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