I’ll get drunk if I want: Why victim-blaming is never a feminist act

As Miriam mentioned yesterday, The Frisky published a post called, “Why Being Drunk Is A Feminist Issue.”

The more I think about alcohol and its relationship to sexual assault, the more I am convinced that binge drinking is a feminist issue—one that young women in the U.S. need to think about in addition to more obvious issues like equal pay for equal work, better access to gynecological care, and the need for more women representing us in government. Extreme drinking—the kind we see on “Jersey Shore,” the kind we know goes down on college campuses all across the country, the kind we see around us in bars on weekend nights, the kind that fueled “The Hangover,” the kind that inspires all those “last night, I was so drunk” stories that people like to tell—regularly puts women in danger in the name of a good time.

In an ideal world, rape wouldn’t exist. In an ideal world, it wouldn’t matter how much a woman had to drink, what she was wearing, or what overtures she had given—no man would ever consider sex without explicit consent and would recognize that anyone who is deeply intoxicated is unable to give consent. But we don’t live in that world. Unfortunately, short of some Herculean sensitivity raising effort, we do not have control over what men, drunk or sober, will do when presented with our drunkeness. What we do have control over is our side of the equation—how much we drink.

At Feministe, Jill counters with her own version: “Why Wearing Mini-Skirts is a Feminist Issue.”

The more I think about sluttly clothing and its relationship to sexual assault, the more I am convinced that mini-skirts are a feminist issue—one that young women in the U.S. need to think about in addition to more obvious issues like equal pay for equal work, better access to gynecological care, and the need for more women representing us in government. Extremely revealing clothing —the kind we see on “Jersey Shore,” the kind we know women wear on college campuses all across the country, the kind we see around us in bars on weekend nights, the kind that fueled “Charlie’s Angels,” the kind that inspires all those “last night, I looked so hot” stories that people like to tell—regularly puts women in danger in the name of a good time.

In an ideal world, rape wouldn’t exist. In an ideal world, it wouldn’t matter how much a woman had to drink, what she was wearing, or what overtures she had given—no man would ever consider sex without explicit consent and would recognize that a short skirt isn’t an invitation to rape. But we don’t live in that world. Unfortunately, short of some Herculean sensitivity raising effort, we do not have control over what men, drunk or sober, will do when presented with our bare legs. What we do have control over is our side of the equation — how much we decide to show.

I think you can probably tell where this is going. I don’t have much to add to Jill’s take. I especially appreciate her point that consent is not actually a tricky thing. In a healthy sexual interaction, even between drunk people, there is little gray area “if you think of sex as something that both partners…do with each other.” And if you are someone who has trouble with that concept when you’re several drinks in, well then you should probably not get so drunk if you want to avoid being a rapist.

Reading the Frisky piece, I was reminded of this article about the NYPD rape case that says women are generally known to be more judgmental jurors in rape cases–especially if the victim was drinking:

“It’s a well-known fact that, in rape cases, you generally don’t want women on the jury,” says trial lawyer Lisa Bloom. “Women have said to me, ‘How could she have let herself get so drunk?’ Maybe it’s self-protective, the idea that this could never happen to you.

This kind of policing of other women is, of course, nothing new. And it’s sad. But it’s also understandable. Because we all want to have control over our lives and our world. Believing that you can avoid getting raped if you just don’t get drunk or wear mini-skirts means you don’t have to acknowledge that you too could become a victim. And believing that you can prevent rape by urging all women to do the same means you don’t have to tackle the “Herculean” effort of creating a world in which rapists don’t rape people anymore.

But make no mistake: building that world is the feminist project. And all victim-blaming, even when motivated by a sincere desire to “help women,” ultimately sets that project back. I think my feelings on the matter were best articulated by Savitri D. at last week’s anti-rape rally in NYC:

“We should be allowed to be vulnerable. We should not have to be vigilante every moment of every day…We should be allowed to drink a few fucking beers. I’ll get drunk if I want!”

