Controversy over rape, alcohol consumption, and responsibility reignited last month when US columnist Emily Yoffe penned an article provocatively titled College women: stop getting drunk. But the link between alcohol use and sexual assault is less certain than it may seem.
Yoffe argued that alcohol is often a “common denominator” in rape, quoting a 2009 US survey showing 20% of college women reported having been sexually assaulted since commencing their studies, and that 80% of these cases “involved” alcohol.
According to Yoffe, alcohol both enables sexual predators and renders women vulnerable to assault. She concluded that female college students should “start moderating their drinking”.
Despite some references to men, her focus was overwhelmingly on what women could do to avoid rape - ideas that were echoed by Australian columnist Mia Freedman.
The public response to both columns was swift and overwhelmingly critical.
Many feminists raised concerns that these messages appear to blame rape victims for attacks, which may cause further distress to women who often already blame themselves. The focus of the columns was unfairly and disproportionately on women’s actions, with too little attention paid to the actions of men.
What’s more, most rapes don’t occur in the circumstances these columnists describe – much higher rates of sexual assault occur at the hands of partners, family members, workmates, and friends.
Drugs, alcohol and crime
But Yoffe and Freedman’s assumptions about alcohol, and about cause and effect have been largely overlooked.
Two claims have been especially prominent. The first is that alcohol disorients women and makes them more vulnerable to attack. The second is that alcohol somehow makes men more impulsive and emboldens them to rape.
Such claims falter in the face of reality.
Although it’s common practice to ascribe a set of social problems or crimes to drug use, these effects are nowhere near as widely experienced as we assume.
Indeed, as sociologists of drugs and addiction already know, claims like these reveal less about drugs and more about our hopes and fears about individuals and societies.
While it might comfort us to think of rape and other violent crimes as the product of a single, controllable substance, it makes little sense to single alcohol out.
Rape is a complex phenomenon. Of course, it’s also a gendered one – men are overwhelmingly the main perpetrators and women the main victims. These factors demand a more careful and unflinching look at many issues implicated in rape, including gender discourses and practices.
There’s also a central paradox at the heart of both the columns that started this controversy.
Apparently, although alcohol has certain stable “effects”, these differ by gender. Alcohol renders women more passive and increases their physical vulnerability; it makes men more aggressive and physically powerful. These effects are compounded, Yoffe claims, by biological differences between the sexes.
Both these ideas are grounded in outdated, unproven ideas about gender differences. They reveal much about our historical cultural fantasies of heterosexual submission and domination.
Beyond simplistic approaches
We need to take care when making claims about the “causes” of rape. We also need to avoid simplistic claims about what drugs like alcohol do to people. While alcohol may sometimes be present in rape, there’s no simple, predictable, stable and consistent causal connection.
It’s essential that we face this uncomfortable reality when devising policy responses and educational strategies. If we don’t, policies and other measures for “addressing” the problem of rape may instead exacerbate it.
In particular, measures guided by simplistic assumptions may lead us to neglect other relevant issues, foster complacency, or encourage the belief that rape is a simple problem with simple solutions.
Most troublingly, we risk perpetuating a logic of rape as natural human behaviour. When alcohol “unleashes” men’s “natural” sexual aggression and magnifies women’s “natural” passivity, rape becomes a dynamic embedded in us all.
If we imagine that sexual violence is a part of our essential humanity, any attempt to eradicate it is unlikely to succeed.