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 (Jezebel, Feministing, Huffington Post, The Atlantic, Salon 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.
Despite 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:
• 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
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.