No, this is not written in defense of Washington Post and Fox News pundit George Will, whose recent column on rape has drawn outrage and resulted in his ouster from the pages of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where his syndicated musings had run for many years. Earlier this month, Will wrote, among other things, that campus rape victims now have a kind of cachet: “When they make victimhood a coveted status that confers privileges, victims proliferate.”
Having taught at a major university, I know just how wrong Will is. Young women are still ashamed of being victims of sexual assault, and the crime remains woefully underreported, on campus and off. As the Obama administration has noted, many colleges and universities mishandle complaints of sexual assault, giving perpetrators little more in the way of punishment than the equivalent of a visit to the principal’s office.
But it’s also clear that many young feminists and their allies tend to discount the tools they have at their disposal to help protect themselves. There is, for example, a significant correlation between binge alcohol consumption and being the victim of sexual assault. Yet too many young women are furious at those who point that out. Modest advice about crime prevention is met with accusations of “blaming the victim.”
Does a woman have the legal right to get sloppy drunk without being the victim of rape? Does she have the constitutionally protected right to walk down a dark street scantily clad in the middle of the night without being assaulted? Absolutely. Do those behaviors qualify as common sense? Ah, no.
In October 2013, Slate’s advice columnist Emily Yoffe (her nom de plume is “Prudence”) wrote an essay noting the link between alcohol consumption on college campuses and sexual assault. She advised young people — especially young women — to keep their wits about them.
“Let’s be totally clear: Perpetrators are the ones responsible for committing their crimes, and they should be brought to justice,” she wrote. “But we are failing to let women know that when they render themselves defenseless, terrible things can be done to them. … That’s not blaming the victim; that’s trying to prevent more victims.”
Yoffe’s essay certainly drew some support. (I wrote her an encouraging email.) But the comments section was also filled with denunciations of her thesis, some of which amounted to a deliberate misreading: “Slate’s article by Emily Yoffe … does nothing but reinforce traditional stereotypes associated with rape. That rape can be prevented solely by focusing on the victims,” wrote one. “Mildly disgusted by this article. We shouldn’t be teaching women not to get raped, we should be teaching men, boys, NOT to rape,” wrote another.
Can’t we do both?
Over the years, I’ve talked to many women whose lives were forever changed by a sexual assault, whether committed by a stranger or an acquaintance. The lucky ones finally regained a sense of control, of self-worth, of safety after years of therapy. The post-traumatic stress wasn’t automatically wiped away by a guilty verdict for the perpetrator, either. Given that trauma, women ought to do everything in their power to avoid being victims.
And, yes, we should also teach men that they have no right to women’s bodies. One of my former students once wrote a powerful essay about the need to change a culture in which the adage that “boys will be boys” reinforces reprehensible behavior. She was right.
Women rightly cringe at outdated mores that blame rape on the victim’s appearance or behavior or even her surroundings: “Why was she wearing that short skirt?” “Why was she out so late by herself?” Happily, those views are ebbing, at least in the developed world.
However, that doesn’t mean young women shouldn’t do everything possible to stay out of harm’s way — including staying sober. It’s not foolproof, of course, but it helps, just as locking your doors at night helps protect against burglars. That’s certainly what I’m going to try to teach the young women in my life.
(Cynthia Tucker, winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a visiting professor at the University of Georgia. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Photo: Henderson Images via Flickr
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