Alcohol is a WEAPON of Rapists, Not Evidence for Victim Blaming

5966641707_7c4c6cc9e0Trigger Alert: Discussion of rape and victim blaming …

On October 15, Slate writer Emily Yoffe wrote a piece entitled, “The Best Rape Prevention: Tell College Women to Stop Getting Drunk.” A crowd of critics harpooned Yoffe for her victim-blaming approach (JezebelFeministingHuffington PostThe AtlanticSalon and even Slate’s own Amanda Hess).

On October 18, Yoffe responded to the backlash by digging in her heels, citing data on the correlation between survivor intoxication and rape and admonishing her critics for silencing those who want to give “practical advice” to young women. Just last week, Southern Methodist University student Kirby Wiley penned a similar piece in the school newspaper encouraging women to drink less, writing that, “of course the perpetrators are the one’s responsible for the crimes, but to solve the problem they can’t be the only ones taking blame.”

Beyond the implied victim-blaming in Yoffe’s pieces and the blatant victim-blaming in Wiley’s piece (rape is the only crime where the victim is put on trial), both of these authors are terribly misguided in thinking that they are offering practical advice. The fact is, rape interventions that focus on potential victims are ineffective. Only perpetrator and bystander interventions have proven effective. The idea that sexual assault survivors could have controlled the criminal actions of others reflects a profound misunderstanding of how perpetrators operate.

The reality is that campus rapists’ principal weapon is alcohol, and they are able to hide in plain sight within a male-dominated party culture where men provide the venues, parties and drinks to women, often with the explicit purpose of hooking up.

While the vast majority of rapists are men, the vast majority of men are not rapists and cannot identify with rapists’ mindsets. Research shows that rapists—including sex offenders on campus—exhibit high levels of hypermasculinity and anger toward women, they need to dominate women and they lack empathy. Dr. David Lisak’s research on undetected rapists finds that just 4 percent of young men on campus are the serial rapists who commit nine out of ten campus rapes, with an average of six rapes committed over the course of their college careers. According to Lisak, undetected college rapists:

• are extremely adept at identifying “likely” victims and testing prospective victims’ boundaries

• plan and premeditate their attacks, using sophisticated strategies to groom their victims for attack and to isolate them physically

• use “instrumental” not gratuitous violence; they exhibit strong impulse control and use only as much violence as is needed to terrify and coerce their victims into submission

• use psychological weapons—power, control, manipulation and threats—backed by physical force, and almost never resort to weapons such as knives or guns

• use alcohol deliberately to render victims more vulnerable to attack, or completely unconscious.

take rape seriouslyDespite this evidence, many people continue to blame alcohol for rape rather than rapists. These same people likely have a difficult time imagining the profile of a white, well-heeled and college-educated sex offender who is not only cold but calculating in seeking out his victims. Lastly, these individuals tend to ignore the overwhelming data that men rape sober women as well.

When writers such as Yoffe and Wiley blame alcohol rather than rapists, they make it easier for rapists to hide (and continue) their crimes by perpetuating the idea that rape on college campuses is simply an alcohol-fueled miscommunication. In fact, Yoffe and Wiley are mirroring the same bogus “blame it on the alcohol” rationales that two-thirds of college rapists use themselves to excuse their acts of forced sex. Perpetuating a national discourse that blames alcohol for rape simply emboldens college rapists to continue to use their weapon of choice—alcohol—with full license and impunity.

Such misguided voices also serve to intensify women’s self-blame and nearly guarantee women’s silence in the aftermath of rape. This intense self-blame makes women less likely to:

• confide in friends or loved ones;

• seek much-needed professional assistance

• report their rapes to law enforcement or to their schools, which is perhaps the most effective way to expose and prevent the 4 percent of undetected college rapists from raping again.

Furthermore, messages to women that blame them for their rape (rather than the criminal perpetrators) function as a silencing machine that enables rape to remain a mostly hidden national epidemic.

Beyond the damage inflicted by Yoffe and Wiley’s victim-blaming, their argument is logically flawed. As any student in an introductory statistics course can recite, “correlation does not equal causation.” A correlation between intoxication and rape does not mean intoxication causes rape. In fact, nearly all college students consume alcohol, just under 40 percent  are heavy drinkers, and male students drink more often and more heavily than female students. Logically, if victim intoxication were a primary cause of rape, then men would be raped more often than women—but they are not. Untangling Yoffe and Wiley’s “logic,” we realize that drinking isn’t the problem: being female and drinking is the problem. The implication is that women should not be allowed to participate in campus party culture (or their everyday lives) without paying the penalty of rape.

