Sexual Assault Is Not A Force Of Nature

A creatively annotated screencap of Yoffe's Slate piece.
[Content note: sexual assault, victim blaming]

Remember my intent piece? This week we saw a great example of what I was talking about. Slate’s advice columnist, Emily Yoffe, wrote a piece that can basically be summarized as, “I don’t intend to blame the victim or anything…but here’s why women shouldn’t get drunk or else they’ll get raped.”

Frankly, Slate has been on a disturbing trend lately of publishing needlessly provocative articles with even more needlessly provocative headlines. I find this tactic patronizing and harmful (s.e. smith has a great piece about it). I expect more from progressive media outlets.

So, I’m committing to not sending Slate any more pageviews, but I also feel that this article is very important to discuss. So, here’s a PDF of it that you can read. And here are some great responses that have already been written by Jessica Valenti, Ann Friedman, Amanda Hess, Roxane Gay, and Feministing’s Alexandra. (Seriously, read those first, because they get into the nitty-gritty details of why Yoffe is wrong and I’ve decided not to reinvent the wheel here.)

Almost as infuriating as the inaccuracy and poor reasoning exhibited by the article is Yoffe’s insistence that we as a society are “reluctant” to tell women to prevent their own rapes. I have nothing but contempt for people who take popular, extremely widespread ideas and try to pass them off as something new. But I don’t believe that Yoffe is really so clueless as to believe that telling women not to drink so they don’t get raped is controversial in our culture at large.

Rather, she seems to be aiming her article at the progressive community as a sort of plea for us to be “reasonable” and stop getting our knickers in a bunch over some so-called victim blaming. The solution to sexual assault is just within our reach and yet we won’t reach out and grasp it because of some silly political qualms.

Except that rape survivors do not grow up in cozy progressive bubbles where nobody ever gives them harmful, useless “advice” that makes them feel like shit.

They get it from everyone. Families. Cops. Teachers. Educational posters. Friends. College orientation. TV shows. Magazines. Advice columnists. There is no shortage of people telling women not to drink or they’ll get raped. None at all. It is a long and storied tradition that Yoffe is joining.

Yoffe comes across as though she thinks her views are unpopular because people just can’t handle the truth. But sometimes, opinions are detested and ridiculed not because they’re just 2 BRAVE 4 U, but because they’re wrong and harmful. Yoffe does not examine any of the negative externalities of telling women not to drink or else they’ll get raped, so here are some:

  • Rape survivors who were attacked while drinking may feel (even more than they already do) that it was their fault–as if coping with the rape itself weren’t enough.
  • Cops will focus on telling women not to drink rather than on finding their rapists.
  • Believing that rape is the result of an individual failing (on the part of the victim, not the rapist, no less) rather than a systemic problem, people will fail to organize meaningful collective action to end sexual violence.
  • Assuming that they’ll be blamed for drinking, survivors will be less likely to go to the police or reach out to others for emotional support.
  • Gender inequality will be exacerbated. Men can drink but women can’t? What kind of 1950s bullshit is this?
  • This is the most important one. Rapists (or would-be rapists) will know that they are not going to face any consequences. This, not any lifestyle choice on the part of the victim, is one of the biggest reasons people rape.

We’re accustomed to thinking of people or organizations or perhaps even institutions as harmful, but ideas and opinions, many believe, are “just an idea” or “just an opinion” and should be respected no matter what.

But they can be harmful. They can have negative consequences. Yoffe’s do.

I’ve seen a few people online defending Yoffe’s piece by saying that binge drinking culture is dangerous and that we need to talk about it. Yes, we do. But Yoffe is not contributing anything useful to that discussion, either.

People seem to worry more about binge drinking when it’s women doing it. Men have been binge drinking since alcohol entered human culture. For women in Western societies, however, partying and drinking a lot–especially without the company of boyfriends or husbands–hasn’t been a socially acceptable option until relatively recently. Sometimes equality means that risky or unhealthy behaviors that had previously been restricted to one gender are now available to everyone. It’s unfortunate that this means that more people are doing the thing, but that’s part of what it means to have an equal society. Promoting inequality is not, in my opinion, a justifiable way to reduce unhealthy behavior.

