What ‘The Alcohol Blackout’ Gets Wrong (And Right) About Rape

The hard work isn’t for us to finally confront alcohol. The hard work is for us to finally confront the learned impulses in men, sometimes enabled by alcohol and sometimes not, to pursue sex at all costs.

Sarah Hepola’s longform piece for the Texas Monthly on Thursday is a winding story of alcoholism, blackouts, sex, and consent that attempts to provoke readers to start thinking about the role alcohol plays in the campus rape epidemic.

Despite the protestations of the subheadline—”In a war against campus sexual assault, why are we not talking about drinking?”—we’re always talking about drinking when we’re talking about campus sexual assault. For survivors, it’s the first stop, the journey, and the destination.

“Were you drunk?” “Was he?” “You shouldn’t have been drinking.” “No one really knows what happened.”

As far as these questions are concerned, there’s not much new to read here; Hepola acknowledges the activists who have rejected drinking as the cause of these rapes, but insists there’s more to the story. We’re left to believe that some unascertainable percentage of campus rapes are complicated, and perhaps they would be less complicated if women weren’t drinking as much.

Half of all rapes involve alcohol—enough that many conflate the issues as irrevocably intertwined, but so few that we should pause before doing so. And as an advocate, I can assure Hepola that it’s rare to have a conversation about rape in which alcohol doesn’t become a factor. Far too often, it’s the only factor that matters.

There are plenty of good public policy reasons to worry about binge drinking and alcoholism on campus, but to attempt to reduce rape by reducing drinking among college-aged women is bad, counterproductive policy. It confuses redirection with prevention, merely sending rapists a bit further down the bar after a woman who didn’t get the message. And once you concede it’s a worthy strategy to tell women that they can prevent their own rapes by cutting back on their drinking, you simply can’t escape the necessary accomplice: “She deserved it for being drunk.”

And in doing so, it makes it harder to focus on the true causes of rape: hostile masculinity, sexual entitlement, and cultural norms that teach young men to pursue sex at all costs.

Hepola’s piece is actually most interesting in its call to think about “how drinking changes men.” Even here, though, she misses the mark. Yes, binge drinking is one of a number of risk factors for men to commit rape. But most young men can drink, even to excess, without violating their core ethical principles.

Certainly, drunken men do things they regret, but there’s no epidemic of drunken murders or robberies on campus. For too long we’ve put rape, and the disrespect of women that accompanies it, into the same category as “drunken bar fight.” Too many men have never picked up the core ethical principle of never having sex with someone who doesn’t, or can’t, enthusiastically consent. Ever.

For some, that puts them at risk of committing rape the second they step on campus. For others, it puts them at risk of rape when they drink and lose their inhibitions. Hepola seems right on the edge of seeing how pervasive these cultural norms are:

When I stopped drinking, I discovered how unappealing I found drunk men. They scanned to me as weak, sloppy. But when my male friends got honest, they admitted that the opposite wasn’t necessarily true for them. They were turned on by drunk women: their looseness, their wildness, all those open doors. After my book came out, I got a few soul-searching responses from guys who’d read it. They talked about running the scanner over their own pasts: frat rituals, late-night bar behavior, the wolf-pack mentality. The way their male friends had circled drunk women, clamoring to refill their drink, waiting for them to lose control, and they knew—they knew—how drunk some women got. That was the whole point.

Hepola had earlier acknowledged that she gets confused about rape culture: “What’s ‘predatory behavior,’ and what’s a normal Friday night?” The admission by her friends should clear up her question. They are one and the same. Predatory behavior is not the sole province of evil. It’s how we teach young men to pursue women. The hard work isn’t for us to finally confront alcohol. The hard work is for us to finally confront the learned impulses in men, sometimes enabled by alcohol and sometimes not, to pursue sex at all costs. We can choose to elevate consent to become one of our culture’s highest ethical imperatives. But we won’t do so if we insist on revisiting the red herring of alcohol use by women.

Tahir Duckett is the Founder of ReThink, a D.C.-based non-profit that runs grassroots level anti-sexual violence campaigns centered around redefining consent and sexual entitlement among men and boys. Find him on twitter at @TahirDuckett.

Related Links: