Friday, October 18, 2013

College men[et al] : stop taking advantage of college women who get drunk. Oh, and look out for one another

By now, I'm sure you've all read Emily Yoffe's panicked piece about the fact that her daughter is going to college soon. You might not have known that that is what you were reading, because it was masquerading as a piece of advice to young women, entitled "College Women: Stop Getting Drunk."  Although the piece brings up a number of real problems associated with binge drinking, it is getting attention because its focus is on her concerns about the connection between alcohol consumption and sexual assault:

"In one awful high-profile case after another—the U.S. Naval AcademySteubenville, Ohio; now the allegations in Maryville, Mo.—we read about a young woman, sometimes only a girl, who goes to a party and ends up being raped. As soon as the school year begins, so do reports of female students sexually assaulted by their male classmates. A common denominator in these cases is alcohol, often copious amounts, enough to render the young woman incapacitated. But a misplaced fear of blaming the victim has made it somehow unacceptable to warn inexperienced young women that when they get wasted, they are putting themselves in potential peril."
Anyone who spends any time in the real world wonders for whom this is unacceptable, as in fact we hear this sort of thing all the time (for example, a google search for news items the week BEFORE Yoffe's article returned several hundred hits).  (In fact, as a general heuristic -- let's call this the Gladwell rule --- whenever someone tells you that they are about to tell you something very unpopular, or otherwise unacceptable, assume there's a very good chance they are about to try to sell you a hackneyed chestnut.)

But let's forget about the Gladwell rule momentarily, and focus on a few other problems with the article.  I'm not going to focus (yet, at least) on the fact --- pointed out by plenty of others --- that this reads like a piece of rape apologia,  though we'll get there shortly.

Instead, let's focus for a few minutes on Yoffe's parental anxiety:
As a parent with a daughter heading off to college next year, I’ve noted with dismay that in some college guidebooks almost as much space is devoted to alcohol as academics...
I’ve told my daughter that it’s her responsibility to take steps to protect herself. (“I hear you! Stop!”) The biological reality is that women do not metabolize alcohol the same way as men, and that means drink for drink women will get drunker faster. I tell her I know alcohol will be widely available (even though it’s illegal for most college students) but that she’ll have a good chance of knowing what’s going on around her if she limits herself to no more than two drinks, sipped slowly—no shots!—and stays away from notorious punch bowls. If female college students start moderating their drinking as a way of looking out for their own self-interest—and looking out for your own self-interest should be a primary feminist principle—I hope their restraint trickles down to the men. 
Let's leave aside for the moment the monumental stupidity of the claim that "self-interest should be a primary feminist principle"  (actual feminists have for centuries been linking the oppression of women to a broad call for social justice, but we're in the world of Lean In now), and focus instead on the extent to which Yoffe's own argument places a hugely different onus on her (actual) daughter and the son she imagines, as a rhetorical strategy to give her article the appearance of a little more gender equity than a sentiment like "I hope their restraint trickles down to the men" would suggest.
If I had a son, I would tell him that it’s in his self-interest not to be the drunken frat boy who finds himself accused of raping a drunken classmate. Surely this University of Richmond student, acquitted in one of the extremely rare cases in which a campus rape accusation led to a criminal trial, would confirm that.
Let that sentence sink in:  "If I had a son, I would tell him that it's in his self-interest not to be the drunken frat boy who finds himself accused of raping a drunken classmate."  Notice the different valence there.  At the risk of belaboring the obvious, I might point out to to Yoffe that just like every woman who is raped is someone's daughter, every man who rapes is someone's son.  But surely Yoffe would tell her son that he shouldn't rape anyone, right?  Because self-interest.

Of course, a more cynical reader than me could discern a different message in Yoffe's story.  At at least three points in her article (including at the end of the paragraph that I just cited), she reminds us of just how rarely men who rape women are punished. (Actually, she speaks mostly in anecdote so she just implies how rarely they are, but I'll help her out here:  it's only 3% of the time).  Which makes her putative son's odds of escaping punishment way better than --- say --- an actual woman's  odds of not being assaulted.

The theory of trickle-down restraint might better fit in with Yoffe's actual attitude then.  Let's focus on women's behavior --- if women become less of targets, then it will be harder for men to target them, right?

I've been following people linking to this article on Facebook, and of the 9 people in my newsfeed or on friend's walls who I've seen defending Yoffe's position, all but one (so that would be 88%)  have made some version of the argument from analogy:  telling a woman to drink less to protect herself from sexual assault is no different than telling someone to take simple precautions to avoid burglary (examples of real analogies I've heard include leaving a purse in an unlocked car in a bad neighborhood, leaving your front door open, walking around with money sticking out of your pocket, etc.)  To be fair, Yoffe comes dangerously close to implying this, but stops short of saying it herself perhaps because as we'll see shortly, her own analysis will show us what's wrong with the analogy.

