WARNING: This article deals with an account of rape/sexual assault and may be triggering for survivors of abuse.
By MIA FREEDMAN
Let’s say you have a daughter. Or a little sister. And let’s say there was something you could tell her that would dramatically reduce the likelihood of her being sexually assaulted during her lifetime.
Would you tell her?
I would. And I will, when my daughter is old enough for it to be relevant to her.
I’ll tell her that getting drunk when she goes out puts her at a greater risk of danger. All kinds of danger. I’ll tell her that being drunk impairs your judgement, slows your reflexes and dramatically reduces your ability to asses risks and escape from harm.
I’ll tell her that there are opportunistic men out there, evil people who will not hesitate to take advantage of a drunk girl. I’ll tell her that there is a crystal clear connection between alcohol and sexual assault, both for the victim and the perpetrator.
Will I also teach my sons about this connection between alcohol and sexual assault? Sure. I will teach them that binge drinking will obliterate their ability to make good decisions – about getting into cars, getting into fights and having sex.
To me this is common sense and part of my responsibility as a parent. Just like I will warn my kids about wearing their seatbelt and using sunscreen and looking both ways before they cross the road.
But my conversations with my daughter will be different because women are physically more vulnerable to sexual assault than men. I’m not going to pretend that’s not the case. And I’m not going to pretend alcohol isn’t a factor.
So what’s the problem? Some people are angry at the idea of highlighting the link between drinking and sexual assault. Some people insist that when we mention the connection, we are victim blaming. Somehow, in some quarters, the right to get wasted has become a feminist issue and this troubles me greatly.
Let me be clear: sexual assault is never the fault of the victim. Neither is being hit by a drunk driver. The sole person to blame for such crimes is the perpetrator. But teaching girls how to reduce their risk of sexual assault is not the same thing as victim blaming. It’s not. And we must stop confusing the two.
When Slate columnist Emily Yoffe, whose daughter is about to start college, wrote a plea to young women to stop binge drinking because it was increasing their risk of sexual assault, all manner of merry hell rained down upon her head.
No matter that the evidence is compelling, Yoffe cites a 2009 study of campus sexual assault which found that “…by the time they graduate, almost 20 percent of college women will become victims, overwhelmingly of a fellow classmate. More than 80 percent of campus sexual assaults involve alcohol. Frequently both the man and the woman have been drinking.
“Sometimes the woman is the only one drunk and runs into a particular type of shrewd—and sober—sexual predator who lurks where women drink like a lion at a watering hole. For these kinds of men, the rise of female binge drinking has made campuses a prey-rich environment.”
This is not just a college phenomenon, nor an American one.
According to a study into sexual asssault by the Australia Bureau of Statisics: “Victims of sexual assault were more likely to believe alcohol and/or any other substance contributed to the most recent incident they experienced if the offender was a friend (76%). This was significantly higher than the overall proportion of victims of physical assault who believed alcohol and/or any other substance contributed to their most recent incident (59%).
Wherever there are drunk girls, there will be predators. And opportunists. And yet Emily Yoffe was widely abused on social media this week for making this connection and for telling her daughter that “it’s her responsibility to take steps to protect herself”.
Is that where we are? Where advising our daughter how to reduce their risk of sexual assault somehow betrays a feminist ideal and counts as victim blaming?
When I interviewed Caitlin Moran earlier this year, we spoke about this attempt at shutting down the warnings we give to women about staying safe. It was in the aftermath of Jill Meagher’s tragic murder, when all the women I know were wondering out loud what we could do to protect ourselves against evil, opportunistic monsters like Jill’s killer. At the time, some prominent feminist commentators tried to shut down those conversations because they insisted it was every woman’s right to walk the streets at any time in any condition and expect to be safe. To suggest anything else was victim-blaming, they said.
I disagreed and I wanted to know what Caitlin felt about it.
She told me about lying in bed at night with her husband and listening to women wearing high heels click clacking down the street on their way home at 2am and what a terrible idea she thought that was. Not only did it alert a potential predator to their presence, it meant they couldn’t run if they had to escape danger.
When the interview was published, some feminist bloggers expressed outrage at both me and Caitlin for what they saw as victim-blaming. Many confused the observation about shoes with the thankfully outdated idea that so-called provocative clothing – like short skirts – could increase your chance of being raped. But we weren’t talking about ‘leading a man on’. We were talking about running away.
Regardless, some women were pissed off.
It’s very easy – I’ve come to understand – to have idealistic views about how the world should work. But those views mostly exist in the theoretical realm. Apply them to real life and real people, people you know and love and fear for and they evaporate.
In theory, I believe every woman (and man, but this is a post about women) should have the right to live her life free from the possibility of abuse, assault and rape. And we must continue to shame and prosecute those who don’t respect that right because they are criminals.
But theories can’t always withstand the conditions of real life. Which is why I believe it’s crucial to educate girls about the link between alcohol and sexual assault and warn them about the increased risk to their safety that comes with getting wasted. This is not an issue of morality. If you want to have casual sex, go for it. Safely. Just make sure it’s your decision and one you’re still comfortable with the next day.
Binge-drinking dramatically changes your ability to make good decisions or protect yourself from bad ones made by others.
Do you think this is good advice to pass onto our daughters? Or do you disagree?