A new piece went up at the Chronicle of Higher Education yesterday titled Why Campuses Can’t Talk About Alcohol When It Comes To Sexual Assault.
When I saw it this morning, I clicked on it eagerly. The subject of alcohol and campus sexual violence is an important one, to my mind, and the subject of why campuses — specifically administrators — don’t want to talk about it is even more important.
So when I opened the article, I was hoping to find a discussion of how the 21-year drinking age pushes alcohol use underground, making it more difficult for students to sensibly manage their consumption. I was hoping to find a discussion of the role of fraternities, athletic teams, and alumni in fostering a climate of binge drinking on certain campuses, and of administrators’ hesitance to take on such powerful college constituencies. I was hoping to find a discussion of the ways in which bans on alcohol use in dormitories can render victims of sexual assault hesitant to bring complaints for fear of facing disciplinary action for drinking, and of the fact that such fears are too-often justified. I was hoping to find a discussion about the various ways in which members of college and university communities are dissuaded from raising these issues, and punished when they do.
I found none of that. Instead, I found twenty-nine paragraphs on how women can reduce their risk of sexual assault by limiting their drinking and on the “taboo” against mentioning it.
Now, I’m not going to spill a lot of ink in discussing this supposed taboo, but the reality is that women in our society are constantly bombarded with messages about the risks of excessive drinking in relation to sexual assault, and that such messages typically place the onus of preventing such assaults on the victim of the crime, rather than the perpetrator. There’s no taboo against presenting such messages — what there is, rather, is real concern about their efficacy and morality. To her credit, Wilson notes this debate, and gives space to those who fall on the other side. But she repeatedly undermines their arguments, as when she follows critiques from two activists with the line, “but some students are willingly vigilant.”
Vigilance against sexual assault and concern with the unintended consequences of victim-blaming rhetoric are not mutually incompatible. In fact, they are mutually reinforcing. There may be a place in campus sexual assault prevention efforts for discussion of safe drinking, for instance, but any such discussion must foreground sexual predators’ intentional use of alcohol to degrade their victims’ ability to resist and to report sexual assault, a subject to which Wilson devotes only three sentences of a 1600-word essay.
Campus sexual assault is not a problem that can be eliminated through fostering virtuous behavior on the part of potential victims. It is not even a problem that can be eliminated by cracking down on individual perpetrators. It is a structural, systemic problem with deep roots in the society and in educational institutions themselves. Yes, alcohol plays a role in such assaults. But those assaults, and that drinking, does not take place in a vacuum. It’s not the alcohol, not the drinking, that fosters sexual assault, but the cultural and institutional structures in which the drinking is embedded.
Those structures are what need changing, so if we’re going to have a conversation about this topic, let’s have that one.