What's wrong with the analogy?  We still hold thieves responsible in these scenarios but that doesn't excuse us from taking simple precautions, right?  But let's think a little bit more.  In all of these scenarios, who do we imagine as the person who burgles (is that the right verb?) our putative victim?  I'd wager it's a stranger, right?  After all, that's the reason why I'm not going to recover the money that I've lost.  Who knows who took it?

Now, let's change the example.  Let's say we're going to play soccer.  My friend is going home to change anyway, so I ask her to swing by my house and pick up the ball we're going to use.  I give her my keys and tell her the ball is in the garage.  While she's at my house, she decides to go upstairs and help herself to my prize stamp collection (NB for gangs of international numismatic criminals -- I don't actually have a stamp collection).  Did I make myself vulnerable to my friend?  Sure.  But did she abuse my trust?  Absolutely.

Now which one of these examples are most sexual assaults more like? According to the data, it's more like the latter.  But why listen to the data?  Let's  hear Yoffe's anecdotes:


The three young women I spoke to who were victims of such men attended different colleges, but their stories are so distressingly similar that it sounds as if they were attacked by the same young man. In each case the woman lost track of how much she’d had to drink. Then a male classmate she knew took her by the hand and offered her an escort. Then she was raped by this “friend.” Only one, Laura Dunn, reported to authorities what happened, more than a year after the fact. In her case she was set upon by two classmates, and the university declined to take action against either one.  
One of the rape victims was a senior who had been to a school-sponsored celebration where the wine flowed, then everyone went to a bar to continue the festivities. Her memories are fragmentary after that, but a male classmate came by. She remembers running down the street with him, then being in bed, then waking up the next day with her clothes inside out. She was sickened at herself for what she thought was cheating on her longtime boyfriend and confessed her infidelity to him. Ultimately that led to their breakup.
As she dealt with her shame and guilt, she talked to friends about that night, and the real story emerged. She was so intoxicated that her friends were worried about her when she stumbled out of the bar disoriented and without her shoes. They said they saw her being led away by the male classmate who was not drunk. She came to understand that she had been raped. “Since I realized it wasn’t my fault, I crawled out of a deep, dark hole,” she says. She also knew he’d done it before. “He had this reputation if you were going to be drunk around him, he was probably going to have sex with you.”

There are so many of the details in these stories that would give any responsible writer pause, and yet I haven't heard the conversation being about these details.  Everyone of these women was assaulted by a classmate, friend or acquaintance that she knew.  Every one of them had friends who were nearby but didn't do anything to stop it.  And every one of these women suffered pain, shame and the deterioration of their personal life, while the perpetrator -- who in at least one case was a known repeat offender --- suffered nothing.

Now, in Yoffe's version of feminism, where self-interest is an ethical first principle, the message of these stories is that individual women need to be every more vigilant, more cautious, less trusting.  People who look at this story with a more sane ethical first principal will be forgiven if they reach a somewhat different conclusion.

Note one other rather obvious point about all these stories, one that again gives the lie to the analogies I mentioned above.  These stories take place at parties, which, last time I checked were social events.  All these stories begin in a social setting because --- and again we are following Yoffe's own admissions --- this is where and why college students  by and large drink (let's leave solitary, hardened alcoholism for us older folks).  When we are in social settings, we often do --- and should be able to -- place trust in our friends, classmates, colleagues and --- yes even casual acquaintances --- to look out for us.  And we should look out for them.  In a lot of these stories, we see people failing to look out for their friends as well as they should (that's part of rape culture too), but that's not my main point.  My main point is that in every one of these cases we have someone who has colossally, callously, intentionally and violently abused the trust of a woman they know.

But by all means let's blame the woman in question, and hope that a little bit of restraint trickles down to the men.  And by the way, we do know that, Yoffe's and her defenders protestations notwithstanding, that the overall effect of focusing on the actions of the victim encourages shame, excuse making, and responsibility shifting. In fact, at her most self-righteous, Yoffe can't resist this herself:
I know many people will reflect on their own bacchanalian college experiences with nostalgia and say the excesses didn’t hurt them—at least what they’re able to remember. So I will present myself as an example that it’s possible to have fun without being drunk. I enjoy moderate drinking and have only been hung over three times in my life. I have never been so drunk that I browned out, blacked out, passed out, or puked from alcohol ingestion. Still, as a young person, I did my share of fun, crazy, silly, stupid, and ill-advised things. But at least I always knew that I was responsible for my behavior, not the alcohol.
"At least I always knew that I was responsible for my behavior, not the alcohol."  In the words of another martyr on another cross:  "Thou hast said it."

