THE BLOG
03/19/2014 03:06 pm ET Updated May 19, 2014

Rape and the Intoxicated Victim

By Maggie Tennis

Campus rape has been in the news frequently in recent years. This rise in media attention is not because campus rape is anything new, but rather reflects a decline in the societal stigma that prevented coverage of the topic in the past. Sexual assault is and has been a part of campus culture for a long time. But as it becomes a more prominent subject of public discourse, it increasingly includes the alarming practice -- to varying degrees of subtlety -- of victim-blaming.

Some high-profile allegations of sexual assault over the past five years include those in 2008 and 2012 at the Naval Academy, 2012 in Steubenville, Ohio, and, more recently and only now gaining nationwide attention, the videotaped sexual assault of a Vanderbilt University student by four football players this past June.

The first two, at the Naval Academy, involved one victim who passed out and awoke to find she was in the process of being raped, and another who blacked out -- also from too much alcohol -- and discovered that she had been sexually assaulted after hearing rumors and seeing social media posts. The third incident in Steubenville involved high school athletes who undressed, transported, photographed and finally sexually assaulted a drunken teenage girl when she was both semi- and fully unconscious from over-intoxication. The most recent high-profile case of campus rape involved Vanderbilt football players transporting a passed-out classmate from a bar to a dorm room, and then proceeding to assault her. They also photographed and videotaped the act before sending the recordings to friends.

These cases have one crucial aspect in common: In each incident, the victim was heavily intoxicated to the point of unconsciousness.

It's not a coincidence. These victims were targeted precisely because of their level of intoxication.

The idea exists in our culture that if you allow yourself to get so drunk that you black out or pass out, then you are, in fact, inviting inappropriate conduct upon yourself, or that you are even complicit in your own rape. A perpetrator of sexual assault seizes advantage of an unfortunate presumption that a drunken individual has somehow consented to a sexual act simply by becoming black-out drunk. Or even that, by reaching such a state, the drunken individual has forfeited any right to give consent entirely. Armed with this reasoning, the perpetrator concludes that sexual advances on this person would not be considered rape.

Even more disturbingly, this idea is subtly introduced to young people as they mature. Kids -- especially girls -- are warned from a young age to be vigilant around alcohol and potential sexual predators. By their teen years, they are "supposed" to be aware of these dangers. So if they find themselves in situations where they are severely inebriated, certain elements of society rule that whatever consequences befall them are their own fault simply because they were not more careful or self-aware.

One example of this viewpoint is a comment made by athlete Serena Williams concerning the victim of the Steubenville rape case. Williams said, "Why was she that drunk where she doesn't remember? It could have been much worse. ... She shouldn't have put herself in that position."

Furthermore, during the course of the Steubenville trial, thousands used victim-blaming language on Twitter. Such tweets included: "Be responsible for your actions ladies before your drunken decisions ruin innocent lives," "So you got drunk at a party and two people take advantage of you, that's not rape you're just a loose drunk slut" and "...not saying she asked for it, but why did she consume so much alcohol in the first place?"

I believe this form of victim-blaming, in which intoxicated individuals are deemed responsible for what happens to them, enables sexual assault of drunk and, especially, unconscious victims, to occur. Perpetrators of rape permit themselves to see drunk and unconscious individuals as inviting exploitation. It is as if allowing oneself to become that out-of-control drunk can actually be viewed as an implicit statement of consent. Or even worse, perpetrators cease to see their victims as human beings at all.

CNN reporter Poppy Harlow echoed this disregard for the intoxicated victim when she bemoaned the effect of the Steubenville rape incident on the once "promising futures" of the convicted rapists. At the very least, the fact that a public uproar followed her comment shows that we've made some progress in spotting distorted perspectives.

But this event showed that our discussion of victim-blaming has been limited to simply focusing on the necessity of not holding a victim of rape responsible. What we don't discuss is the potential of persistent disregard and disrespect for an intoxicated victim to actually perpetuate rape. Potential perpetrators of sexual assault may, in fact, be able to rationalize their actions based on society's willingness to discount a rape victim's victimhood if he or she was severely drunk at the time of the assault.

This idea deserves more consideration. Indeed, we need to widen our discussion to include the idea that victim-blaming is itself a cause of continued sexual assault. And then, we need to work harder to end all forms of blaming and de-personalizing the victim, both on our campuses and then in greater society.

Ultimately, increased education and awareness about the dangers of alcohol or the wrongness of rape is unlikely to end sexual assault on campus. And neither should it be the duty of potential victims to dress a certain way or be "careful" at parties and around alcohol. And, unfortunately, simply continuing to instruct students to respect consent will not be enough. What we also need is universal recognition that sexually touching -- or photographing or filming -- of another person without their conscious and enthusiastic consent is unquestionably and indubitably wrong.

Maggie Tennis challenges you to promote and celebrate consent.

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