Earlier this month, Slate’s in-house agony aunt Emily Yoffe was the latest to dip her toes into one of the thorniest corners of the giant teeming hornet’s nest that is campus sexual assault: drinking.
The vast majority of college rapes occur when a man has sex with a woman who is too drunk to consent, often in her bedroom. Of women who’d ever consumed 10 or more drinks in a sitting since starting college, 59 percent were sexually victimized by the end of their first semester, according to a 2011 University of Buffalo study.
The best way to prevent alcohol-based assaults, Yoffe argued, is for young women to drink less alcohol.
"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," she wrote. "Young women are getting a distorted message that their right to match men drink for drink is a feminist issue."
Critics quickly pummeled the column, which Salon summarized as an ”entreaty that women stop drinking alcohol so that men will stop raping them.”
While feminists in-fought on the Internet over whether Yoffe’s advice was deluded victim-shaming or basic common sense, correspondent Casey Kauffman spent a day and a night partying at the University of Kansas, with young college men and women who had plenty of their own thoughts on drinking and sex, and the often euphoric - and sometimes dystopian - mixing of the two.
'Everyone's so drunk'
Kauffman's first discovery was that college students, by and large, love drinking and having sex. And some male students seemed to love it, even if they’d blacked out the details. Or the fact of the sex happening at all.
“There’s nights where we go out and we wake up and we are with a girl and we don’t remember anything from the night before, like, ask ourselves, ‘Whoa, did I have sex with her, or no?’” explains Casey, a KU senior. “It’s nothing like bad. We enjoy partying. We enjoy having a good time.”
“We just like to drink together,” says Casey’s girlfriend of three years, when the two are reunited a little later at the party. “A couple that blacks out together, stays together."
Overall, college kids aren’t binge drinking more than they were 10 years ago. Forty percent of 18- to 24-year-old college kids drank five or more units of alcohol on one occasion in the previous 30 days, according to a 2012 survey by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, down from 44 percent in 2002. Fourteen percent drank that much on at least five occasions in the past month, a number that is also going down.
But this antiseptic speak of units and occasions does little justice to the raucous dreamscape of the sizeable hard-partying minority, where good times are the only goal and cheap vodka in 1.75-liter plastic bottles act as the currency.
Or as Emily, another KU senior explains it: “The typical weekend is getting out of class, going to the Hawk, getting a burger, drinking, going home, getting ready, drinking some more, going out and getting wasted.”
“Everyone’s just having so much fun,” she continues. “Everyone’s so drunk.”
[Update Nov. 1: After Kauffman's piece aired Tuesday evening, the University of Kansas Vice Provost for Student Affairs Tammara Durham issued a statement condemning the students' behavior. "Unfortunately, this small group went on camera to demonstrate their dangerous drinking and attitudes toward sexual consent," she said. "They represent a small minority of the KU population."]
The fear of being a rapist
These KU kids do appear to be getting as drunk as they say they are. They are likely not, however, having as much sex as they say they are.
“We’re all going to end up blacking the f*** out and enjoying each other,” says Casey, the guy in the long-term relationship. “We’ll find biddies and we f***ing take them home, and we’ll wake up with all of them.”
Between 2002 and 2010, less than one-third of college students said they had more than one sexual partner in the previous year, according to an analysis presented at this year’s American Sociological Association conference. The numbers mirrored the rate during the late 80s and 90s.
But when Kathleen Bogle, author of "Hooking Up: Sex, Dating and Relationships on Campus" and an assistant professor of sociology at LaSalle University in Philadelphia, surveyed students about how many new sexual partners they thought their peers had, they said typically seven a semester. That would amount to 56 people in a four-year college career.
At college, it is not a rare thing for men and women to have sex when they’re both technically too drunk to consent. But the men Kauffman interviewed weren’t entirely sympathetic to their female classmates, who occasionally said they felt violated the following morning.
“S*** does happen. Girls wake up and they start making a lot of accusations, that happens all the time,” says Arthur, a KU senior. “But at the same time, people got to start realizing that when two people are blacked out they make stupid decisions.”
It’s for this reason that half of college women victims, living in a culture where consent is voided by alcohol and acquaintances commit most assaults, don't define their experience as a sexual assault. Many don’t feel like victims of something so clear-cut and so violent as rape.
On the flipside, the men express to Kauffman that they also struggle with the idea that they could be rapists.
“I know I’m never going to go out and rape a girl. I’m not that person,” explains Arthur. “At the same time, one of my biggest fears is waking up in the morning and not remembering s*** and then being informed that I’d made some horrible, life-changing decisions.
“So, like, if she’d come up to me and been like I don’t know who the f*** you are I didn’t have consensual sex with you, I honestly don’t know what I’d do. I mean, it’s terrifying. I think all of our friends, it’s one of our biggest fears."
Ultimately, as Kauffman’s report shows, chiding girls to drink less more often won’t solve the depressing statistics of campus assault. There are certainly guys who get drunk and have sex with girls who are drunk, and the girl feels (and often has been) assaulted. There are also guys who get drunk and have sex with girls who are drunk, and both of them have a great time. There are also serial predators, often charismatic, popular guys, who purposely liquor girls up in order to commit their crimes. Serial rapists are now likely to commit nine out of 10 campus assaults.
And then, there are the girls who aren’t drunk at all, and still get raped.
But what fundamentally foils Yoffe’s advice is how much college kids love to drink.
“Obviously everybody wakes up every once in a while, like, ‘God, I shouldn’t have been like that last night.’ But in the end, I’ve never looked back and been like, ‘I wish that night never would have happened,’” Emily says. “I’ve never had that experience. I’ve had too much fun to say that night should never have happened to me. Maybe that’s just us. Maybe we’ve just been lucky.”
It’s hard to pursue a rational path, like not getting excessively drunk, if you have an unhealthy relationship to alcohol, or are part of a larger culture that does -- like most college campuses. And since nothing tragic has ever happened to these college kids related to their drinking, they’ve had no reason to stop doing something they find so hilariously fun.
In Kauffman's story, Arthur staggers home from the bars alone later that night, but remains in good cheer. “The last four years have been the absolute time of my f***ing life, dude. I wouldn’t give that up for anything, and I’m honestly pissed off that I’m about to f***ing graduate, dude,” he slurs. “I don’t want to graduate, dude.”