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.