So, the problem with binge drinking is not that women do it too. There are a lot of interesting and important issues around alcohol in our culture, such as:

  • many people feel that they need alcohol just to be comfortable socially
  • there are relatively few social options for non-drinkers, especially in college and generally before people start having children
  • if you’re interested in certain things, such as sports or live music, alcohol is often part of the package
  • many people lack access to or knowledge of the mental healthcare they need, so they self-medicate with alcohol
  • if you don’t drink, you are likely to be pressured to drink
  • it is socially acceptable for men to use alcohol to manipulate women sexually

But Yoffe is not discussing these issues. In fact, she completely ignores that last item, which is crucial.

Yoffe treats women who get drunk and then get raped like people who get drunk and then throw up. Throwing up is a natural consequence of drinking too much. It’s a physiological reality. If you don’t want to risk throwing up, be very careful about how much you drink, or don’t drink at all.

Being raped is not a natural consequence of drinking. It happens because people (especially men) are taught that you can and should use alcohol to get sex. They are taught that drunk people are “fair game,” “asking for it” by getting drunk. Whether she intends to or not, Yoffe is participating in this education.

Sexual assault is not a force of nature or a law of physics. It may not be fully preventable, but neither is it something we have to resign ourselves to living with, the way we accept the fact that our bodies need oxygen or that things fall when dropped.

Many people–Yoffe’s intellectual predecessors–used to accept many things that we’d now consider unacceptable, such as women not having the right to vote and husbands being legally allowed to beat and rape their wives. But others throughout history have fought and dedicated their whole lives to making things better. There is nothing courageous about stating that that can’t be done. Rather, it’s the definition of cowardice.

Advising women to prevent their own rapes is not brave. It is not original. It is not edgy. It’s the damn status quo.

Sexual Assault Is Not A Force Of Nature

28 thoughts on “Sexual Assault Is Not A Force Of Nature

  1. 2

    Gender inequality will be exacerbated. Men can drink but women can’t? What kind of 1950s bullshit is this?

    It’s some hybrid 1920s and 1950s bullshit because it comes with this delusion that women’s sobriety will somehow encourage men to be more sober. Amanda Hess did a good job of explaining why that won’t happen. Hell, men couldn’t keep other men from drinking even with law enforcement and a motherfucking constitutional amendment on their side.

  2. 3

    “Being raped is not a natural consequence of drinking.”

    And therein lies that weird “hands up and surrender” attitude surrounding rape issues. The fatalism is unconscionable and insulting to the highest degree. The apathy extends to other social ills of course, but rape culture seems to bring out the very worst in these white-flag waving armchair quarterbacks. It’s astonishing that there are these individuals who feel they can use a broad bully pulpit, do none of the legwork that activists and professionals have already put in (and are putting in such as yourself), enter the game in the third quarter and expect that their 2 cents are actually worth even that much. It’s indistinguishable from pseudo-scientific pet theorizing.

    “Whether she intends to or not, Yoffe is participating in this education.”

    And there are such heavy consequences to such blatant intellectual laziness.

  3. 4

    Well said. I agree completely with you and I wonder if Yoffe will write a follow up piece (assuming she learns of and reads the criticisms against her article.

    Sometimes its like people who victom blame don’t engage their brains beyond “if you did not drink you would not have been raped”. Its like they think a woman who drinks too much radiates some energy/force/hormone that overwhelms a guy, manipulates his mind and forces him to rape her.

  4. 5

    I’m glad there’s been so much push-back to the Yoffe article, but very disappointed that she wrote it in the first place. Slate really doesn’t need any more Katie Roiphes. One is more than enough.

  5. 6

    This whole topic makes me see red. When people say “yes but won’t you want to caution your daughters to be careful” I want to scream at them NO. Because teaching “caution” to your daughters is just another way of saying “so if something happens, you weren’t cautious enough”.

    I want to make sure that my daughters know that I’ll ALWAYS be there for them, that they can come to me with anything and that I’ll NEVER judge them or even THINK something like “yes, but why did you drink so much”.

    It seems that some people see “lacking” in “common sense” (or “failing to adhere to the status quo) as being punishable by being hurt and that makes me rage.

