Last week, when Emily Yoffe wrote an article suggesting the pragmatic value of telling college-age women to avoid getting drunk, many people, including me, viscerally objected to the victim-blaming essence of the argument. I have teenage daughters. I completely understand wanting to make sure they are safe and happy. And I think that unless you are advocating to end sexual assault in ways that address systemic solutions and don’t perpetuate victim blaming then you are part of the problem, not the solution. If we are serious about preventing predatory sexualized violence, and the alcohol abuse in its service, then we have to spend our time finding ways to achieve profound changes in the way we educate children. Articles like Yoffe’s are not only useless for the purposes of preventing sexual assault, but actively harmful because they distract us from having conversations about central issues: cultural entitlements and a deficit of empathy.
Alcohol and sexual assault are highly correlated on college campuses, but sexual assault is not a function of alcohol abuse. It is widespread and clearly it’s a function of power and entitlement. Sexual assaults on college campuses don’t take place spontaneously in a vacuum. The reality of assaults happening on campuses is a symptom of a much larger and ugly one that has nothing to do with alcohol and who consumes it. People in altered states, all kinds of altered states, act in ways that are culturally informed.
First, sexual assault on college campuses happens in environments of overwhelming cultural and institutional tolerance that support discriminatory double standards. While the overall rate of sexual assault in the US has declined since the late 1970s, it has stayed constant on US campuses. The Center for Public Policy and the Department of Justice estimate that 95% of college sexual assaults are not reported because victims, regardless of sex, gender or sexuality, do not have confidence that they will be believed, that their schools will help them and that they won’t be humiliated and shamed. Our culture essentially gives rapists the message that they're entitled to be believed and respected; their victims aren't.
Since women's basic right to bodily integrity seems to confuse some people, let’s talk about sexual assault that involves men and boys. Decades of Catholic Church sexual abuse tragedies, the Boy Scouts, Penn State, rape in correctional facilities, sexual assault in the military, recurring episodes at high schools around the country are all examples of entitlement to rape in the face of institutional tolerance.
These cases all involve situations where people, usually men, with uncontested power use that power to abuse more vulnerable people. Their victims are vulnerable not only because they are smaller or younger, and certainly not because they are drunk, but because they lack cultural power – the power to be believed or have their rights of bodily integrity respected by society. Sometimes, those people are children; other times they’re men. Much more often, however, they are young girls and women. Alcohol only highlights deeply rooted ideas about who has the right act with impunity. As Jaclyn Friedman explained five years ago, drinking “is not a risk for nearly half the population. I’ve never met a straight man who worried about being raped as he contemplated a night of debauchery. Vomiting in public? Yes. Getting rejected by sexual prospects? Sure. Getting in a fight? Maybe. Getting raped? Come on.”
A false accusation of rape is, indeed, a fearsome prospect. But the likelihood of being falsely accused of rape are no different from that of being falsely accused of any other crime. And women are far more likely to be raped than men are to be falsely accused. The insistence on treating the two as equally prevalent issues is ….an entitlement.
Secondly, sexual assault on campus is related to high rates of other forms of gendered violence on campus. Gender-based violence includes not just sexual assault, but intimate partner violence and stalking. College-aged women are at highest risk for all of these forms of violence. Decades of research and work clearly reveal that the defining characteristic of perpetrators of these crimes is entitlement. Perpetrators are people who believe they are “owed” something because of who they are or what they’ve done are the most likely to commit difference-based violence.
Third, people arrive at college with ideas and experiences. According to a study released earlier this month, one in ten people between the ages of 14-21 have already committed an act of sexual violence. Boys are more likely to have been perpetrators, although the older girls get, the more likely they are to become perpetrators too. However, 80% of victims in the study were girls -- 18% were boys and 5% were transgender youth. Three quarters of those admitting to using coercion or physical pressure targeted someone they knew or were in a relationship with. 15% said they used alcohol to do it.
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the study however was that these children felt no sense of responsibility for their actions. What does this have to do with entitlement? The likelihood of perpetrating sexual violence was not equal across all groups. The teenagers with the highest propensity to sexually assault a peer were white kids from higher-income families.
Fourth, we cannot talk about sexual assault and broader violence in schools without discussing athletics, both before and during college. While male student athletes make up 3.3% of the U.S. college population, they are responsible for 19% percent of sexual assaults and 37% of domestic violence cases on college campuses. In the wake of the Steubenville rape case, but before so many others, like the more recent case in Maryville, The Nation’s Dave Zirin called for a serious questioning of “the connective tissue between jock culture and rape culture.” The core characteristics of high-status boys’ sports – violence, dominance, power, specialness and impunity – are married seamlessly to the marginalization and sexual objectification of girls and women as trophies and playthings. It is possible to cultivate a healthy sense of fraternity without the denigration and victimization of girls and LGBT youth, but that’s not what’s happening.
For the last 25 years, while the incidence of rape has declined, gang rapes by younger and younger men have been on the rise. And perpetrators now derive even greater power and status from photographing and sharing evidence of their assaults. What does entitlement look like, if not being so confident you'll get away with a crime that you crow about it on social media? Sports participation does NOT turn boys into rapists. However, participation in high-level, all-male sports cultures is correlated with sexual assault and intimate partner violence.
Fifth, people come from families and families are riven with similar problems and not talking about them. Boys and girls are being sent off to college without parents ever discussing critical dilemmas, double standards, power imbalances, cultural entitlements, or even what it genuinely means to be empathetic. It’s not just parents who themselves are struggling with alcohol, abuse and dysfunction that are a problem. It’s parents whose reluctance to speak openly about serious issues with children who also enable these problems to thrive. People arrive at school with complicated histories shrouded in silence, shame, anger and incoherence. Our reluctance to extend our concepts of justice to include the family spills over into other institutions every day and college is one of the places where this is most evident.
A No More study released last month revealed that 73% of parents with children under the age of 18 have never talked to them about sexual assault or domestic violence. They don’t talk about drinking either. Put those together? In 1988, 28% of ninth graders surveyed in a Rhode Island study answered yes to the question, “Does a man have the right to sexual intercourse without the woman’s consent if she is drunk?" In 1998, the number was 24%. These numbers are too high and there is no reason to think that number is significantly lower today. Too many teenagers are never taught what rape actually is. Concerned parents need to be encouraging their children’s schools to teach students about stereotypes, to challenge gender roles perpetuate male entitlement, and to teach comprehensive sex education that includes lessons about enthusiastic consent.
Ultimately, the only way to end our ridiculously high rates of sexual assault, which would, after all, have the excellent effect of also reducing the chances of false accusations that parents worry about – is to educate children about justice and care in age-appropriate ways starting when they are young and to help them understand pervasively toxic media messages. This doesn’t mean sitting a five-year old down and explaining gang rape in graphic terms during a special kindergarten class. It means difficult conversations and developing thoughtful curricula that inculcate children with empathy, respect for others and a responsibility to care not just for themselves, but also for others. By the time teenagers are exposed to sex ed, they should already have a strong commitment to treating other people well. Of course, this all assumes parents who agree that sexual assault is preventable and that empathy is an important values. And too many don’t. There are all kinds of entitlement involved in that equation.
The point, as Yoffe herself points out, is not to shut down difficult conversations. The point is to have them, in depth, with the people who will be most affected themselves, years before college is even a possibility. I don’t know what child goes to college not understanding that alcohol abuse will impair their ability to function. But I do know that we are sending children into a world where they are not treated as equals. That’s not feminism's fault. It’s the fault of a repressive and normatively biased culture intent on conserving a destructive status quo. One that has been telling women to avoid rape, to no success, forever.