In the wake of a horrifying Maryville, Missouri rape case that many are calling the “new Steubenville” — a teenage girl says she was raped on videotape by a high school football player who later left her unconscious outside — Emily Yoffe, Slate’s “Dear Prudence” advice columnist, offers an age-old solution: Don’t drink if you don’t want to get raped.
“...A misplaced fear of blaming the victim has made it somehow unacceptable to warn inexperienced young women that when they get wasted, they are putting themselves in potential peril,” Yoffe wrote in a piece entitled “The Best Rape Prevention: Tell College Women to Stop Getting so Wasted.” She insists she’s not blaming the victim — unless, of course, the victim was hammered — but argues that “young women are getting a distorted message that their right to match men drink for drink is a feminist issue. The real feminist message should be that when you lose the ability to be responsible for yourself, you drastically increase the chances that you will attract the kinds of people who, shall we say, don’t have your best interest at heart.”
Yoffe cites a study that claims more than 80 percent of campus sexual assaults involve alcohol, but fails to address the drunken perpetrators themselves, a bizarre strategy considering a U.S. Department of Justice study found that the perpetrator was intoxicated in 1 in 3 sexual assaults. Although Yoffe notes that studies show men sometimes use drinking to justify rape, the only advice she has for men is for her hypothetical falsely incriminated son: “I would tell him that it’s in his self-interest not to be the drunken frat boy who finds himself accused of raping a drunken classmate." Her non-hypothetical daughter, on the other hand, gets lectures on “her responsibility to take steps to protect herself.”
General risk reduction and safety tips — stay aware of your surroundings, watch out for your friends — are crucial when it comes to sexual assault prevention, said Jennifer Marsh, vice president of victim services at the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network, the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization. But it’s ineffective and harmful to frame that advice in a way that suggests there are specific steps one can take to avoid being sexually assaulted. Yoffe’s column “sends the message that if you don’t drink, you won’t be raped, which is obviously not the case,” Marsh said. “Unfortunately, there’s no surefire way to prevent sexual assault.”
No one knows that better than survivors, who are tired of being told that they wouldn’t have been assaulted if they had been sober. “I’ve had drunk sex that I regret that I know wasn’t assault,” said 23-year-old Kerry Barrett, a graduate of the University of Missoula in Montana who was pressured by police not to press charges when she was sexually assaulted after a night out at the bars in 2011. “There’s a fundamental difference.”
Alternative PSA strategies do exist; “Make Your Move, Missoula” shames perpetrators instead of victims by encouraging bystander intervention. (Sample tagline: “I could tell she was asking for it...to stop. So I stepped in and told my buddy that was no way to treat a lady. And he backed off.”) But too many legislators and pundits like Yoffe tell victims it’s their responsibility not to get raped, even when the high-profile case du jour wouldn’t have been prevented by that advice: The 14-year-old victim in Maryville was hardly a binge-drinking bargoer.
Barrett said she understands why victim-blaming resonates: it’s reassuring. “It’s easy to think victims are responsible for or just ashamed of their behavior,” she said. “That way, you don’t need to think about how often sexual assault happens.”