On October 15, 2013, Slate contributor Emily Yoffe published an article entitled “College Women: Stop Getting Drunk.” In the article Yoffe points to three studies (the 2002 “Repeat Rape and Multiple Offending Amongst Undetected Rapists,” the 2007 “Prosecuting Alcohol-Facilitated Sexual Assault” study, and the 2009 “Campus Sexual Assault Study”) that display a correlation between alcohol consumption and instances of sexual violence. Using the findings of these studies, Yoffe tries to argue that college women would be less susceptible to sexual assault if they would just stop binge drinking.
Binge drinking on college campuses is a systemic problem and the severity of its many consequences should not be taken lightly. However, it is irresponsible and misguided for Yoffe to reduce the cause of campus sexual violence to women engaging in binge drinking. Sexual violence on college and university campuses affects students of all gender identifications and sexualities and to make it a “women’s issue” erases the sexual violence experienced by male, trans* and LGB students.
Moreover, to argue that decreasing binge drinking amongst women will directly reduce sexual violence towards women is irresponsible and shortsighted given that sexual violence occurs under a multitude of circumstances that may or may not involve alcohol. What if the assailant has been drinking, but the survivor is sober? What about sexual assaults that occur when both parties are sober?
Throughout the article Yoffe promotes a risk-reduction approach to reducing sexual violence—a strategy that if implemented incorrectly has the potential to place the full responsibility of reducing sexual violence on potential victims rather than on potential perpetrators. Risk reduction strategies often discourage women from accepting drinks from strangers or walking alone at night, promote women’s use of rape whistles, pepper spray, and buddy systems, and advocate for the installation of blue light systems on college and university campuses. Such risk-reduction strategies can play an integral part in sexual violence prevention, but colleges and universities should not rely solely on risk-reduction to combat sexual violence. By and large, risk reduction programs are based on the premise that potential victims must prepare and protect themselves to fend off a potential unknown assailant or a surprise attack. However, approximately two-thirds of all sexual assaults are committed by someone known to the survivor and protection is not always top of mind when in familiar company.
While Yoffe does state that “Perpetrators are the ones responsible for committing their crimes, and they should be brought to justice,” her repeated insistence that women need to “start moderating their drinking as a way of looking out for their own self-interest” reeks of victim-blaming. Yoffe interviewed three women for the article, all of whom were sexually assaulted after drinking. Each woman expresses feeling guilt and shame after their assault. Yoffe—and the women themselves—jump to the conclusion that if the women had monitored their alcohol intake more vigilantly that they may not have been sexually assaulted.
Interestingly, Yoffe fails to see the connection between risk-reduction tactics that place responsibility for sexual violence on women (i.e. limiting one’s alcohol consumption) and the guilt and shame the women felt after they are sexually assaulted. For example, one of the women Yoffe interviewed explicitly stated that her rapist was not drunk, but she felt responsible for what happened to her because she believes she should have known better than to drink heavily around the assailant, “He had this reputation if you were going to be drunk around him, he was probably going to have sex with you.” The young woman does recognize that what happened to her was rape, but at no point does Yoffe underscore that what happened was not the woman’s fault. Rather, Yoffe jumps into a lamentation of college drinking culture.
Rather than solely emphasizing risk-reduction strategies it would have made been more productive for Yoffe to additionally advocate for primary prevention strategies and crisis intervention programs. Primary prevention programs attempt to intervene in the behaviors of potential perpetrators before an assault takes place. The programs also aim to create a cultural shift in how college communities think about the prevention of sexual violence: rather than place sexual violence prevention solely on potential victims (i.e. young women), it places the responsibility for preventing sexual violence on the entire community regardless of their gender identification or sexuality (i.e. potential victims, potential bystanders, and potential perpetrators).
Primary prevention programs educate students on what actions constitute sexual assault, how to obtain consent from a potential sexual partner, and the consequences of committing sexual violence. They also define “consent” for participants. Strong primary prevention programs also include risk-reduction strategies such as bystander intervention training and buddy systems, but they do not place the sole responsibility of reducing sexual violence on potential victims. In contrast to risk reduction, which is a response to rape culture that aims to prevent isolated acts of sexual violence, primary prevention seeks to eradicate the systemic rape culture prevalent on college and university campuses by educating students about sexual assault and the importance of consent.
Crisis intervention programs are the third vital component of any comprehensive sexual assault prevention and intervention program. A strong crisis intervention program provides student survivors with a 24-hour crisis hotlines, information and access to confidential on and off-campus counseling and advocacy services, information on and access to and off-campus medical services, and information on survivor rights.
Sexual violence occurs because of numerous, complicated factors. Unfortunately, Yoffe’s order to all college women: “Stop getting drunk” is misguided and victim-blamey. Her article downplays the role of the assailant, contributes to the shame and guilt many sexual assault survivors feel in the aftermath of an assault, erases the painful and very real experiences of non-woman-identified survivors, and reinforces harmful myths regarding sexual assault. The best way to protect students from sexual assault is to provide them with a comprehensive sexual assault prevention education that emphasizes risk reduction, primary prevention, and crisis intervention strategies equally. By making sexual assault prevention a community effort—as opposed to the responsibility of one specific demographic—colleges and universities have a better chance of reducing acts of sexual violence.