This is a guest-post from Jaclyn Friedman, author of What You Really Really Want: The Smart Girl’s Shame-Free Guide to Sex and Safety. It was originally posted at Yes Means Yes.
[trigger warning for the text and the embedded links]
What is it about December that inspires mass breakouts of victim-blaming? Is it the darkness encroaching on our days? Is it the way the holidays make us all want to drink? Whatever it is, it’s happening again. And just like last year’s Never–Ending Naomi Wolf Incident, this one involves women hating on women in ways that shouldn’t shock me but still really, really do.
To review: The PA Liquor Control Board released an ad helpfully informing us that if we drink, not only are we at fault if someone commits a felony violent crime against us, but also if our friends are criminally assaulted. While many people went to great pains to point out that this is a fucking disgusting and dangerous message, Jessica Wakeman at The Frisky “bravely” ventured that maybe us laydeez really do need lecturing about “how taking more drugs or drinking more booze than you can handle is stupid.” (With a bonus hierarchy set up between rapists who prey on drunk women, and rapists who use date rape drugs. Because there’s rape, and there’s rape-rape, amirite?) Then, Wednesday, Keli Goff doubled down on that oh-so-helpful approach, under the guise of starting a conversation “that keeps getting suppressed because activists start throwing around words like ‘victim shaming’ and then others with dissenting voices immediately retreat.” (I’d like to read the internet she’s reading, please!) Meanwhile, this weekend, an article surfaced on Mizzou’s Campus Basement page which was just one long “joke” about how hilarious it is to get sorority girls drunk and then rape them. When pressed in the (now removed, along with the original article) comments section, the female author of the piece claimed she wrote it in order to teach other girls not to “act stupid” or “put a target on their back.”
There’s just one teeny tiny problem: couch it the trappings of edgy rebellion against the PC police all you want; telling the world that “drinking to the point of blacking out” makes women more vulnerable to rapists is still exactly as brave as Rick Perry coming out as a Christian homophobe. And comparing a woman who’s been sexually violated while smashed to your drunk uncle who drives the car into the pool misses a crucial point: while each of us is absolutely responsible for the harm we do to ourselves and others while drunk, we’re never responsible for the harm others do to us.
I can already hear the howls of “practical” protests: it may be unfair, but don’t women still deserve to know what can keep them safe? I assure you: we already know. Even your 12-year-old niece knows that “bad girls” should expect bad things to happen to them, and drinking, especially to excess, is one of the hallmarks of a bad girl. This isn’t exactly an innovative approach to rape prevention. If “just say no” messaging could keep women safe, we’d all be a lot safer already.
In fact, what’s most troubling about this everything-old-is-eww-again trend is its underlying lack of concern for women. The message isn’t preventing even one rape. It just (thinks it’s) encouraging the individual female reader to not be the girl who gets picked. Because, in the vast majority of cases, rape isn’t an accident, or even a crime of opportunity. Researchers have estimated that over 90% of campus rapes are committed by a tiny minority of guys who know what they’re doing and attack over and over again, specifically because we’re too busy warning women about their drinking habits to figure out how (or even try) to stop them. That means if they’re looking for a drunk target, and you’re not it, these guys will just find someone who is. And then all that focus on who’s “smart” enough not to over-imbibe will translate into a collective finger-wag at anyone “stupid” enough to do otherwise, and instead of working together for our collective safety, we’ll again be too busy blaming each other to deal with the actual rapists in our midst.
And that brings us right around to where we started: this is why women are so often the ones perpetrating this shit on other women and on the culture at large. Not just because being a woman who’s willing to shame other women in the media is the laziest possibly way to appear “rebellious” and “free-thinking” while saying the most mainstream, status-quo bullshit imaginable, therefore making yourself more employable by those charming 1%ers who own most of the media and like the status quo just fine. (Though all that is most certainly true.) But also because we want it not to be us. Of course we don’t. None of us want to be raped, ever. It’s just some of us let that perfectly human impulse take over our brains and our hearts. When that happens, we start to believe the pro-rape propaganda that there’s a List of things we can do to keep ourselves from being raped, and that those who do get targeted are the ones who failed to follow The List. Which is too bad, really. We feel bad for them, we do. But we sure as fuck are glad we’re not “stupid” enough to “let” it be us.
What’s worse, all this finger-wagging about booze doesn’t make even the waggers of said digits any safer. It makes them feel safer, sure, but there’s miles of difference between feeling safer and being safer. Believing that being more virtuous than the next girl will keep you safe from rape actually puts you in greater danger, because you’re less likely to spot warning signs that you’re being targeted if you think you’re at less risk. So congrats, pearl-clutchers: you just made life worse for the people who do get raped while drunk (and if you’re clutching those pearls in a public forum, you’ve literally increased the amount of rape in the world), and that smug feeling you derived from it doesn’t even reduce your own risk. Well-played.
But wait, there’s more! Specifically: so the fuck what if someone is taking different risks than you? We need to get over the idea that there’s some risk-free way to be sexual, or to more generally pursue pleasure, or to do anything else in life. Nobody gets shitfaced because they think it’s a responsible or safe thing to do. We do it because we’re feeling rebellious, or it feels cathartic to let loose, or because all our friends are doing it and we want to be with our friends, or because we want to convince someone we’re hot for that we’re “fun,” or any number of other “good” or “bad” reasons that boil down to: we know we’re taking a risk. And because we all value different kinds of rewards differently, we’re all going to decide different risks are worth it. You think staying sober and only having sex with your monogamous partner will keep you safe? Well, it won’t, but you don’t see me wagging my finger about sober monogamy, and if you get hurt in that situation, I won’t assume it’s because you didn’t know the risks or were too dumb to care. Because I believe that we all get to decide which risks are right for us, and that if someone commits a felony violent crime against you while you were taking what someone else considers to be a “risk,” it’s still not your fault.
If a bungee jumper’s bungee snaps [EDIT: Aimee, in the comments below, points out that a more accurate metaphor would be “If someone cuts a bungee jumper’s cord and the jumper gets hurt”], do we cluck our tongues about how people should stop being so stupid as to bungee jump? No: we [EDIT: blame the person who sabotaged the cord] ask who provided the faulty bungee (and make sure the jumper gets medical care!). So maybe we should spend more time equipping ourselves to decide which risks are right for us personally, and no time at all judging other people’s choices.
Besides, if one gender has to stop drinking “to excess” because there’s a link between alcohol and rape (and let’s be clear: rapists are just as likely to be drinking as their victims), why isn’t it the gender that does the overwhelming majority of the raping? Oh right, because we’d never ask men to give up their ability to decide which risks are right for them. We only do that to women and gender non-conforming folks, so that when they make decisions we wouldn’t make we can have the pleasure of calling them “stupid.”