  6. 9

    I found two things particularly disturbing about the incident:

    1. Her argument was pretty much identical to Thunderf00t’s latest drek (Miri, I assume you’re familiar with the basics even if you haven’t suffered through the actual point-by-point). Sure, it’s dressed up more nicely but it’s exactly the same line: “if only they’d let us take this obvious action instead of feminazi-ing my reasonable suggestion, it would be BETTER FOR WOMEN!”.

    2. Because it was published in Slate (and XX Factor no less), there’s a social and institutional inertia to respond with undeserved deference/politeness. Which we can see in Amanda Hess’s piece, where she refers to her as “my colleague” and says the view “strikes” her as “myopic”. If Hess was responding to an external piece, it might be more likely that she’d have used more accurate words like vile. But because it’s on Slate, it gets a “civil” response thereby shifting the discourse in exactly the wrong direction.

  7. 10

    Thanks for writing this. What struck me about the article was how it takes rape for granted as something that just happens, and tells people not to drink to prevent it. Couldn’t one turn that around and say that drinking is something that just happens, and tell people not to take advantage of someone’s drunken state to rape or assault them? And when it comes to alcohol, yes there are very important problems to address about the way alcohol is used, but victim blaming shouldn’t be part of that.

  8. 13

    Like many college students, there were times when I drank more than I should have. There were times when I accepted rides from people I did not know well. Partied with people whom I did not know well. And I was not raped any of those times. Because there was no rapist present.

    As a mature, middle aged woman, stone cold sober, I was sexually assaulted by a doctor during an employment physical. Because there was a rapist (or rather, sexual assailant as I was not raped in the classic sense) present.

    And although I was a mature, middle aged woman, stone cold sober, in what should surely have been a safe situation, when I tried to report I was told I was making the whole thing up, and that also it was my fault, and was fired for being a troublemaker.

    Booze does not make rape, rapists make rape.

  9. 14

    One of the more socially horrifying things about being trans is being seen as ‘one of the guys’ in particular social situations. Of relevance was when some young male co-workers were discussing dating strategies, which were really ‘hook-up’ strategies, which were *really* abusive PUA strategies.

    In particular, they tried to include me in a conversation about ways in which to *get* women drunk. One of them suggested spiking beer with a little rum, or topping off a drink with vodka. The plan was to intentionally trick a woman into consuming around 5 drinks over an hour instead of her intended 2.

    So, sure, we can try to regulate our consumption — but if there’s a predator around, or some asshole that looks up to the predators because they are being mislead re: acceptibility, then it’s not going to matter much.

    Obviously, the answer is that we need to be mind readers. And be able to divine the future. Those two things would help, I guess.

    1. 14.1

      So they were basically comparing rape strategies openly among each other? I assume they were encouraging their friends to rape as well, not just talking about it like it was nothing horrific and thus creating an environment where rape is A-OK and women are fair game. But there are people who still think men cannot be taught not to rape. The mind, she boggles.

  10. 15

    The first column quite honestly struck me as that she didn’t give one damn about rape at all–rather, she was using the threat of rape to try to attack drinking (binge drinking in particular, but from her comments throughout, it’s clear she just doesn’t like the fact that some people choose to consume alcohol). Then she layers that with a coating of sexist “If the girls stop drinking, then their good behavior will trickle down to the guys.” She actually wrote the words “trickle down”. I seriously read more misandrist crap from anti-feminists of all stripes (especially the MRAs, of course) than I EVER hear from feminists, even the rare few who self-describe as anti-male in some way.

    1. 15.1

      binge drinking in particular, but from her comments throughout, it’s clear she just doesn’t like the fact that some people choose to consume alcohol

      This is something particularly annoying. People keep on using that to deflect and defend the piece. I’ve seen such an exchange a dozen times.

      Yes, we get it. Drinking can be dangerous. It’s still only a tangential issue when discussing sexual assault.

      1. Not saying alcohol can’t be dangerous, but perhaps it’s better to have more alcohol-positive people deal with the issue of sexual assault? I think the discussion should start with the assumption that it’s totally okay for women to drink and even getting drunk isn’t really that out of line. It just seems the focus on alcohol is just a way of demanding women be *morally pure* to avoid rape in some way, and with victim blaming, it jumps from that to how you dress, where you go, are you out late, pretty fast.

