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On Rape, Alcohol, and Prevention

Tuesday, October 22nd, 2013

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.

-Carol Mosley
Director, We End Violence

Drugging Your Date

Sunday, September 11th, 2011

Too often in our culture we are exposed to “humor” that suggests drugging someone (which includes deliberately getting them wasted drunk) in order to take advantage of them is, at times, acceptable.  This “humor” is tragic, especially since we know that there are thousand upon thousands of women (and many men) in the U.S. who are raped every year with drugs and/or alcohol being their attackers weapon of choice.

This last week I heard a radio advertisement–undoubtedly designed to be “controversial”–on a popular Clear Channel radio station in San Diego. The ad is from a company called, the Anti-Gym.  They’ve been criticized for MANY of their ad campaigns, several of which refer to overweight people (in particular women) as “cubbies.”

While I find this company and its ads offensive, I think the fact they are running this type of ad reflects a larger cultural problem…namely our beliefs that drug-facilitated rape doesn’t really happen or isn’t serious, that men cannot be raped because they’re men, and that there are some circumstances in which it is acceptable to tease/joke about sexual violence.

So here’s the ad.  Have a listen.


Now I’m not sure how you feel after listening, but I was, to say the least, SERIOUSLY disturbed by the ad.  First, this is just another example of advertisers in the health/beauty industry helping women hate their bodies no matter what their bodies look like (so they can then sell them more stuff to “fix” the bodies they’ve been taught to hate). Yet what REALLY disturbs me about this ad is the way that it makes light of sexual violence.  What in the world is this ad trying to say?  That it is okay for women who can’t afford the Anti-Gym to use drugs/alcohol to rape men?  That it’s okay to support your friend’s body issues even when they tell you they’re considering DRUGGING THEIR DATES!?!?  This ad not only fails to denounce such ideas as negative, illegal, or immoral, it actually suggests that sexual violence is an acceptable consideration when someone is desperate because they do not feel physically attractive or appealing enough.

How many times must we be exposed to the idea that sexual violence is, at times, acceptable?!?!  How many times will our culture repeat the idea that there are some excuses for an act THERE SHOULD BE NO EXCUSES FOR!!!

Now I recognize that at no time in this advertisement does someone say, “it’s okay to rape,” but the idea that drugging someone to facilitate rape (yes, rape, because it’s no longer sex once you’ve drugged them) should be seen as silly, playful or funny, is actually dangerous.  I don’t mean to imply that someone listening to this ad will rape; what I mean is that this ad, along with a culture full of other ads/ideas like it, creates a space where those people who do rape can think that what they’re doing is acceptable, and people who are raped can think that it’s their fault for not “knowing better.”

Bottom line…this ad is dangerous for ANYONE living in a culture where people can hear it, and not be bothered by it.

Change culture.

Together We Can.

Sexism vs. Sexism

Monday, February 28th, 2011

Sexism is a powerful system.  Arguably, it exists in almost every culture on the planet, and facilitates discrimination, oppression, and violence against women all around the world.  The “face” of sexism does change from culture to culture, however, and at times those changes prompt people to examine the differences in sexism across cultures.  That is precisely what happened last Friday night on Real Time with Bill Maher.

On his show, Bill Maher commented on the tragedy of Lara Logan (the journalist who was raped while covering the Egyptian revolution).  Mr. Maher used this as an opportunity to assert that men in Egypt and other Muslim countries were never going to have democracy if they didn’t also have a sexual revolution.  Maher argued, in sum, that the way Arab (he switched between the terms Arab and Muslim) men treat women is worse than the way that American men treat women.

Mr. Maher’s thinking is both a predictable and a counter-productive way to analyze sexism.  While his comparison is not ridiculous—there are clear differences between women’s lives in the U.S. and women’s lives in some Muslim or Arab countries—his argument is basically about which culture treats women LESS badly.  Not exactly a great starting place for a conversation about improving the lives of women.

Tavis Smiley, one of the panelists on Real Time, attempted to challenge part of Mr. Maher’s assertion, reminding Maher that sexism and patriarchy are alive and well here in the states.

Smiley:  I think that it might surprise us to go into our papers in this country every day and to see stories just like this about how women are mal treated in this country every single day.

Maher: That’s such bullshit.

Mr. Maher’s vehement disagreement was based on the notion that Smiley was using a false equivalency.

Maher:  I mean in this country we treat women badly because they don’t get equal pay or someone calls you sugar tits or something like that.

Smiley:  And you think that’s okay?

Maher:  I don’t but I don’t think it’s comparable to cutting their heads off, not letting them drive, not letting them work.

