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On blame and empowerment

Just listened to this CBC story about Emily Yoffe, who drew a lot of fire for writing a Slate article suggesting that college women can reduce their likelihood of being raped by not getting blind drunk.

There's a fine line between "blaming the victim" and empowering potential victims to not be victimized.  This applies not only to rape, but also to domestic abuse, addiction, obesity, depression, burglary, fraud, etc.  In each of these areas there are factors the victim can control, and other factors (s)he can't. You can ignore the former and say “there's nothing you can do but hope and pray,” or ignore the latter and say “it's your own damn fault; quit whining.”  Both are unproductive; if you actually want to solve the problem, you might look to the old adage “Grant me the will to change the things I can, the patience to accept the things I can't, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Of course, “accept” in this context doesn't mean “this is OK,” but rather “this is a fact I need to deal with.” Yes, there are rapists and abusers, and society needs to address that problem.  But while you're waiting for society to address that problem, you may find yourself in the presence of such people, and you'll need a more effective tactic than just saying “society's to blame” while you get raped or abused.

Likewise, there are genetic and societal conditions that make addiction, obesity, and depression more likely... but while we wait for cures to those conditions, there's probably something we can do ourselves to avoid or ameliorate those problems in the short run.

And there are societal conditions that make burglary and fraud more likely, but while I wait for those conditions to be improved, I'm going to at least lock my doors and not answer phishing e-mails.


I saw this discussion in a few other places, and am not prepared to damn Yoffe as a rape apologist, as others have, yet.

It is just such a short conceptual journey, in American culture, to step from correlation to causation to blame. What gets lost, I think, is that in cases of rape, it is not incumbent upon crime victims (from a legal standpoint) to make criminal opportunities less abundant. In too many rape cases, such incumbency is routinely assigned to the victim as part of the rapist's legal defense. The notion that women who get drunk in public "deserve whatever happens to them" is embedded in many people's consciousness, deeply so. This adds an unusual burden to a crime victim who may have been pre-selected as extra-susceptible to guilt and shaming. Rapists look for people who "will not tell" and will not want to prosecute or testify.

My illustration of choice for the "embedding" of this attitude is a news item from a few months back. Local reporter Anthony Johnson covered a "random stranger" groping attack, complete with video, and without a trace of irony, ended his report with the words "The alleged victim admitted she had been drinking."

I find the confluence of rape with burglary, fraud, domestic abuse, addiction and obesity to be a bit imprecise, even though inadvisable behavior can be found in all of the above situations. (My beef with the linear thinking re: obesity causes is not germane to this discussion 8)
I find the confluence of rape with burglary, fraud, domestic abuse, addiction and obesity to be a bit imprecise, even though inadvisable behavior can be found in all of the above situations.

Oh, there are certainly important differences among those issues. But I'm looking at the similarity: there are some things you can do to protect yourself (or your friends), and other factors that can only be dealt with on a societal or medical level.

Part of what I take from Yoffe's piece is "you're not helpless; you can do something." Which I think in itself is helpful, since (I suspect) feelings of helplessness and disempowerment are risk factors for all the problems I mentioned.
The problem with Emily Yoffe's piece isn't quite that she says "don't drink and you won't get raped" its that she's treating rape as a natural condition that we just have to deal with (like the weather).

I don't consider that at all a fault. It's certainly an improvement over many popular alternatives, and has all sorts of advantages.

If Sue doesn't drink out of fear of rape, the rapist will just rape Sally instead.

I bet Sue's mom is fine with that.

The advice "don't drink" doesn't Stop the rapist, it just moves the rape to some Other Person.

So what? Yoffe isn't addressing the problem of how to stop men from raping women. She's not required to. It's a highly worthy topic, but so's the one she's discussing, which is what women can do to protect themselves in the meanwhile.

(Unfortunately, she's wrong, but I'll rant on that separately.)
(Unfortunately, she's wrong, but I'll rant on that separately.)

OK, I'm curious. Do you mean factually wrong, as in "getting drunk doesn't significantly increase your chances of getting raped," or rhetorically wrong, or politically wrong, or psychologically wrong, or something else?
Oops, sorry about that, dealing with drama elsejournal.

It's a bit long to explain, but follow this chain of logic:

1) Actually, it's not so much that getting drunk significantly increases your chances of getting raped, as it's getting drunk around men. Or even more specifically, getting drunk around young, drunk men.

After all, if young women were to constrain their binge drinking to their sorority houses with the doors locked and no boys admitted, they'd probably not have much of rape problem thereby.

