In one awful high-profile case after another we read about a young woman, sometimes only a girl, who goes to a party and ends up being raped. As soon as the school year begins, so do reports of female students sexually assaulted by their male classmates. A common denominator in these cases is alcohol, often copious amounts, enough to render the young woman incapacitated. But a misplaced fear of blaming the victim has made it somehow unacceptable to warn inexperienced young women that when they get wasted, they are putting themselves in potential peril.
A 2009 study of campus sexual assault found that by the time they are seniors, almost 20 per cent of college women will become victims, overwhelmingly of a fellow classmate. Very few will ever report it to authorities. The same study states that more than 80 per cent of campus sexual assaults involve alcohol. Frequently, both the man and woman have been drinking. The men tend to use the drinking to justify their behaviour, as a survey of research on alcohol-related campus sexual assault by Antonia Abbey, professor of psychology at Wayne State University, illustrates, while for many of the women, having been drunk becomes a source of guilt and shame. Sometimes, the woman is the only one drunk and runs into a particular type of shrewd -- and sober -- sexual predator who lurks where women drink like a lion at a watering hole. For these kinds of men, the rise of female binge drinking has made campuses a prey-rich environment. I've spoken to three recent college graduates who were the victims of such assailants, and their stories are chilling.
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 behaviour. "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 "infantalizing women."
The Campus Sexual Assault Study of 2007, undertaken for the U.S. Department of Justice, found that the popular belief that many young rape victims have been slipped date-rape drugs is false. "Most sexual assaults occur after voluntary consumption of alcohol by the victim and assailant," the report states. But the researchers noted that this crucial point is not being articulated to young and naive women: "Despite the link between substance abuse and sexual assault, it appears that few sexual assault and/or risk-reduction programs address the relationship between substance use and sexual assault." The report added, somewhat plaintively, "Students may also be unaware of the image of vulnerability projected by a visibly intoxicated individual."
"I'm not saying a woman is responsible for being sexually victimized," says Christopher Krebs, one of the authors of that study and others on campus sexual assault. "But when your judgment is compromised, your risk is elevated of having sexual violence perpetrated against you."
The culture of binge drinking -- whose pinnacle is the college campus — does not just harm women. Surveys find that more than 40 per cent of college students binge drink, defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as consuming five or more drinks for a man and four or more for a woman in about two hours. Of those drinkers, many end their sessions on gurneys: The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism estimates that about 600,000 American students a year are injured due to their drinking, and about 700,000 are assaulted by a classmate in a drunken encounter. About 1,800 students a year die as a consequence of alcohol intake.
I don't believe any of these statistics will move in the right direction until binge drinking joins smoking, drunk driving and domestic abuse as behaviours that were once typical and are now unacceptable. Reducing binge drinking is going to require education, enforcement, and a change in campus social culture. These days, the weekend stretches over half the week and front-loading and boot and rally are major extracurricular activities. Puking in your hair, peeing in your pants, and engaging in dangerous behaviours have to stop being considered hilarious escapades or proud war stories and become a source of disgust and embarrassment.
I've told my daughter, who is heading off to college next year, it's her responsibility to take steps to protect herself. If female college students start moderating their drinking as a way of looking out for their own self-interest -- and looking out for your own self-interest should be a primary feminist principle -- I hope their restraint trickles down to the men.
-- Washington Post-Bloomberg