Getting beyond the 'drunk slut'€™ narrative on college campuses

Commentary: Telling young women not to drink in order to avoid rape focuses on the wrong group of people

The focus should be on those who sexually assault, rather than on the behavior of the victims.
David Hogsholt/Getty Images

On college campuses, fall semesters are winding down and post-final, pre-holiday parties will soon kick into high gear. Hard partying brings with it alcohol-related problems, including sexual assault. Common sense advice to female students often boils down to “avoid drinking,” as alcohol is involved in the lion’s share of college sexual assault cases. But what if everything we thought we knew about rape on college campuses is wrong? What if the so-called common sense advice we dole out to young women actually makes it easier for rapists to commit crimes and harder for them to be prosecuted?

Certainly alcohol is involved in a significant proportion of sexual assaults, particularly on college campuses. One in four American women will be sexually assaulted, and alcohol is involved in about half of those assaults — consumed by the perpetrator, the victim or both. In college sexual assaults, the numbers are even starker: One study estimated that alcohol was involved in up to 80 percent of incidents. The solution seems simple. If getting drunk puts young women at risk for rape, then telling them to stop getting drunk would lead to a decrease in sexual assault rates. That advice has been doled out on college campuses, in public service ads and — most recently, as a response to the highly charged cases of alleged sexual assault involving high school students in Steubenville, Ohio, and Maryville, Mo. — in publications across the political spectrum, from Slate to The Globe and Mail.

But however well-intentioned this recommendation is, telling women to avoid alcohol in order to protect against rape actually gives sexual predators the license to operate. It makes women less likely to believe that what happened to them is really rape. And it makes it much more difficult to successfully prosecute sexual assailants.

While rape is a common crime, rapists are, statistically, a very small portion of the population. This means that most rapists are serial offenders. The idea that rape is often a sexual misunderstanding — frequently reduced simply to a he-said, she-said debate — is belied by the fact that such predators tend to attack many times over, invoking “misunderstandings” as a defense to avoid responsibility. These men know what they are doing; they may not call it “rape,” but they are well aware they are having sex with women who are not consenting. One study found that while 30 percent of campus rapists used force, the rest targeted intoxicated victims. Alcohol was not the source of confusion, but rather their chosen weapon — a chosen weapon that provided cover for an assault. We can tell women to drink within reason to avoid victimization, but that does little to prevent sexual assault on a broader scale — and it does not change the fact that there will always be a drunkest girl at the party.

Not quite innocent

Focusing on women’s behavior reinforces the very stereotypes about women, drinking and sexual availability on which rapists themselves rely. Sexual predators do not tend to assault the first woman who crosses their path; they choose their victims based on who they think they can get away with assaulting. To evade responsibility, they rely on deeply held cultural ideas about women’s sexuality, which, on college campuses, often means a perpetuation of the “drunk slut” narrative — the one that says women who drink are sexually available and licentious “girls gone wild,” doing things under the influence that they would not do otherwise, and titillating for a male audience — even a source of male bonding — but not deserving of respect or decent treatment.

Those who commit sexual assaults know they are less likely to be reported, let alone arrested, prosecuted or punished, if the woman was drinking.

Sexual predators target, and can continue to target, drunk women precisely because of that social narrative. They wager that their peers, college administrators, police officers and juries will likely see an intoxicated victim of sexual assault as not guilty, exactly — but also not as innocent as a woman raped by a stranger jumping out of the bushes. They know that the woman herself will be more likely to feel conflicted and ashamed, as though she has made a terrible error. Because of this long-standing narrative, those who commit sexual assaults know they are less likely to be reported, let alone arrested, prosecuted or punished, if the woman was drinking.

They know that because society tells them so. When we tell women that getting drunk makes them vulnerable, and that the best way to avoid assault is to abstain or to “drink responsibly” (a term that is, by the way, rarely defined), we feed, and feed into, that narrative. The broader message we are conveying is that women who drink are at least a little bit negligent, and thus a little bit liable for any potential victimization.

This dynamic is playing out, under the trained gaze of the national media, in Maryville, Mo. There a 14-year-old girl named Daisy Coleman said she went to a get-together at the home of an acquaintance, where she was handed a cup of alcohol and drank to the point of blacking out. While she was either unconscious or only marginally lucid, she says, a popular high school football player raped her. The man, Matthew Barnett, is now a college student. He says the sex was consensual. Charges were brought, but then dropped. Robert Rice, the Nodaway County prosecutor, said there was insufficient evidence to pursue the felony rape count. It was simply a case of "incorrigible teenagers," he told a reporter from The Kansas City Star. “They were doing what they wanted to do, and there weren’t any consequences. And it’s reprehensible. But is it criminal? No.” Barnett’s attorney, Robert Sundell, agreed: “Just because we don’t like the way teenagers act doesn’t necessarily make it a crime.”

Having sex with a person too drunk to consent is a crime, though. So why is it not always treated like one? Perhaps because we assume that boys will be boys, or because we implicitly consider girls to be collateral damage to teenage bad behavior and irresponsible for not protecting themselves. There is a culture of cruelty and victory around young men "getting" sex even from young women unable to consent; and for some young women there is shame associated with an apparent failure to not "give it away."

If we did not already hold certain widespread assumptions that young women should protect themselves by avoiding alcohol — and that it is socially acceptable to have sex with drunk girls — the public perception in the Maryville case would likely have looked very different. 

Shifting the norm on sex

Studies show that men who rape tend to hold more rigid views of gender roles than the general population; they embrace hypermasculinity and tend to feel more anger toward women, as well as the desire to control and dominate them. Those are learned ideals, not inborn ones, and as gender equality becomes an increasingly mainstream concern, sexual assault rates are decreasing. Battling stereotypes about female vulnerability and the sexual availability of women who drink heavily would, from a public health and legal perspective, be much more effective than warning individual women about their choices.

Focusing on men who rape rather than on what victims could have done differently does not just target those particular men; it helps to reshape the culture that allows them to rape, by making it harder for them to commit assaults and get away with them. What if it were seen as not just unacceptable, but also emasculating and pathetic, to take an incoherently drunk girl up to your room, or to have sex with someone who was not fully and enthusiastically into it? If the social norm were that sex is not about “getting some” from women, but rather about having a great time with a partner who clearly desires you, most of the ability for campus rapists to operate would evaporate.

As it stands, however, fraternities and other male-oriented organizations practically give workshops on how to target the drunkest girls, or the ones with the lowest self-esteem whose boundaries can be manipulated, or the youngest ones who do not yet know their limits and can be the most easily plied with alcohol. With this license to exploit set in place as a social norm, when college students see their peers targeting drunk girls at parties or at bars, there is little incentive to step in. (Consider, by contrast, that it is now socially acceptable to intervene if one sees a drunk person getting behind the wheel of a car.) Change those norms, and though the men who target drunk women may still be callous or sadistic, the space within which they are able to carry out that sadism will narrow. Unlike simply lecturing women not to drink — which at best might protect an individual woman, but not necessarily the woman farther down the bar — a dedicated focus on men and social norms might actually prevent assaults on a broad level, without inadvertently giving rapists cover to commit their crimes.

Opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Al Jazeera America.

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