Again: Rape is not an “Alcohol-Related Problem”

In 2008, there were a number of posts on SAFER’s blog about a rape at the University of Iowa that was terribly mishandled by the school. In the aftermath of publicity about the school’s “poor judgment,” a number of changes were made. The university president publicly apologized, two administrators involved in the case were fired, and the sexual assault policy was revised. A new article (in a Texas newspaper, the Victoria Advocate, oddly enough) following-up on the case also shows that in 2009 the school hired a sexual misconduct response coordinator who was trained to assist victims and make sure they “get treated with care.” So, despite the inexcusably abysmal immediate response for the survivor, the school seems to have taken a number of admirable actions to make sure that such a disaster never happens again. (As an aside, the outcome for the two perpetrators was that one plead guilty to misdemeanor assault and the other was found guilty of misdemeanor assault).

That said, OH MY GOD THIS NEW ARTICLE MADE ME SO ANGRY. It’s difficult to tell if the story of this horrible rape got turned into a cautionary tale about the dangers of drinking by the reporter’s spin or if this is actually the main concern of the U of Iowa president, but here’s a sampling of what had me cursing out loud last night. They get down to it right away with:

The incidents that led to the sexual assault trial of a former University of Iowa football player could have been avoided, and the school has since educated students more about the dangers of binge drinking and offered victims better support, its president said.

So, to avoid sexual assault we…talk about binge drinking? Does anyone else see a gap there? Wouldn’t it make more sense to talk about…oh, I don’t know….SEXUAL ASSAULT? Next paragraph:

UI President Sally Mason said this month’s trial where prosecutors contended Cedric Everson and former teammate Abe Satterfield sexually assaulted a freshman athlete who had been drinking heavily in 2007 showed how mistakes by young people can have tragic effects. She said the university has “redoubled its efforts” to limit the impact of such behaviors and improve campus safety.

For real, I keep reading this over and am convinced that I’m reading it wrong, but I’m not. This actually turns the focus from the fact that two men raped a woman while she was too intoxicated to function/unconscious, to the “mistake” the victim made by drinking. The rape is just one of drinking’s many “tragic effects” and the school is going to try super duper hard to make sure they get drinking under control! So it can’t get more explicitly messed up than that, right? Wrong!

“Here’s an example of how serious they can get, and the kinds of life-changing things that can happen to the people who are involved in them,” Mason told The Associated Press. “This is exactly what you hope college is not about: the experiences there that could have been avoided, that should have been avoided . I hope this can be a lesson to our students of the dangers associated with excessive alcohol and the kinds of things that follow when you are not in control of your behaviors.”

Yup. Says the pres: When you’re not “in control of your behaviors,” someone might rape you. And that sucks and all, but really isn’t there a more important lesson there about how you shouldn’t have been drinking a lot in the first place? WHAT?

Look, there is no denying that drinking yourself to the point of unconsciousness isn’t safe, for many reasons. And that alcohol has been a factor is many, many sexual assaults. But for the millionth time: alcohol doesn’t rape people, people rape people, so why are we focusing on the alcohol and not the people? Rape should not be a normalized consequence of drinking. We shouldn’t be telling students, “don’t get too drunk, someone might rape you.” We should be telling students, “don’t try and have sex with someone who seems too drunk because they may not be able to consent, and by the way, if they are unconscious? That is rape.” And “isn’t it weird that ya’ll don’t have a problem having sex with someone who is so out of it? What’s going on there?” But really, at this point I would be content with any mention of the fact that sexual violence is a problem in and of itself and it will not be tolerated on campus. Sadly, I’m outta luck:

More broadly, she said the university now requires undergraduate students to take a two-part online course aimed at preventing alcohol-related problems and the university lobbied heavily for an ordinance upheld by voters in November to only let 21-year-olds into campus bars. She said those steps should reduce the harmful effects of binge drinking, and the number of intoxicated students in the residence halls getting taken to hospitals for emergency treatment is declining already.

So glad that less kids are going to the hospital for drinking (genuinely), but have the numbers of reported incidents of sexual assault decreased? Great, students are getting a course about alcohol. Are they getting a primary prevention course about sexual violence?

The problem with framing sexual assault as an “alcohol-related problem” is that a) even if you don’t mean it to, it IS victim-blaming. When you say that binge-drinking is a “mistake” students make that have tragic effects, you are saying that the student could have “avoided” the assault by not drinking, rather than putting the responsibility on the rapists who actually committed the violation. And b) guess what folks? Ending binge-drinking won’t end sexual assault. Pretending that the two things exist in a vacuum, and aren’t embedded in a larger culture with norms and dynamics that also influence why violence happens (and why binge-drinking happens too, for that matter) is short-sighted and irresponsible. If there is a “lesson” to be learned from what happened and is happening in Iowa, it’s not that “drinking is bad,” it’s that we STILL aren’t capable of talking honestly about sexual violence and putting the responsibility on those who perpetrate it.

