I read with interest a piece on Huffpost entitled “How We Can Prevent Another Steubenville.” In it, Kelli Goff discusses what she thinks is the real issue behind Steubenville: alcohol.

If a teen drives drunk and is killed in an accident, or worse, kills someone else and we find out their parents never discouraged them from drinking and driving, we blame the parents. Yet for some reason we don’t discuss the role of alcohol in sexual assault the same way.

At this point, I’m thinking, “Darn right, Ms. Groff! Tell it like it is!” After all, isn’t it time we discussed consent with our kids when we talk about alcohol? Let’s make sure they know alcohol isn’t an excuse for asocial behaviour. But then…

Of course as a woman I shouldn’t have to worry about how I behave and how much I drink anywhere — in an ideal world that is. But we don’t live in an ideal world. In an ideal world I could leave my door unlocked or propped open when I leave my home. It’s my property and no one has any legal right to set foot in it unless I give them permission to. But again, we don’t live in an ideal world, so I lock my door.

 

And yet for some reason as a culture we refuse to discuss alcohol and assault with the same clarity. The discussion seems to get drowned out by histrionics and extremists from all sides. There are those morons who seem to think that women have to dress and act like nuns in order to avoid accidentally signaling to men that we are ready to be raped. Then there are those who seem to throw equally unhelpful pieces of philosophical wisdom into the conversation, about our right to be naked where we want, when we want, with who we want as intoxicated as we want and it’s nobody’s business.

Well, that was disappointing. Kelli Groff started out okay, but then she started going down the same old, tired route of blaming the victim. Essentially, this now is about Jane Doe’s drinking instead of the assault she endured. Is it completely unnecessary for me to say I find this to be problematic? This Huffington Post article seems to be just another way for its author, someone who was “raised a practising Christian,” to impose her morality onto others rather than focusing on behaviour that is focused outward, like rape.

Okay. But do you really want to encourage your daughter to go through life that way? Especially since Steubenville reminded us that not every man who’s dangerous looks like Charles Manson. Some of them look like the guy next door. Those who say, “A man shouldn’t touch me no matter how drunk I am,” have the moral high ground on this issue, no question. But will it make you feel better to pat yourself on the back and say “I have the moral high ground on this one,” the next time another teen girl is assaulted because she was too intoxicated to say no? Because you told her not to worry about it, since she has the “moral high ground”?

The issue for me isn’t one of “she should be able to,” it’s actually one of “she can and she does.” It’s also not an issue of “it’s nobody’s business” or of “rights,” but one of causal relationship versus correlation. Yes, predators target those who are vulnerable. Yes, predators often provide what’s necessary to make their target vulnerable. And yes, predators look like regular people and so are hard to distinguish from the pack. Of course, it’s also worth mentioning the fact predators are regular people. Before we blame the alcohol, before we blame the parents, let’s look at a culture that not only allows men to joke about sexual assault but also to regard it as a standard worth upholding. The Steubenville “Rape Crew,” not the alcohol, are responsible for this crime. The society that tells young men they are above accountability for their actions. The young men and their adult support system who allowed the “Rape Crew” to exist -unchallenged- in their midst.

Getting blackout drunk is a bad idea whether you are 16 or whether you are 40, whether you are a teen girl or an elderly man.

Who doesn’t know this? Those who don’t adhere to someone else’s standards -whether intentionally or not- aren’t responsible for what others do when they’re drunk. After all, getting drunk is something you do to yourself. Rape is something someone does to another person. It’s highly freaking likely this group of offenders would have drugged her drink if she restricted herself to just one – they’re rapists after all. Getting “blackout drunk” or not isn’t always up to the individual doing the drinking, and being able to do that in a safe place surrounded by safe people is more the direction we should be going. We can travel that route in a number of ways and the first I can think of is to teach our boys (and men) to not objectify, to not take part in a culture of rape jokes and the belittling of women, to see our female counterparts as human fucking beings. And then, not only will they not rape her, they can say, “Hey, you seem to be wanting to escape into that bottle. Want to talk?”

Personally, I would like to see us equip our kids with the ability to call out questionable behaviour in their peers and to not be the type of person whose behaviour needs to be called out. Then, if they want to get falling-down-drunk they can do it in a safer environment. The person who binge drinks hurts nobody else with their actions any more than the person who makes any other decision about their own body. The person who attacks the drinker is visiting harm on another person and we are all responsible for that behaviour. I’m speaking mostly to men, here; men are at the forefront of the lessons that teach and reinforce the attitudes that support rape culture and men need to take the lead in teaching the attitude that will dismantle it.

When I said this to a new friend, she countered with, “Sadly, that’s an uphill battle. Our culture doesn’t encourage calling other people out when they hurt others. Did you ever try, in grade school (or even in a college dorm) to defend the person being bullied? You probably got laughed at or shouted down, even though it was obvious what you were doing was morally right…

I have called people out – even as a kid. If you’ve gone this route you already know it’s not easy; the rest of civilization is against you. Just like they’re all for you getting drunk and passing out. Now, with both behaviours being difficult to fight, which one do you think we should spend our energy combating? I know we can fight both, this isn’t a zero-sum game, but if we have 20 kids and one will binge drink and one will defend her/call out the offenders, we have more assurance of safety.

Not to mention, “Don’t get so drunk you can’t defend yourself” is pretty privileged advice. It’s ableist, really. And potentially somewhat classist, I think. Definitely privileged – the privilege of being able to see there is no safe place after the fact.

Until we live in a world free of all rape — or a country in which we can predict who belongs on a sex offender registry before their crimes land them there — we should aim to become a country free of binge drinking.

That sounds zero-sum to me. I get that the writer is trying to make a point, though, so I will allow it. However, it’s still victim-blaming. Jane Doe likely assessed her situation to be a safe one, to the best of her ability. Those in her company decided it was either safe or Jane wasn’t as valuable and worthy of safety as she is. To me, it seems we can teach people to assess their own safety by providing them with a few simple tools (that’s “simple” not “easy“) we discuss in another post. But the real crux of it is about self-worth. Someone who understands their personal value may still get “blackout drunk,” but they may also have more of a tendency to do that in the company of people they’ve (somewhat reliably) assessed as safe. The other thing self-awareness can mean is a passing familiarity with the fact binge drinking is a health risk – it can lead to brain damage, breathing emergencies, alcohol poisoning, and so on (of course, to say it leads to rape is a non sequitor). Bystanders will be better equipped to intervene, too – they can take part in ensuring her safety while she drinks herself under the table and they can speak to her honestly about her drinking and the potential damage she is doing to herself, all while respecting her right to make her own decisions about her life.

In the meantime, you know what we won’t see as a headline in the news? “Woman gets drunk with men, nothing bad happens.” And we won’t see it not because it doesn’t happen, but because it isn’t sensational when it does. Women and men drink together all the time – it’s a part of socialization. So, instead of trying to remove agency from someone else with a dose of pre-emptive blame, why don’t we focus on teaching and showing respect? You’re valuable, just like everyone else, and this is how valuable people can expect to be treated. Bam! Instil that lesson -learn that lesson- and we’ve got people who can see and respect other people’s boundaries while creating and maintaining their own.

So, I have some questions for you:

Do we fail as a society to address drinking with the same clarity as we do rape/consent?

Where’s the imbalance?

How do you think the conversation should be framed?

Who should be leading the discussion?

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