THE BLOG

Dear Prudence: Stop Victim Blaming

10/20/2013 01:17 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

As one of the three victim's Emily Yoffe interviewed for her recent Slate article "College Women: Stop Getting Drunk" I am deeply disappointed more was not done to prevent it from becoming a classic victim-blaming cautionary tale. Whenever women are continually burdened with preventing sexual violence we minimizes the responsibility of rapists, contributes to the underreporting of sexual violence, and reinforces a rape tolerant culture.

Let me be clear, I don't disagree that there is a troubling culture around alcohol that facilitates sexual violence, but telling women to stop drinking to avoid getting raped is simply victim blaming. Instead of addressing the source of sexual violence, which is a small group of young men on campus, your article focused on women who are almost exclusively the targets of social message about preventing sexual assault. Other than a few cursory acknowledgments that men should be punished for sexual violence, you focused solely on women with the hope that their restraint in drinking behavior will "trickle down to the men." At least in response to your critics you recognized that we need to educate young men, however you remained defensive about needing to still send messages to women, which shows you still don't get it.

For far too long our society has sent messages solely to women about sexual violence: "don't walk alone," "don't be out at night," and now "don't drink." Basically it is a "don't get raped" message that places responsibility on victims, who by definition are not responsible for the crime done to them. This has been justified as risk reduction, but our society can reduce risk by messaging to young men rather than placing responsibility for their actions upon their victims.

So, where are the messages to the young men that you have acknowledged we need? Here are some suggestions: "Don't force sex," "don't prey on the intoxicated," and "don't get drunk." As society, we need the more meaningful message of "don't rape" so that men realize the responsibility to prevent sexual assault is on them. Parents need to be doing more than telling their daughters to be safe - they need to be telling their sons to engage only in consensual sex (especially after the report that 10% of teens admit to forcing sexual contact on their partners).

One of the worst things about sending women more "don't get raped" messages is that it contributes to the already large underreporting of campus sexual violence, which was even noted by Kreb's study cited by Yoffe. Victims of alcohol-facilitated sexual assault wrongfully blame themselves for the crime at higher rates than other victims and are therefore less likely to report. This is a serious issue because men who use alcohol to facilitate sexual violence are most often serial rapists who continue on to commit 9 out of 10 rapes, according to Dr. Lisak's research. Messages that put the burden on women shame them into silence after they are victimized and contribute the cycle of campus sexual assault. Rather than setting women up to blame themselves for a sexual assault, we need to let women know that as a society we will blame the men that chose to harm them. Without that message, underreporting of alcohol-facilitated sexual assault will continue because serial rapists will get away with their crimes.

It is important to know that Dr. Lisak's research on serial rapists focused not just on the use of alcohol to facilitate sexual violence, but also on its use as an excuse for the crime. Alcohol does diminishes the capacity of an individual to resist a sexual assault, but that is not the only reason it is used by serial rapists. Another main reason for its use is as an excuse. Too often our society excuses alcohol-facilitated sexual assault as "miscommunication" or as "gray rape" (this absurd notion that a man can "unwittingly" violates a woman because alcohol made the sexual encounter unclear). Dr. Lisak's research is meant to turn these excuses on their head and show that alcohol is purposefully being used in a predatory fashion and that there is no confusion or miscommunication. Serial rapists know society will excuse their conduct because of alcohol and unless we combat that notion we will never successfully address campus sexual assault.

Our rape tolerant society needs to change. That is the premise behind the White House's No More campaign. Alcohol can no longer be an excuse for rapists to rape. It also cannot continue serving as an excuse for prosecutors not to take a rape case to trial or campus officials not to enforce a Title IX policy. We have a rape tolerant society that shies away from holding men accountable for sexual assault when alcohol is involved because of the false narratives mentioned before, "miscommunication" and "gray rape." We need to have officials understand Dr. Lisak's research so we can identify and successfully prosecutor or discipline the few who commit so many sexual assaults. Steubenville is an example of the message society gets when we demand justice for alcohol-facilitated sexual violence rather than accept it as a consequence of a woman's choice to drink.

Slate had a meaningfully opportunity with its article to challenge how our society views alcohol as an excuse for sexual violence, but instead it added another cautionary tale to the mountain of victim blaming message given to women. For all the victims out there, you are not responsible for sexual assault. The person who harmed you is responsible along with our society, which has let alcohol be an excuse for far too long. No more.