There is a relationship between sexual assault and alcohol. We all know that, but we certainly don’t agree on what it means or what to do about it. The discussion is not new, but continues to be newly discovered, recently by Emily Yoffe, who has a platform in Slate to reach the masses, and whose daughter is about to start college. Many people concur with Yoffe that it is common sense to tell young women not to drink to excess in order to prevent being assaulted. Many others vehemently oppose this approach because it doesn’t work, and contributes to victim blaming. It is difficult terrain, intellectually and emotionally. It deserves, and requires, passionate conversations.
We have a problem with alcohol and we have a problem with sexual assault, but they aren’t the same problem. Sexual assault is primarily committed against the most vulnerable—women, LGBTQ people, children, and people with disabilities. It is committed when someone exerts power over another by forcing sexual contact, primarily in situations that mask and protect the perpetrator. In the U.S. today, especially on college campuses, there is no better mask than alcohol. At other times and places, sexual predators are protected because their victims are enslaved, poor, incarcerated, or financially or emotionally dependent on them.
The vast majority of assaults against young women are committed by a young man they know and trust. It’s hard to accept that some of our young men are rapists, and especially hard to know what to do about that. It’s much easier to ask the women not to drink. But this admonition does not do what it’s meant to do. The belief that a survivor can control the behavior of a rapist by not drinking keeps survivors silenced, feeling responsible for a crime committed against them, and keeps the rest of us from two important tasks: holding perpetrators accountable and working together to prevent sexual violence by promoting equality and respect in our homes and communities.
Concern and fear and a wish to stop these assaults from happening should motivate all of us to think about solutions. Telling women not to drink might seem like the obvious thing to do, but why? Why do we focus on the targets of the violence and the method used to violate? Why are we reluctant to focus on the reasons for the violence?
One of the more thoughtful and cogent thinkers on the relation between alcohol, sexual assault and prevention education is Dr. Luoluo Hong. In a 2003 article, for the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, she wrote that her instinct as a scholar was to start by reviewing the research literature, but she decided against that because she believes the focus on alcohol has obscured the real problem: the agency of the perpetrator and the gender role expectations which normalize violence against women in this country.
Yoffe does rely on research in her article. Research clearly shows that, especially on college campuses, alcohol use and abuse often occur in conjunction with sexual assaults. Other characteristics of these assaults have also been well researched and documented. The perpetrators are predominantly male acquaintances of the victims, who are predominantly female and sometimes extremely intoxicated. What she didn’t find was evidence that telling young women not to drink would solve the problem. That’s because there isn’t any.
Yoffe is right that alcohol is present in a large percentage of sexual assaults. It is also a fact that alcohol is present in a large percentage of social encounters when there is not a sexual assault. Alcohol has often been used to explain evils of the world, so there is a pattern in place to make alcohol the scapegoat. Sex and alcohol and violence are tightly linked in our culture. Alcohol is an explanation that is much simpler and emotionally easier to accept than the fact that we are raising our children to think violence is sexy and sex is violent and boys are supposed to be aggressive and girls are supposed to be alluring but not sluts.
Further examination of the research Yoffe cites is revealing. The 2007 Campus Sexual Assault Study investigated perpetration as an “exploratory component.” In a 100 page research report, there are 4 pages about perpetration and perpetrators, including a statement that they are concerned about the validity of the perpetration data, and “doubt on whether researchers can credibly collect data on perpetration of sexual assault via any methodology.” They are concerned because they think some of the males surveyed weren’t truthful about their perpetration, and other males believed that what they did was not wrong. The study has a page of recommendations on educating women to behave in certain ways. At the end of that page are three recommendations for educating men, all of which are about telling men sexual assault is illegal and they are responsible for following the law.
This method is not working. We have been “educating” women to protect themselves from rape and abuse for centuries. Telling men to obey the law isn’t getting us anywhere either. We don’t need more volumes of research to tell us that some men are violent toward women. What we need is the collective courage to admit that we all contribute to supporting, or confronting, that behavior.
Another study Yoffe cites, has some information that Yoffe did not include in her article. “Overall, the characteristics of alcohol-involved sexual assaults and sexual assaults that do not involve alcohol are similar.”
Hong asks in her article: “Do we truly believe that if alcohol were to disappear from college campuses, rapes would cease to occur? The value system which is used to reinforce, justify and sometimes excuse sexual assault on the part of perpetrators – much of it ensconced in our limiting conceptions of masculinity and female sexuality – would still be unchanged.”
I have never met a sexual violence prevention educator on any college campus who refused to tell women that drinking to excess can be problematic. Most campuses devote enormous resources to telling all the students that excessive drinking can be problematic. This is risk reduction, it is not prevention of sexual assault. Prevention is changing the culture so that sexual assault is recognized, understood and no longer accepted.
Director, We End Violence