Victim-Blaming, From Maryville to a College Near You

I wasn’t inclined to like Emily Yoffe’s recent Slate column, entitled “College Women: Stop Getting Drunk.” (No one gets between me and my Franzia). But the claims inside are worth getting angry about. Yoffe’s argument — that female binge drinking enables rapists — puts the blame for sexual assault in the victim’s hands.

I for one have seen quite enough victim-blaming this year. Consider recent events on Maryville, Missouri. Two girls, aged 13 and 14, snuck out one night to go to a party with some boys on the local high school football team. The older boys gave them alcohol, raped them, and then left Daisy Coleman, the older victim, outside in below-freezing temperatures for several hours. Luckily, when her mother found her, she was taken immediately to the hospital where doctors performed a rape kit and collected all necessary forensic evidence to convict her rapist. Yet charges against the 17-year-old attacker were dropped without the case ever going to trial, and the town of Maryville united around the boys.

Only recently did Daisy Coleman’s story gain national attention, thanks to an in-depth feature in the Kansas City Star. In her hometown of Maryville, Daisy’s fellow students felt no shame in victim blaming; they took to twitter calling her a “skank” and “crazy bitch” for pressing charges against a beloved football player. And victim blaming isn’t just for teenagers; a guest on Fox News recently mused, “Nobody forced her to drink … What did she expect to happen at one in the morning after sneaking out?”

(The obvious answer is: Not rape. Perhaps she should have expected a hangover. Maybe she should have expected to be grounded. She definitely should not have expected to be sexually assaulted.)

Such a line of thinking is clearly insensitive and morally reprehensible, but Yoffe’s article presents a similar argument. College women, nobody’s forcing you to drink. What do you expect to happen?

Unsurprisingly, the backlash to Yoffe’s column was immediate and inevitable, and it prompted Yoffe (who writes Slate’s “Dear Prudence” column) to respond to the outrage. After claiming that her critics were all misquoting her, eventually she accused them of trying to shut down the conversation entirely. And considering that Jezebel’s rebuttal included the line, “DON’T write “how not to get raped” columns in the first place,” you can see where Yoffe might have gotten the impression that she was being silenced.

No one is arguing that alcohol doesn’t play a role in sexual assault, especially on college campuses. In a study that Yoffe cites, 55% of collegiate rape victims report having been drinking.

But sobriety doesn’t guarantee safety. Yoffe wants to believe that if women would stop getting so drunk, they would get raped less often, but a full 45% of the rape victims in the above study report being completely sober at the time of their attack. (Yoffe also ignores the fact that women aren’t the only victims of sexual assault. Men get raped too, albeit less often.)

Moreover, Yoffe completely ignores the fact that the same study reports 74% of collegiate rape perpetrators having been drunk. If we want to reduce rape, and there’s a demographic that we’re encouraging to stop drinking, shouldn’t it be college men? Yoffe has every right to tell college students to stop getting drunk and making bad decisions. But let’s not ignore the ultimate bad decision: the decision to rape a classmate.

Still, Yoffe’s followup begs some interesting questions. Is it really taboo to tell potential victims how to minimize the risk of sexual assault? Should it be?

No and no. And tone matters; any well-intentioned “rape-prevention” advice can sound accusatory or condescending to a rape survivor. But most college women already know the conventional wisdom. Don’t leave your drink unattended. Stick with your friends. Look out for each other. Trust your instincts. Don’t drink the jungle juice. Know your limits.

We’ve been hearing these adages since high school. It’s all fine advice, but the expectation that women should live in fear of an acquaintance (or friend) “taking advantage” of our intoxication is mind-boggling. From puberty onward, we’re taught that unless we take great steps to avoid it, being raped is practically inevitable. And when a woman (or, too frequently, a girl) is raped, we don’t ask what could have possibly possessed the attacker. We ask, “How could she have avoided this?” We ask, “What did she do wrong?” We should be focusing our efforts on teaching people not to rape, but a lot of folks honestly believe that rape prevention is in the hands of the victims.

(Imagine it were any other crime, with a male victim: A college guy gets wasted, so a gang drags him outside, steals his money, and beats him while his friends watch. When he wakes up, hurt, confused, and embarrassed, everyone tells him he should have expected this to happen. He wasn’t looking out for himself! He shouldn’t have gotten so drunk! These things happen!)

So what do you say to college women? What should Yoffe tell her daughter, who will be starting college next fall?

Do try to stay safe. Look out for your friends, and make friends who will look out for you. Know who you can call if you ever feel uncomfortable. Buy a rape whistle if it makes you feel safer. Don’t drink unless you want to. But more importantly, know that if you ever report a sexual assault, you should be taken seriously no matter how drunk you were, how short your skirt was, or how long you’ve known the perpetrator.

And know that, if you are the victim of rape, it is never your fault.

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