Cross-posted at Change Happens

Join the Conversation

  • Margaret

    Sarah, Thank you so much for this article. Reading it resonated with me because I attend a charming, small town, Swedish Lutheran liberal arts college and it upsets me to say that our darling community is in fact gilded. This campus is just as dangerous and ripe with sexual assault as any Big Ten school. What make it worse is our system of persecuting assailants. The system includes a laughable attempt at anonymity:two faculty members, two administrators, and two students act as jury and judge. The assailant is interviewed right after the survivor is, sometimes even meeting in the hall way before the hearing. Oh, but don’t worry there is a sheet, that’s right a COTTON SHEET hanging between the survivor, panel, and assailant so as to protect identity. Because if there is one thing that is easy on a campus of under 3,000 it is hiding your identity.
    I bring this up not as an angry tangent, but because in many of these cases the assailant is let off with slap on the wrist, not expelled from school. You already know why,that’s right, because the victims had consumed alcohol during or before the incident!
    We must change this attitude of victim blaming, of alcohol blaming ,and stop the mindless barriers that are put up making it so hard for victims to get justice.

  • Rebecca MacDonald

    This article is great. It should be common sense that the people committing sexual assault should be the ones to get reprimanded and blamed. Its just like when people say “well she shouldn’t have been walking alone if she didn’t want to get mugged.” As if adult women have less right to be outside alone when its dark. Victims should NEVER get blamed.

  • Lynet

    It’s actually possible to read some of the administrator’s comments as meaning “Don’t get drunk or you might make a stupid decision like the decision to rape somebody.” After all, one of “the kinds of things that follow when you are not in control of your behaviors” is that you could commit a crime and be prosecuted for it.

    Unfortunately, that’s probably not what she’s saying — but wouldn’t it be awesome if it was?

  • Amanda Jo Milliken

    I have to say that I feel angry too with this article, along with deep sadness.
    The angry part because they placed the blame solely on the girl. Its not her fault two testosterone filled boys abused her. No man – boy has the right to touch any female like that. And for the school to accept these actions from the boys is wrong. Makes me wonder if any female will be safe on their campus. What next they didn’t wear the right clothing.
    The sadness is did the girl get the help she really need or was she pushed off to the side. How it must of hurt to read this article considering the way it mad me feel.
    I wish her the best of luck. I also hope the campus will stop over looking sexual assult and blaming alcohol when the person to choose what they do to someone else not if that person who gets hurt was drinking.

  • Steven Olson

    After reading the whole article, I want to give the U of Iowa president the benefit of the doubt here. Her responses with firing administrators and getting policies changed really suggests she isn’t suggesting if you drink you are putting yourself at risk.

    My theory, although probably far fetched, is that she is using the victim blaming around drinking and rape as an excuse to tackle two problems at once. The poor sexual assault policy and also trying to educate students more about drinking. It would sure be nice if that were actually true!

    I didn’t get this slant from the article, but I wonder if there is any studies that suggests that alcohol consumption increases a rapists chances at raping? If this were true obviously it would not be true for many rapists, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it were true for some. If that were true, then some of those comments about the dangers of drinking could be taken as the danger of drinking and raping someone (although that would have to be explicitly stated or else not many people would pick up on it).

  • Jamie Browning

    Great post. It’s like the University of Iowa responded to a campus shooting by educating students on wearing bullet proof vests, because obviously walking around in a t-shirt is a mistake that puts you at high risk for getting shot.

    I think it’s worth mentioning that (depending on which study you look at) something like 50% of college sexual assaults are alcohol related. That’s high, as you note, no one is denying that alcohol is an aggravating factor. But it means that a lot of rape doesn’t involve alcohol at all. There’s several hundred thousand women raped in college every year for whom this misguided victim blaming is completely irrelevant to their experience. Women who have never touched alcohol in their lives get raped. What is the University of Iowa doing to make campus safer for them? Absolutely nothing, apparently.

  • Saz

    I am from Northern Ireland and sadly attitudes are not much different here. There is a ‘BE SMART’ campaign which basically tells young girls not to get so drunk in the first place and lower their inhibitions. Also the police state that rape has devastating consequences for the victim…and the accused. Is that a joke? Almost none of these cases go to court, so the victim has the added trauma of the injustice! So I agree, its about changing men’s attitudes, not the victims.