This, is the moment when Mr. Maher failed to support women.  By asserting that women in the U.S. don’t have to deal with beheadings, he silenced and minimized the very real daily suffering of women in this country.  He, in effect, disproves his own assertion that our culture is “better”.  Yes, women can vote here, and that is a SIGNIFICANT difference, but apparently, famous men still feel comfortable joking about the real suffering women here DO experience.  We DO live in a country where women are raped and then made to feel it was their fault. We DO live in a country where women are sexually assaulted while serving in our military, and then reprimanded for THEIR behavior when they come forward.  We DO live in a country where men beat and murder their wives.  Sexism is, point in fact, an issue of LIFE and DEATH in our country too.

Mr. Maher is correct in that there are places in this world where women are SO devalued, that throwing acid on their faces seems acceptable practice.  Yet, the fact they are devalued worse should not ever be used to excuse or minimize the way WE devalue women here.  To do so only fuels the system of sexism everywhere, which benefits women nowhere.

The Unimaginable

Friday, February 18th, 2011

I’ve been in the field of violence prevention for 10 years, now, and after a decade, there are a few things I can conclude above all else.  First, our culture is saturated with violence—TV, film, news, video games, music, books—you name it, we’ve got it.  Second, our culture’s history is immersed in violence—the Wild West, World Wars I & II, Columbine, Vietnam, Tucson, Afghanistan.  Third, and perhaps most importantly, what I’ve learned in the last 10 years, is that our culture is GIFTED, utterly gifted at ignoring violence.  When it comes to violence, we’re like that character from the film Memento—you know, the guy who can’t remember anything five minutes after it’s just happened.

In our very recent past, another violent tragedy occurred in Tucson, Arizona.  This violent act was actually just one of thousands that occurred around our country.  From rapes, to assaults, from domestic violence to murder, citizens of our country were subjected to a terrible amount of violence—as they are every week of the year.  What made the tragedy in Tucson special for me, though, was not just that it involved public figures, or that it was a violent mass killing.  Instead, what made it special for me was that with all the violence in our culture, people still responded with pure shock that something like this could actually happen.

In her first show after the tragedy, Rachel Maddow did a brilliant segment about how many different examples there have been of shootings just like the one in Tucson (over the lifetime of the shooter, 1988-today).  Her opening was quite poignant in its demonstration that although we’ve seen this type of violence so many times before, we continue to think of it as unimaginable.  You can watch the clip here: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/26315908/ns/msnbc_tv-rachel_maddow_show/#41011447

Why do we describe something that has happened so many times as unimaginable?  I understand that this type of violence seems more dramatic and thus more difficult to believe, but this is EXACTLY the problem our culture has with ALL forms of violence (with the exception of gang violence in the inner city—which in this totally NON-post-racial world we seem to accept as entirely predictable).  We believe that violence is rare, unpredictable, and thus out of our control to prevent.  We believe this so much that we create a cultural amnesia—an amnesia that allows us to pretend we don’t all have to participate proactively to stop these daily atrocities.

We cannot stop violence, we cannot hope to prevent it, if we allow our culture to deliberately wipe it from our consciousness every moment it’s not thrown in our faces.  The violence continues precisely because we pretend this stuff doesn’t happen and then act surprised when it does.  The friend reacts with shock when her girlfriend is raped by a man they both know (when, in fact, most rapes are committed by someone the person knows); the sister reacts with shock when she hears her sibling was beat to within an inch of her life by her husband; the Governor of Arizona reacts with shock when an armed man (yes…it’s important to note it’s almost always a man) shoots twenty people.

The tragedy in Arizona, like most of the daily tragedies in this country can seem unimaginable because they are horrific and painful.  However, how many more times will we look at acts of violence as unpredictable, unimaginable, isolated events before we take action in response to the ludicrously obvious reality about our culture: that it is saturated with violence and a DELIBERATE denial about the frequency of that violence and the damage it does?

In the end, our culture has to start to recognize that this IS who we are.  In fact, if there’s one way to prevent violence from occurring in the future it’s to take a hard look at ourselves and no longer deny the reality that we are a culture that both promotes and ignores violence.  Despite all of our advances, and there have been many, we are still a culture that regularly silences the voices of survivors; we are still a culture where people abdicate their responsibility to be proactive in preventing violence and then react in shock when it occurs.

After 10 years doing violence prevention work, I can say with confidence that much like the first steps in ending an addiction, reducing violence will require we openly admit our problem by reminding ourselves and everyone around us that violence IS a daily reality in our country.  Only then can we begin to heal and prevent these daily tragedies.  Frankly, in a country filled with so many people who do care and who want to do the right thing, doing any less would be…well, unimaginable.


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