Why, in 2013, are writers for prominent publications still engaging in barefaced victim-blaming when it comes to rape? We believe that the lion’s share of blame lies with editors. When news sources publish a piece on, say, the growth of jobs in the high-tech industry, editors call upon experts, typically with advanced degrees, who have been thinking and writing about the subject for years. But when it comes to incredibly complex gender issues such as sexualized violence, editors too often engage in outdated identity politics and assign stories to the nearest available woman. This is how we get mainstream “news” stories about gender issues from veritable laypeople like Yoffe or Hanna Rosin or Caroline Kitchens, who have not spent a sustained period of time reading, researching and writing about gender.

Having collectively spent three decades doing just that, we have learned that gender is a remarkably intricate system of power that takes decades to gain even a slim grasp on how it functions and operates. Our society will remain in a Neanderthal cave of common “knowledge” about rape as long as laypeople continue to recycle inaccurate, sexist myths packaged as “helpful” advice.

Crossposted from Caroline Heldman’s Blog

Photos from Flickr users freddie boy (top) and WeNews (of activist Shelby Knox) under license from Creative Commons 2.0

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Caroline Heldman is chair of the politics department at Occidental College in Los Angeles. She specializes in the presidency, race and gender in U.S. politics and co-edited Rethinking Madame President: Is the U.S. Really Ready for a Woman in the White House?  She co-founded the national organization End Rape on Campus.





Danielle Dirks is an assistant professor of sociology at Occidental College. Trained both as a sociologist and a criminologist, her research focuses on the aftermath of violent victimization, survivorship and punishment. She co-authored How Ethical Systems Change: Lynching and Capital Punishment and cofounded  End Rape on Campus and the Oxy Sexual Assault Coalition.


  1. Karin Duval says:

    Thank you. I can not believe we are having this fight AGAIN! Really?

  2. Boom! You nailed it guys. Perfectly, clearly, logically argued. Thanks!

  3. Incredible. Just exactly so. Bravo.

  4. Rape and sexual assault are premediated – so if female students don’t drink, it would just be a sober (non-drinking) victim. Furthermore, all this attention to rapes on campus and “date rapes” just promote the myth that only young attractive women can be assaulted. What do you think goes on in nursing homes and hospitals? What do you think goes on in the homes of married couples? Teaching men and boys not to sexually assault is the only solution. Parents are allowing their sons to throw rocks at animals; watch sexist videos; listen to sexist rap music; play violent video games and turning a blind eye to their sons’ treatment of girls and women. People seem concerned if their daughter is sexually assaulted but no one seems to care if their sons are committing sexual assaults.

  5. William Lane, the mini-Puritan says:

    As a college student with who abstains from alcohol and party life, I feel that while individuals cannot be blamed for being raped after heavy drinking, the entire college drinking/partying culture itself is an enabler of rape. To be sure, it doesn’t cause rape, but the availability and acceptability of hard liquors and unchecked nightlife on campuses certainly makes a rapist’s goals much easier to reach.

    Besides, it isn’t as if heavy drinking itself is a particularly commendable activity we want students to engage in. Leaving aside the question of rape, the tendency for male and female students alike to get drunk leads to poorer academic performance, increased hooliganism, and other maladies. Likewise, excessive nightlife activity for either gender means less time sleeping, studying, and working on homework.

    Without a doubt, rape in ALL situations is to be blamed on the perpetrator, not the victim. However, the partying culture which enables this in many situations isn’t particularly admirable either.

  6. Wrong it is not that malestream editors do not seek the expertise of so-called ‘gender experts’ but rather malestream editors are tools of mens’ male supremacist system. This means mens’ incessant promotion of rape myths continues to be broadcast because it is essential the central reason why so many males continue to enact their male pseudo sex right to women and girls must not be mentioned or even analysed.

    In reality many, many males commit sexual violence against women and girls and it is a global male pandemic but only a tiny percentage of males are prosecuted for committing sexual violence against women and girls because men have maintained their fiction that male sexual aggression against women and girls is ‘just normal male sexual expression’ not deliberate and systemic male domination and male sexual control over all women and girls.

    ‘Gender’ is not the issue but male domination over women and girls and how mens’ male supremacist system ensures that men are justified in continuing to enact their male pseudo sex right to women and girls. Men have ensured their male supremacist structures such as their male legal system and continuing male centric dominant notions of appropriate masculinity and femininity ensures that male sexual violence against women and girls continues to be trivialised/denied or just plain ignored.

    Read second wave feminist activists such as Catharine A. MacKinnon; Andrea Dworkin and Marily French just to name a few because these real feminists know how men’s male supremacist system operates to maintain male domination and male control over all women.

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