  11. 18

    From her rebuttal post:

    In the meantime, this weekend, some young, intoxicated women will wake up next to guys they never wanted to sleep with. I believe it’s worth talking about how keeping within a safe drinking limit can potentially help young women avoid such situations.

    Bolding mine.

    It’s a good thing Ms. Yoffe is here to clear things up.

    Otherwise anyone at any moment might be in danger of inferring that *never wanting to sleep with* a person actually meant not wanting to sleep with them.

  12. 20

    This article is absolutely infuriating. As a male, I can tell you how men speak at parties and it is disturbing. The alcohol is not the problem; it is this sociopathic tendency to view a woman who is intoxicated as a woman who is consenting to sex. I guess I’m preaching to the choir here, but I am continually frustrated by the pressure I feel to conform to these attitudes, and it is why I haven’t been to a party in literally years! I much prefer small gatherings where there is a sense of trust, and it is unfortunate that most of my female friends feel they need to moderate their drinking at larger parties with strangers present. This shouldn’t be necessary!
    Yoffe is pushing a “solution” which doesn’t even begin to address the problem at hand. Hell, I’ll just point to a movie I saw on T.V. the other night, “The 40 Year Old Virgin”, which makes light-hearted jokes about finding the most intoxicated woman at the bar and taking her home. This notion is seen as a joke by most movie-goers, but the damage it is doing to our society is no laughing matter.
    Sometimes I feel a little silly for being a man and having to make these arguments, as if I’m not a “team player”, which is utter bullshit. Although my personal friends hold my same beliefs, I unfortunately cannot say the same for most casual male acquaintances. The only solution to rape-culture is a shift in the values within our society.

    Alright, time for me to step down from the soap box… Please, I’m open to debate on this but currently frustrated that we still have articles suggesting alcohol consumption is to blame for rape.

  13. 21

    Rape is bad and only the rapist’s fault. Being drunk does not mean you deserve to get raped. But I still don’t like drunk people. They’re boring and aggressive and do stupid things. The fact that “many people feel that they need alcohol just to be comfortable socially” and “there are relatively few social options for non-drinkers…” is a problem. If someone isn’t worth being around when you’re not sloshed, then you should probably hang out with someone else. Your best drinking buddies are generally dull people when you’re sober. The “social comfort” provided by being drunk/tipsy is bad. People need to screw their courage to the sticking place without being lubricated with booze. They say alcohol loosens your inhibitions. How do we take apart these inhibitions in a way that doesn’t involve alcohol, allowing us to live more freely and honestly?

  14. 22

    Rapists are not Hurricanes. Grocery stores pass out hurricane tracking maps every summer around here. the unpredictable Katrina and Rita in the same season helped us make the changes we needed to withstand Ike, and we did.

    But rapists are not hurricanes. I believe they are a small minority operating under the cover of rape culture. I think they pretty much understand consent and just don’t care. But I still think consent education is important, some dudes might cut back on their harassment from it. But the most important thing is that men might become watchful of the rapey behavior of the minority among them. Label him uncool, back up what some women have said about him. Sadly, your words will count more than women’s words, but maybe women’s words can count for more if you join in.

    Rape is facilitated by peer and community acceptance. Take a chunk out of the male peers and it drops. it’s so simple.

    And Tecolata: Thanks for sharing your story. I presume you did not pursue any action in this case because of the imbalance, but cool if you tried.

    Steps to reduce rape:
    1. Destroy purity thinking. Access to sex is not something women “own” and forget they are the gatekeepers of virtue and vice. Women are sexual agents with their own desires. Purity culture is rape culture. it’s full of blaming girls for making boys “stumble” in their efforts to remain pure.

    2. Recognize that women are sometimes horny. They have desires and agency. They are pretty much like men, but they come from a slightly different cultural background. Figure that out with a woman who has figured that out and you can have some awesome consensual sex.

    3. Some men never get #2.. Women will tell you a different story than what not-2 tells you. Watch him and listen to him to confirm what they say is true. Let him know he does not have your support. He will dial things back without your support.

    I am convinced that 20% of heterosexual men are peersesuals. They are not really that into sex with women, they are more about what their male peers think about their relationships. Combine peersexual with rape culture and you have bad results. Help men to uderstand that they should undermine rape culture and the rapey peersexuals might call it quits. The peersexuals might even become proud and respectful heterosexual males.

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