Opinion: Victim-Blaming Is Misguided

Emily Yoffe’s recent article for Slate, titled "College Women: Stop Getting Drunk," puts a new spin on victim blaming in sexual assaults. But she’s not really victim blaming—she’s simply warning young women that by allowing themselves to get wasted, they are essentially setting themselves up to get raped. Yoffe’s article gets dangerously close to following the logic of a woman “asking for it” by behaving certain ways. No one is ever asking to be violated against his or her will. The main argument of the article is that young women should be told the “truth” about their drinking, and that it’s probably why they’re getting assaulted.

But here’s the thing: How often are men told to “be careful” when they go out? How often are they warned to make sure they don’t drink too much (no shots!)? I’d wager that whatever the statistic is, it is much lower than the instance of women being warned to watch out. Perhaps there should be more attention paid to the perpetrators.  Anne Coughlin, a University of Virginia School of Law professor, claims that to not tell women not to drink too much is to infantilize them. But aren’t we infantilizing the men by not telling them that their behavior is unacceptable? To allow men to keep drinking the way they do is to allow the old “boys will be boys” line of excusing bad behavior to perpetuate.

But rape and sexual assault aren’t the same as getting into a fight in the quad or just bein’ a guy—it is a serious crime with severe psychological and physical effects on the victim. There’s no excuse for rape, nor should a man ever be allowed to defend himself by saying that the girl should have known better.  In a response to the Slate article, New York Magazine wrote a piece titled "College Men: Stop Getting Drunk":

The real masculine message should be that when you lose the ability to be responsible for yourself, you drastically increase the chances that you will become the kind of person who, shall we say, doesn't have others' best interests at heart” in response to Yoffe’s claim that, “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.”

The problem with campaigning against young women “putting themselves” in these situations is that it fails to address the underlying issue: we need to put more effort into conditioning young men to respect rather than attack women.

Yoffe writes about how the accused typically blamed their actions on alcohol. When the victims, often young women, blamed alcohol for their own inability to defend themselves, they felt shame and guilt. They’re not feeling shame and guilt because what they were doing was inherently wrong—they’re feeling it because society has told them that this behavior is not classy, and certainly not something a lady should be doing. But why? Why should a rape victim feel more shame and guilt than her rapist? Because we allow the blame to fall on the girl for not being vigilant enough, for not watching how much she drank, instead of placing more responsibility on the guy who took advantage of her. What should be sources of disgust and embarrassment are the boys who get too drunk to respect a woman. They should be the ones who are shamed and humiliated.

The fact is, researchers are right: it is clear when someone is extremely intoxicated, hence the term “visibly intoxicated.” In that case, it’s even more important that the emphasis be placed on teaching men how to be gentlemen—not just through being a campus leader or putting on a front of being a “nice guy,” but actually following through by not having sex with a girl who’s too drunk to know what’s going on. Additionally, we should tell young men that if they know a girl is very drunk, he shouldn’t accept her incoherent slurring as consent. I am hesitant to believe that the young men who commit these crimes are unaware that the girl wasn’t actually saying ‘yes’ when she was passed out. 

Yoffe’s little public service announcement against binge-drinking addresses another problem here: she’s not telling young men explicitly to drink less, just women. She would tell her son not to be “that drunken Frat boy”, but her daughter that she should only drink two drinks.  Young women shouldn’t be taught that they are just “different” from men and therefore can’t demonstrate certain social behaviors. Women are humiliated for being promiscuous, while men are still applauded, and often excused by women themselves. Yes, there is a biological difference between the way that women and men metabolize alcohol. But if young men are using alcohol as a weapon, then it’s a problem and they need to be the ones who are reprimanded for drinking. The response won’t “trickle down” to men, as Yoffe posits, if women start to monitor their drinks more closely. The drunk college boy’s inner rapist shouldn’t just be deterred because a girl isn’t black out drunk, it should be addressed and eradicated completely.  Step one is by focusing these articles on telling young men, and not just young women, to control themselves.