In one awful high-profile case after another — the U.S. Naval Academy; Steubenville, Ohio; now the allegations in Maryville, Mo. — 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 percent 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 percent of campus sexual assaults involve alcohol. Frequently both the man and the woman have been drinking. The men tend to use the drinking to justify their behavior, 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 behavior. “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 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 nave 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.”