'Being Drunk Is Not Consent' written on the ground in sidewalk chalk.

The Drinking Game: Our College Rape Crisis Isn’t about Booze

Can alcohol factor in discussions about college sexual assault in a way that’s not distracting?


'Being Drunk Is Not Consent' written on the ground in sidewalk chalk.
We’ve got to change the way we talk about college sexual assault by shifting the focus away from repeated discussions about alcohol use that blame victims and excuse perpetrators.  Wolfram Burner/Flickr

Is there a crime that inspires more mental gymnastics than sexual assault? TV pundits wonder if a rape victim was dressed inappropriately. Had the victim put herself in a “bad situation”? Did she say yes and then no? Is she lying?

But what we really want to know is: Was she drunk? And if we are not discussing the victim’s drinking habits, or amount they’d consumed when they were assaulted, we are attempting to justify the actions of drunk men who rape — they were also incapacitated, they’re good boys who just got carried away, they were confused by “mixed signals,” and on and on and on.

In Texas Monthly last week, author Sarah Hepola took on the drinking habits of college students in the context of the current fight against sexual assault on campuses. Hepola concerns herself with the subject of blackout drinking, about which she has a great deal of personal experience — you can read her new book about it. But in her Texas Monthly piece, Hepola draws a tenuous line between sexual assault and drinking — any kind of drinking, from casual to binge to blackout, with little nuance paid to how, or whether, different kinds of alcohol use are related to sexual assault. The piece ultimately invites readers to draw very broad, and ambiguous, conclusions about college drinking and sexual assault. And therein lies the problem.

Hepola writes that “only” about 50 percent of drinkers get blackout drunk, though she doesn’t say where she found her statistic. She cites some research about drinking and sexual assault, but if any evidence shows that blackout drinking and college sexual assault are strongly connected, Hepola doesn’t point to it. Instead, she writes about her own harrowing experiences with blackout drinking, and mines a Reddit thread wherein men share stories of what they think they’ve done when they were blackout drunk.

Crucially, research has repeatedly suggested that alcohol use doesn’t cause sexual aggression, including this 2014 study that found that there was no link between a man’s drunkenness and his level of aggression. A 2014 White House task force on sexual assault surveyed the data, and while it considers “alcohol use” and “sexual violence” to be “associated,” researchers are careful to note that alcohol-related policies, as a sexual violence prevention or reduction strategy, should only be “one component of a comprehensive prevention strategy.” Curiously, Hepola also acknowledges that women are more likely to be raped if they don’t attend college.

The idea that drinking is at the root of the campus sexual assault crisis is not at all revolutionary.

Hepola’s piece also centers heavily on the idea that alcohol has somehow been left out of the conversation about rape, and that we’ve found ourselves “in a landscape where the key talking points address everything but alcohol. How we raise young boys. How victims are treated in the media, courts, and interrogation rooms. The problem of serial predators.”

If that were true, it would be radical and remarkable. But drinking has always been part of this conversation, and it’s been by far the loudest part of this conversation — just take a look at the literature provided by Texas universities to freshmen. Or the dozens of think pieces dedicated to the topic on either side of the issue. The idea that drinking is at the root of the campus sexual assault crisis is not at all revolutionary.

Warnings about alcohol use have long been a part of the way that colleges have attempted to “manage” or “reduce” the number of sexual assaults that occur on and off their campuses. But it is relatively rare that men’s drinking factors into conversations about sexual assault — unless it is being used to excuse it. The message that drinking seriously complicates issues about consent rarely seems to get delivered to young men — and it doesn’t get delivered in this piece, either. Hepola’s conclusion, like Emily Yoffe’s and Kirby Wiley’s and so many before her, is ultimately that more people, men and women alike, should drink more responsibly.

Not a bad idea, probably, but not one that gets to the root of why sexual assault happens.

During my own dorm orientation at Texas Tech University, a resident advisor warned the women on my floor of the dangers of drinking too much, especially Everclear-spiked punch from trash cans at frat parties, and told us to be careful who we let into the building. This was part of the general safety information that it was assumed we needed to live on campus as women — lock your car so your CDs don’t get stolen, don’t let weirdos into the building, and most importantly, don’t get yourself raped.

This, of course, was not new information. Women are warned about the dangerous consequences of drinking practically from the time we hit puberty.