"At least I always knew that I was responsible for my behavior, not the alcohol."  And you wonder why violated young women are too frightened to come forward?   And you remark casually about how little universities do even when they do come forward?  And you wonder why they blame themselves?

I congratulate St. Emily on her restraint.  I'm very glad she still managed to enjoy herself in college, (though I'm equally glad I didn't know her in college as she sounds not just here but in everything I've read of hers, like an insufferable bore).   I'm very sincerely happy she was never sexually assaulted while drunk.  I very much hope the same for her daughter, and for my daughter, and for every other daughter and for every other son.  But neither hopes nor or our own personal experiences an ethics make.

I'm glad St. Emily has been lucky, and I hope her daughter is lucky too.  I've been lucky myself there.  As always when we talk about statistics, we can't single out one things to explain why we're lucky or why we're unlucky.  Unlike St. Emily, for example, I've been quite drunk on more than one occasion (and sometimes I've even enjoyed it).  In this case, the main factor in my luck might simply be that I'm a heterosexual man, a group that gets raped far less frequently than other groups.  And in my version of feminism, where self-interest isn't a first principle, the notion that that should be relevant is prima facie unjust.

Another way that I'm probably like Yoffe and like her daughter and like every one of you is that, irrespective of my own experiences, I know plenty of people who have been sexually assaulted and raped:   acquaintances, friends, family members.  And I refuse to accept the justice of  a world where the response to that is to place the onus on the victim.   This doesn't make me a particularly good person.  In my estimation, this is the bare minimum that ethics requires.

Unlike St. Emily, I've been quite drunk on more than one occasion, and I've always been lucky enough to have friends who look out for me.  I take this as maybe a suggestion that I ought to do the same.  So lets just offer one more analogy.  Although Yoffe largely restricts herself to harping on the possibility of sexual assault, she can't resist a broader screed against the evils of drinking; but perhaps we can learn something there.  Take driving.  We all know that you shouldn't drive while intoxicated.  So what do we do?  We designate drivers, we make sure that it's easy for people to take cabs -- we call for cabs for one another.  We spend the night at the houses of friends that we trust.  In other words, we use the very fact that drinking is a social activity to help solve the problems that might be associated with it. (Admittedly, my analogy is imperfect because unlike the link between the risk of sexual assault and drinking, the link between drinking and the danger of drunk driving is direct and causal --- but in fact, this strengthens my overall point).  So just as I would offer a ride or call a cab for a friend who has had too much drink, I make a point when I run into a female friend or acquaintance who has had too much drink that they get to a safe place with a trustworthy person.  Again, I don't think this makes me a particularly good person. In my estimation, this is the bare minimum that ethics requires.

But my ethics doesn't take self-interest as a first principle.  A misplaced fear of offending Ayn Randians has made it somehow unacceptable to suggest that when we don't look out for one another, we are putting one another in peril.  (Go on back to the start of this post -- I apologize for its length ---  and I'll wait for you here).  My ethics doesn't take self-interest as a first principle, nor does it take self-reliance as the last word.

Yoffe's actual  last words:

"Lake says that it is unrealistic to expect colleges will ever be great at catching and punishing sexual predators; that’s simply not their core mission. Colleges are supposed to be places where young people learn to be responsible for themselves. Lake says, “The biggest change in going to college is that you have to understand safety begins with you. For better or worse, fair or not, just or not, the consequences will fall on your head.” I’ll drink (one drink) to that."
What if Yoffe gave her daughter different advice (this is the advice I hope that I manage to give to both my daughter and my son, though they're quite a bit younger):

Look, you're going into the world and there are a lot of dangers.  There are things that you can do and precautions that you can take that will help you minimize those dangers, but ultimately, there's also a good degree of luck.  I'll give you the best information that I can, but whether I like it or not, you'll be the one who chooses what you do with that information.  Whatever choices you make yourself, it also doesn't necessarily affect the choices your friends make.  So I want you to look out for your friends.  And surround yourself with friends who will look out for you when you make bad choices too, because you inevitably will.  Sometimes you'll be lucky and even when you make stupid choices things will turn out fine.  And sometimes, whatever choices you make, bad things will happen to you and your friends.  When they happen to your friends, I want you to be there for them.  When they happen to you, I want you to know that I will be there for you, no blame attached.  Love yourself, because your worth doesn't come from what you do to yourself or what others do to you.  Love yourself as much as I love you.  And love your friends, and treat them well.  Don't be cruel to others, even when you don't like them or even when you think it will benefit you.  When you see weak people or vulnerable people, reach out to them.  Never take advantage of them.  And when you are weak or vulnerable yourself (because we all sometimes are), reach out to those you trust for help.  And let them help you.  Because justice begins with you.  For better or worse, fair or not, the responsibility falls on all of our shoulders.

I'll drink (with you) to that.  And I'll make sure you get home safely too.