Skip to main content

Don't blame women's drinking for rape

By Matthew C. Whitaker, Special to CNN
updated 11:42 AM EST, Wed November 6, 2013
Parents should talk with their children about peer pressure and alcohol abuse even before they begin dating.
Parents should talk with their children about peer pressure and alcohol abuse even before they begin dating.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Matthew Whitaker: Articles said women could avoid rape if they didn't drink too much
  • He says it's ridiculous to focus on women's behavior and not crime of the rapist
  • He says women should not be expected to prevent their rape, made to feel guilt if they didn't
  • Whitaker: This discussion is retrograde. To prevent rape, fix misogyny, not women's behavior

Editor's note: Matthew C. Whitaker is an ASU Foundation Professor of History and founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at Arizona State University. He is the author of the forthcoming "Peace Be Still: Modern Black America From World War II to Barack Obama." He can be followed on Twitter at @Dr_Whitaker.

(CNN) -- A recent, widely discussed column in Slate rekindled an old debate about women, drinking and rape. It argued that young women should not become intoxicated because studies have shown that drinking, and the incoherence it produces, can lead to rape. Last week, in an article in USA Today law enforcement officials identified alcohol as "the No. 1 date rape drug," and health care providers urged women not to conduct themselves in ways that increase the likelihood of sexual assault.

The conclusion that these articles draw from studies and health professionals show just how far we have not come in understanding the inextricable link between power, violence, misogyny and rape culture. Indeed, some who have contributed to this dialogue have come perilously close to blaming the victims of rape for their own attack.

Matthew C. Whitaker
Matthew C. Whitaker

In The Daily Campus, Southern Methodist University's student-run newspaper, student Kirby Wiley last week, argued that "If the media would focus more attention on the fact that the majority of the women who are sexually assaulted are intoxicated, as opposed to stating and restating how horrible the perpetrator is, then maybe young women would start to listen."

SMU student op-ed links drinking irresponsibly with rape

Focus more attention on the drinking habits of women than on the viciousness of rapists? As Jasmine Lester -- the founder of Arizona State University's Sun Devils Against Sexual Assault, a group that aims to cut sexual violence -- recently told me, "rapists are rapists, regardless, and it's dangerous to focus on telling potential victims what not to do rather than focusing on punishments for rapists."

Warning women about heavy drinking places the burden of not being sexually assaulted squarely on the shoulders of victims, and when they are raped this twisted dynamic often leads them to blame themselves for their own mauling. This is particularly disturbing because there is no female behavioral pattern that will thwart an assailant who is determined to harm them. The bottom line is that the victims of rape should not be expected to have forestalled their attack, and are never to blame for it, even if they are a drunken "hot messes" at the afterparty.

My mother and other feminist mentors taught me at a young age that rape is about power, control and the more widespread problems embedded in our enduringly misogynistic society. Many men believe that women, as allegedly weaker people, should be conquered, and that rape is merely an assertion of inherent masculinist supremacy. Many men simply do not subscribe to women's historian Gerda Lerner's "radical notion that women are," in fact, "human beings."

CDC: Women, teen girls binge drink
Soldier tells her story of sexual assault

We need to look no further for evidence of this than the Steubenville, Ohio, incident in 2012 in which a teenage girl was sexually assaulted, was dehumanized, and then blamed and vilified by some in her community and beyond, while others appeared to lament that the futures of her football-hero assailants were ruined by their rape conviction.

In a similar case in Maryville, Missouri, this year, a teenage girl alleged she'd been raped, the sheriff "described it as a 'horrible crime'," declared that the perpetrators should be "punished," and then the county attorney declined to prosecute, saying "there was not a criminal offense." (The charges were dropped, but after a wide outcry, the case was, thankfully, reopened.)

Despite these realities and the frequency with which women are subjected to sexual violence, the dialogue of late has recalled pre-feminist movement denunciations of "bad girls" who invite sexual assault by wearing provocative clothes, drinking too much and losing their wits.

As a father of a young daughter, I find this very disturbing. Blaming excessive drinking for sexual assault among women is like blaming someone who left their keys in their car for the theft of their vehicle. Is leaving your keys in your car unwise? Yes. Is it the cause of your car being stolen? No. The person who stole your car is the responsible one. Besides, they do not need your keys to take your car.

Sadly, the certainty of punishment for stealing a car is often much greater than the certaining of punishment for raping someone; 97% of rapists receive no punishment, according to an analysis by RAINN and the Justice Department.

Even if someone is being "stupid" and leaving his or her car unlocked, and it is stolen, few people will respond by saying "we should not punish the car thief because who can blame him for taking advantage?"

If we want to help protect women from sexual assault, let us do so by ridding ourselves of misogyny and moving against the source of the problem, not the victim.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Matthew Whitaker.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 3:47 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Jimmy Carter's message about the need to restore trust in public officials is a vital one, decades after the now 90-year-old he first voiced it
updated 5:56 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Ford Vox says mistakes and missed opportunities along the line to a diagnosis of Ebola in a Liberian man have put Dallas residents at risk of fatal infection
updated 6:21 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Pepper Schwartz says California is trying, but its law requiring step-by-step consent is just not the way hot and heavy sex proceeds on college campuses
updated 4:48 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Mike Downey says long-suffering fans, waiting for good playoff news since 1985, finally get something to cheer about
updated 5:39 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Steve Israel saysJohn Boehner's Congress and the tea party will be remembered for shutting down government one year ago
updated 2:56 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Yep. You read the headline right, says Peter Bergen, writing on the new government that stresses national unity
updated 11:24 AM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Hong Kong's pro-democracy demonstrators are but the latest freedom group to be abandoned by the Obama administration, says Mike Gonzalez
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
updated 10:23 AM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
updated 10:55 AM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
updated 7:03 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
updated 10:19 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
updated 2:59 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
updated 9:32 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
updated 8:33 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
updated 5:37 PM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
updated 12:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
updated 10:39 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
updated 9:09 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
updated 5:10 AM EDT, Wed September 24, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT