After Slate columnist Emily Yoffe wrote a piece Oct. 15 to call attention to the correlation between alcohol use and sexual assault, the reaction was harsh. She wrote, “A misplaced fear of blaming the victim has made it somehow unacceptable to warn inexperienced young women that when they get wasted, they are putting themselves in potential peril.”
Bloggers and the public jumped at her for supposedly blaming victims for being raped and suggesting they change their behavior to avoid being assaulted. A Jezebel blogger blasted, “DON’T write ‘how not to get raped’ columns in the first place,” while Feministing.com called Yoffe a “rape denialist” and said her piece lent “credence to criminals.”
The New York Times then launched a “ Room for Debate” discussion with six informed debaters presenting a spectrum of points about alcohol and sexual assault, from “Don’t shift the focus from men,” to “Protecting women is not ‘victim blaming.’”
The hard fact is that, while it’s clear that sexual assault is never the fault of the victim, and the involvement of alcohol in no way excuses the perpetrators’ heinous crime, it’s a little less clear how to most helpfully discuss the correlation between rates of sexual assault and alcohol. Once you know the research — that studies have consistently found about half of all sexual assaults are committed by men who have been drinking, and half of all sexual assault victims report they were drinking — what do you do with it?
First, telling women and men that alcohol has a chance of increasing their risk of being assaulted is not the same thing as condoning a rapist’s behavior. It’s also not the same as saying if women or men don’t drink they’ll be completely safe; of course that’s not true either. In addition, informing the public about the fact that the No. 1 date-rape drug is alcohol is not the same as even saying alcohol causes rape. It doesn’t. Rather the causes lie with a desire for power and control, combined with a sense of sexual entitlement and a warped view of gender roles, which are often magnified by alcohol consumption.
At the same time, no woman should have to feel unsafe when she’s out drinking, and women shouldn’t have to alter their behavior because misogyny exists. But changing a culture, so people no longer feel at risk, is hard. Talking about how to eliminate violence is certainly a lot more difficult than criticizing a columnist’s writings.
So when people discuss the need for the public to know about the very real correlation between drinking and sexual assault, it’s important to get at why that correlation should not be inevitable and what communities can do to change societal views. That was an important message missing from Yoffe’s column.
There are many programs that aim to prevent sexual violence. They often focus on educating youth and challenging gender stereotypes. They discuss not just what behavior to avoid but what behavior to emulate: What does a healthy relationship look like? How do you talk about sex? In Maine, for instance, the organization Boys to Men teaches boys how to stop bullying, harassment, sexism and violence. There are also bystander intervention programs, particularly on college campuses, that teach: When you see something, say something.
But the truth is that the U.S. knows more about the risk factors of sexual violence than how to prevent the violence in the first place. Yes, there is an idea of how to go about it; one study showed Violence Against Women Act grants have been linked to reduced sexual assault rates, for example, and other experts say education is making a difference. But even the violence prevention division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention acknowledges that quality research on sexual violence prevention — and interpersonal violence in general — is in its infancy.
One of the real problems that Yoffe didn’t address — and neither did her critics — was why it’s taken so long to prioritize researching how to end this massive public health problem. Each year, about 3,300 instances of unwanted sexual activity, including rape, are estimated to be reported to police in Maine. The actual number of sex crimes, however, is closer to 13,000, according to the Muskie School of Public Service, because the vast majority aren’t reported to law enforcement. With about 25 percent of women likely to be sexually assaulted in adolescence or adulthood, with 18 percent raped, you’d think the country would have a better collection of scientific evidence of what works to prevent violence.
The real travesty is not what Yoffe discussed but what she didn’t. Sadly, the same theme plays out across the nation.