Why Is Common Sense “Blaming the Victim”?

Be smart:

* When you park your car, don’t leave valuables on the front seat, and don’t leave your car unlocked.
* When you ride the bus or subway, keep your backpack or purse in front of you where you can see it.
* When you travel by airplane, wash your hands multiple times and use hand sanitizer.
* Don’t walk in a dangerous neighborhood alone at night.
* When you drive on the freeway and someone is weaving unpredictably, change lanes to get away from them.
* When you walk through an airport, don’t wear a t-shirt with Osama Bin Laden’s picture on it.

Six pieces of good advice, wouldn’t you say?

You might even give this good advice to a loved one. If you did, would she or he complain that you were giving them too much responsibility for their safety? Would he or she say that you were blaming the victim by suggesting they limit their potentially risky behavior?

Of course not.

And yet when anyone suggests similarly good advice about dating or partying—“young women should not get drunk with people they barely know,” or “young women should not drink so much in public that they become incapacitated,” some people criticize that good advice as “blaming the victim.”

Such good advice is NOT a statement that “if you get drunk you deserve to be raped,” nor “if you get drunk and get raped it’s your own fault.” No, no, no. The advice to not get drunk simply reflects a cause-and-effect observation, now validated by science: young women who get drunk in public are more likely to get raped than young women who don’t get drunk in public. There’s a fact. Make your decision accordingly.

Of course we should be continually saying to all men, “don’t rape anyone, don’t exploit anyone who’s drunk, don’t get anyone drunk in order to have sex with them.” The number of young men who seem to enjoy sex with women who are drunk or even incapacitated is truly disturbing. These men lack empathy. And clearly these are men who have never had profoundly enjoyable sex, so they settle for a pathetic imitation of the real thing.

Fortunately, we are now educating young generations of males to be more respectful (and self-respectful), and more conscious of the deep hurt they inflict by non-consensual sex. We are demanding that young men discourage each other from cowardly acts of sexual violence, and that they interrupt such acts when they see them.

While we are doing this important work and anticipating its impact on the larger culture, we still must ask young women to take more responsibility for their own safety. This is not demeaning, not blame-shifting, not man-excusing, and certainly not any sort of rape-apology.

This is expecting young women to deal with the world the way it is. It is expecting young women to act like adults and forego the dubious pleasure of getting hammered with near-strangers, because that is what adults do—they balance the desire to act autonomously with the assessment of risk in the real world. We do this when selecting the clothes we wear to work, the language we use with our customers, judging when to drive over the speed limit, and deciding whether or not to wear a helmet when we bicycle.

The fact is, American college women get meticulously drunk far more often than their European peers. We should be asking them why. We mostly don’t.

Part of the reason is cultural: Americans don’t teach their kids how to sip alcohol when they’re young, so when they can finally drink, they gulp it. Drinking in America is seen as something adults do, so when teens can drink, they binge. Alcohol is marketed to teens far more aggressively in America than elsewhere, so it has the patina of cool. And American teens yearn for the tangible props of autonomy—cars, privacy, alcohol, spending money—more than their non-American cousins.

But there’s a troubling psychological reason that young women binge drink: they’re anxious. They’re self-conscious. They’re uncomfortable with the sexual expectations they face (or think they face) in party situations. They expect themselves to participate in sexual activities they may not want to do—or that they can’t admit to themselves that they want to do. Either way, alcohol strips young women of inhibitions that can feel quite inconvenient.

And so they drink so much that they become vulnerable. Unable to assess risk accurately. Unable to intervene in situations when they want to. Unable to say “I want X,” unable to say “I don’t want Y.” These disabilities are the logical climax of deliberately disabling their inhibitions—all so they can cope with their ambivalence, inability to communicate, and self-enforced isolation about sexuality.

If our young women find sex so simultaneously desirable yet unnerving that they have to get semi-conscious to give themselves permission to participate, there’s a serious problem we should be addressing. This is NOT anyone’s license to rape them; being anxious and drinking to cope with anxiety does NOT mean you deserve to be raped.

But a little self-honesty would go a long way here.

The question we face—we feminists, policy-makers, social commentators, public intellectuals, college administrators, conference organizers, concerned parents, and indeed concerned students (both male and female)—is, do we want to do everything we can to reduce sexual assault, or do we want to continue to give women no responsibility for their own safety in order to prove a political point?

I would tell my college-bound daughter that no one has the right to touch her without her clear permission, and that if she’s raped, it cannot possibly be her fault. But I would also say let’s discuss what can make you safer, what can make rape less likely, and most of all, how can you explore your sexuality as intelligently as possible? If you’re adult enough to have partner sex, you’re adult enough to be thoughtful about balancing risk and responsibility in sexual interactions.

That starts with self-honesty. And it continues with the belief that taking responsibility for your choices is not onerous or victim-blaming, it’s a glorious privilege you’ve spent your whole life preparing for.

Those who want to help young women become strong, self-aware, and confident should be in favor of this.

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