This week Slate advice columnist Emily Yoffe incurred the wrath of Twitter with her ambitiously titled column, “College Women: Stop Getting Drunk”. Yoffe’s argument? College women should refrain from getting blotto because a lot of sexual assaults on campus involve alcohol; women who don’t imbibe excessively may be less susceptible to sexual assault. She writes:
“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.”
To say that this theory ticked off a lot of people would be a gross understatement. Many pointed out the hypocrisy of Yoffe’s thesis: why target drinking among campus women and not men? But most, including Alexander Abad-Santos at The Atlantic Wire, made clear that they object to telling would-be victims—as opposed to would-be rapists—anything at all when it comes to sexual assault prevention. Abad-Santos’advice is here: “What about teaching men not to rape?”
(Yes and while we’re at it, we’ll teach terrorists not to terrorize, dictators not to dictate, hit men not to hit men and con men not to con them.)
I am no fonder of Yoffe’s argument than Abad-Santos is, but I’m equally wary of this creeping norm that casts any and all sexual assault prevention geared towards women as “victim blaming.” And I’m doubly wary of the notion that rape is a purely learned crime, something that more social programming and less Robin Thicke will one day eradicate.
To view rape, and by extension evil, as an inevitability in this world is not to placate it. Of course we should do what we can to “teach men not to rape” if such a thing is possible. We should also—for enhanced protection, in the likely event that such tutelage proves ineffective—teach women how to protect themselves. Don’t leave your drink unattended, don’t get blackout drunk at a frat party without a loyal female friend in situ, and yes, as vague Police Officer X is wont to say: “be mindful of your surroundings.”
Writers like Abad-Santos, and feminist writer Jessica Valenti—who had a near melt down on Twitter after Yoffe’s column went up—are under the impression that any preventative attention paid to a potential victim of sexual assault (as opposed to the potential rapist) is misplaced. It’s one of the most common sexual political occurrences today: The well-meaning protectorate says something practical if not profoundly obvious (the most common being “be mindful of your surroundings”) and the well-meaning activist takes offense, projecting onto the practical, a veiled, misogynist agenda.
Yes, rapists are responsible for rape, not low-cut tops, or unattended Smirnoff Ice. But that doesn’t mean rapists’ would-be victims should take zero measures to protect themselves—or that we shouldn’t help them do so. We don’t tell cops to throw away their bulletproof vests because the problem is guns. We don’t tell cyclists to go without helmets because the problem is cars. And we don’t abstain from telling children not to take candy from strangers because the problem is pedophilia—not child naïveté. So when it comes to issues of sexual assault, why do we treat women like children who are too delicate to know the truth; being female is and will always be more dangerous than being male. There is no use pretending otherwise.
Victim-blaming is alive and well. I am not suggesting it isn’t. But suggesting that women be “mindful of their surroundings,” go dangerous places chaperoned, and yes— drink less among obliterated fraternity brothers—is not a covert and sexist way of saying “some men just can’t help themselves.” It’s an honest way of saying some men won’t.