So there's your factually wrong. But wait, there's more.

2) Try proposing that remedy to young women. See what happens. I'll wait.

The reason they're laughing convulsively at you is that the whole reason, the fundamental premise of binge drinking in college-age women is usually to become socially disinhibited in the presence of sexually desirable males.

3) Yoffe's proposal presupposes that young women don't know that alcohol intoxication is incapacitating, and that they need to be told. Since the attraction of binge drinking to most party-going young women is that it is incapacitating I think they're pretty clear on that. When they tell you they're drinking (or as they put it "partying") to "blow off steam", to "get wasted", to "get shit faced", they're telling you that they are drinking for that altered state of consciousness in which they are no longer responsible for their actions.

It's fascinating to me how apparently nobody has pointed out the problems with Yoffe's piece (and apparently some of the rebuttals!) from a substance abuse standpoint. Which is totally pertinent because this isn't really a piece about sexual assault, it's a piece about the dangers of Demon Rum. The rape thing is a "look! see, here's another awful thing about drinking! Er, I mean drinking-to-excess!"

And looked at from this perspective, which seems a lot truer to what she wrote than critiquing her sexual assault politics, her response is totally about abstinence, and her one concession to harm reduction is "well, okay, if you must one or two drinks."

If she were serious about telling young women how to protect themselves from the scourge of intoxicant-enabled sexual assault, she'd talk about how to do your drinking safe from sexual assault. From the aforementioned "do your binge drinking in all-female company" to "have designated walkers/chaperones" to "arrange to look out for one another" to "write the number of the school's emergency shuttle service on your arm in indelible marker for if your ride blows you off."

But Yoffe isn't concerned with actually protecting young women from rape, she's concerned about scaring them away from binge drinking.

Now, to be clear, I am entirely down with the idea that binge drinking is a problem. It's intrinsically dangerous six ways to Sunday. Being that disinhibited can lead to all sorts of accidental injuries and deaths, of oneself and others.

But at the same time, if someone is going to get blotto, I'd much rather they took a cab home than drove. And I'd much rather she do it in a rapist-free or rapist-discouraging environment.

I do think it's legit to conduct consciousness raising campaigns to help people calibrate their drinking, whether it's getting through to them that "that's too much to be behind the wheel of a car" or "after your second drink, you're in no position to fend off sexual predators."

But when your moral is "therefore don't ever drink that much".... oh, for Pete's sake.

And nothing in all this addresses why young women want to get so profoundly disinhibited and incapacitated in the presence of young sexually available men (usually also intoxicated). Which seems to me both the real heart of the problem, and completely outside Yoffe's entire paradigm of what is going on.
OK, that makes sense, and I hadn't thought of it (presumably because I never got invited to those sorts of parties).

Your first point I think is an obvious detail that Yoffe could have emphasized more clearly, but would probably agree with.

Your second and third, if I understand them, boil down to "I'm getting drunk IN ORDER to be almost-but-not-quite raped." If this is correct, then the Yoffe piece is totally missing the point. (Whether she really is motivated primarily by moralizing about alcohol, or just can't imagine that anybody would want to intentionally incapacitate herself in order to get laid, I don't know.) And yes, it sounds like that's the real heart of the problem.

All Roads Lead to Rome....

There are young adult females who get drunk/high to disinhibit themselves around young adult males because they can blame the alcohol/drugs for any resultant sexual activity--because a girl who wants/enjoys sex is a slut. Nice Girls don't plan for/look for sex (which is also why it's usually Nice Girls who get knocked up).

Edited at 2013-11-06 05:50 pm (UTC)
she's treating rape as a natural condition that we just have to deal with (like the weather).

Well, to some extent it is. The incidence of rape (and other forms of violence) will never be zero, because as long as there are human beings, some of them will always be emotionally messed-up. We can take all kinds of global measures to reduce it, but individuals (and communities, as the "Cockblocking Rapists" post points out) will still need to take local measures to spot it coming, prevent it, and (if that fails) seek justice and support after the fact.

I don't see an "either-or" choice between Yoffe's suggestions and Thomas's: they're both good local tactics with potential to reduce the likelihood of you or your friends being raped. Nor does either of them rule out also trying to change the global culture.

On blame and empowerment

You have clearly explained my sense of discomfort when I heard about this story. It sounded a lot like "blaming the victim" but, but, stupid behavior choices do have consequences.... So once again, life isn't simple -- it's not in black and white, but in multi-colors and hues. And once again we must act both locally (individual behavior) and globally (changing society at large).