wearing nothing but stilettos!

Yes. Yes, you should. I absolutely agree. I will wholeheartedly support any initiative that aims to stop rapists from being rapists. And I absolutely agree that rapists should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law regardless of how the victim was acting, what she (or he) was wearing, or how much she (or he) had had to drink.

But the truth is that, as the Frisky article says, you can’t control what other people do. You can only control what you do.

However, I’ll set that entire argument aside for a moment, because I know I really can’t win this one. The feminist blogs have slapped it with the label “victim blaming,” from which there is no coming back. (Which, incidentally, really pisses me off, because the writer says numerous times throughout the post that she does not think it’s a woman’s fault if she’s drunk and gets raped, and that she fully blames the man and that he should be prosecuted. Yet all the responses to this I’ve read insist on claiming that the author blames the victim. People. You cannot respond intelligently to a blog post if you refuse to even take the original blogger at his/her word. That’s just intellectually dishonest. Respond to what’s written, not to what you feel should be written there based on other things the author says. There are nuances, for heaven’s sake.)

Anyway, there is another reason why drinking (by which I mean, drinking to the point that you’re intoxicated) might not be compatible with feminism, and it involves the concept of choice.

To me, feminism has always been all about choice. Feminism is a philosophy that empowers women to choose–choose what job to have, whether to date/marry/have kids, and what to wear, for instance. It follows that choosing who to sleep with is a power that women should also have.

But getting very drunk takes choice away from you. It can make you do things that you wouldn’t do while sober, and that you regret later. It makes you more agreeable, less likely to fight back, less likely to speak up. Sure, a drunk person legally can’t give consent, but who draws the line between can and can’t? Where is that line? What happens when you consent to something that you later realize you shouldn’t have consented to?

Furthermore, it’s a well-known fact that some men actively try to use alcohol as a weapon. Fraternities reserve the “good stuff” for the most attractive girls, and who hasn’t seen a man in a bar enthusiastically buying more and more drinks for a woman he wants to get with?

Not all of these men are rapists. But they know that being drunk can induce someone to think they want something that, deep down, they don’t really want. If alcohol makes you consent to sex that you wouldn’t consent to otherwise, that’s a problem. If being drunk takes the power of choice away from women, then yes, being drunk is absolutely a feminist issue.