Except studies have continually shown that the causal link between drinking and sexual assault isn’t as clear as many of us might believe it to be. After all, wouldn’t it be a relief to think that we can end rape, or prevent our own rapes, by taking the remarkably simple step of not consuming alcohol? But the truth is that rape happens because of a rapist, not because someone — man or woman — had a few, or even far too many, drinks.

Even before their first day of classes, college guys have been bombarded with the idea that women’s bodies are theirs to conquer.

And in truth, “don’t drink and you won’t rape” is as bad an admonishment as “don’t drink and you won’t get raped,” and yet we persist in having the argument, as if rehashing every conceivable situation in which someone gets drunk will crack the code of consent during a hungover morning-after. In 2010, Dallas police chief David Brown blamed an increase of reported rapes on women’s drinking. In The Atlantic, Emily Matchar compares telling college women to drink responsibly in order to avoid rape to telling drivers to somehow “avoid” being hit by drunks and speeders. In 2014, the former president of George Washington University suggested that if women were told not to drink, campus rapes would decline.

Any way we approach it, and approach it we constantly do, this logic still refuses to hold rapists accountable for their actions. If we continually describe rape as a crime tied inextricably to drinking — rather than to a whole host of other social and cultural factors, not least the narrative that sexual attention is something that men are owed — we are no closer to actually preventing rape. Instead, we’re finding yet another convenient avenue to blame victims. The conversation will simply shift from: “Why did you have so much to drink?” to “Why did you hang out with him while he was drunk?”

In fact, it is exactly the non-consensual kissing and groping — what Hepola dismisses as the “nicks and scrapes of an erotic life,” and others describe as “poor decisions” and “regrettable sex” — that should be a central part of any conversation about college sexual assault, much more so than drinking. As much as young people are experimenting with alcohol (and other substances) in college, they’re experimenting with sex and pleasure. And in the case of college men, they’re also experimenting with power — which, rather than desire or lust, is at the root of sexual assault.

Even before their first day of classes, college guys have been bombarded with the idea that women’s bodies are theirs to conquer. Young women have been killed by their peers for as little as refusing to go to the prom and breaking up with their boyfriends, but this entitlement doesn’t always manifest in such dramatic, overtly violent ways.

What starts as high schoolers thinking that buying someone dinner means that they’re entitled to sex evolves into the “daughter drop-off” and “Dads, we’ll take it from here” signs that adorn frat houses during the first week of classes. As Soraya Chemaly wrote at Salon in 2013, rapists sexually assault women not because they are drunk or high, but because they believe they are entitled to our bodies in whatever state of sobriety we’re in. It’s easy to blame the booze; it’s harder to rethink the entirety of how we frame what it means to be a young man in college.

How, then, does alcohol factor in this discussion in a way that’s not distracting? It simply doesn’t.

And sure, I may be able to avoid being raped (well, statistically, I likely won’t) if I avoid drinking, but that doesn’t mean that other women won’t be sexually assaulted if they don’t abstain. Sexual assault in college is far more common than that — women are assaulted by their professors, their classmates and their boyfriends. The presence of a drunk woman does not incite a non-rapist to rape. It gives rapists an opportunity to exploit and prey upon a person’s vulnerabilities. Admonishing some women to stay sober is little more than an instruction to rapists: Just find another person to assault.

How, then, does alcohol factor in this discussion in a way that’s not distracting? It simply doesn’t.

If we want to have a legitimate conversation about sexual assault on college campuses, there are many things that we need to talk about — toxic masculinity, affirmative consent, safe sex and that aforementioned feeling of entitlement toward women’s bodies. To position alcohol as the driving factor behind the college sexual assault epidemic is to continue to absolve perpetrators of the responsibility that they have dodged for millennia.

Being drunk does not absolve anyone of criminal responsibility. If you drive drunkenly and kill three people, you’ve committed vehicular manslaughter. If you bash someone over the head with a beer bottle when you’re drunk, that’s still assault. If you pee in a public place when you’re drunk, you’re publicly intoxicated. And if you’re finding yourself on the dealing end of those non-consensual “nicks and scrapes of an erotic life,” you are, indeed, likely committing some form of sexual harassment, assault or abuse.

“Drink responsibly,” as rape prevention advice for either sex, is a woefully inadequate and banal prescription.