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27 Comments

  1. Posted June 2, 2011 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

    i was (and still am) a bit uncomfortable with the article you are talking about. it does feel and sound like victim blaming. but, i have to be honest i kind of agree. back in 05 i was seeing this guy, we went to a mutual friends house and we were all just hanging around drinking. i didnt think anything of it when they were giving me shots and stronger drinks, we were just having fun. i had to go lay down, so the guy i was seeing came with me. he kept rubbing my arm and telling me he love me “what can i do to make you believe that i love you” as he was kissing me, i said “dont try to have sex with me, i’m a virgin.” next thing i know someone comes in and tells me to get up cause my ride was there. i had to pull up my pants and zip them up. i was so, so smashed. i know it’s not my fault. but i cant help but feel that i could have done something. i think people using alcohol to hook up is something that people should be keeping an eye on. not just women, but other men need to come out and say using alcohol to “loosen” someone up is wrong. should we able to get as smashed as we want? hell yes! i think asking people to realize when someone is maybe using alcohol to get them to do something they normally wouldnt do, or possibly wont remember, isnt victim blaming. it is not their fault that it happened, at all, under any circumstances. but more people need to be saying that its wrong. feeding alcohol to someone so its easier to hook up is wrong.
    i think the article just felt wrong because it wasnt urging everyone to stand up and say something when alcohol is being used to “loosen” someone up. i could very well be wrong though

  2. Posted June 2, 2011 at 4:43 pm | Permalink

    No,the “What we missed” post didn’t “mention” it yesterday. Actually this victim blaming nonsense was unambiguously promoted as “A call for feminist response to drinking culture”. That’s kind of a significant distinction. Amazing how other sites are consistently called out here for the insincerity or insufficiency of their apologies and responses but this kind of weaseling flies when its feministing.

    I know I’m being snarky, but I felt kind of ambushed by that article which literally victim blamed and called those who didn’t do so “naive.” Perhaps triggering would be too great a claim to lay on the article, but the totally unexpected nature of the content took me off guard.

    • Posted June 2, 2011 at 11:03 pm | Permalink

      I was very shocked to see that article in the “What We Missed” yesterday too…It definitely came across as an implicit endorsement of what the article said.

      Often the “What We Missed’s” come w/ some small commentary from Feministing that show how they feel about the linked article. Example: Just the day before, “Model Andrej Pejic (Vanessa wrote about him here) was included in FHM’s list of the hotest women in the world. Which could be a sign of some cool gender bending if it weren’t just an excuse for some immature transphobia.”

      This article could have easily been linked in yesterdays “What We Missed” as something like “Frisky uses victim blaming to discuss drinking culture” and then this follow up. Instead, as you said, the link read, “A call for feminist response to drinking culture.” Disappointing.

    • Posted June 2, 2011 at 11:17 pm | Permalink

      I agree, I did think it was weird that Feministing would link to this article without prefacing that the content was all victim-blamey.

    • Posted June 3, 2011 at 12:13 am | Permalink

      “Weaseling”? Really? I’m not sure what Miriam’s opinion on the Frisky piece is, but I don’t think that everything we note in “What We Missed” posts should be taken as “unambiguously promoted.” We certainly don’t claim to vouch for every idea in every article linked to from this site. Maybe Miriam meant to promote it, maybe she simply meant to call attention to a controversial article. Either way, I can only speak to my own position on it–and it sounds like you and I are 100% in agreement on that.

  3. Posted June 2, 2011 at 5:17 pm | Permalink

    I completely agree with the sentiment that we should all be actively creating a culture where women in vulnerable situations are not victimized. That we can be drunk, that we can be alone on dark streets, that we can go on blind dates with strangers and not be raped, beaten, or otherwise brutalized in any way. Of course.

    But I think that this commentary and push-back against the idea that we need to protect ourselves is wrong.

    It is not victim-blaming women who are raped while drunk if we collectively try to create a culture of women taking certain precautions when they drink. Is this saying that women cannot drink, or get drunk, or get even black out drunk? No. It is saying that IF you choose to get wasted at a party (who hasn’t?!) you do it in a safe manner, or as safe as possible. You go with friends you trust, you don’t leave friends at parties, you always watch your drink and never accept a drink from someone else, etc. etc. Advocating for women to collectively ensure that they CAN be in vulnerable situations in safe manners IS a feminist issue.

    Instead, this commentary and Jill at Feministe (who I love) has made a different connection to this theory–saying that because we should be ABLE to black out at parties and not be raped (of course that should be the truth) then when others (i.e., the Frisky article) say we need to be cautious that is considered blaming the rape victim. I disagree. Fiercely.

    Being drunk does not cause rape. A rapist causes rape. But a rapist will victimize someone that is easier to victimize, and that is NOT the victim’s fault–but they are still a victim. We have to separate “victim-blaming” from actively making it more and more difficult for rapists to find and perpetrate crimes against victims. And we do that by taking hold of the issue of vulnerability and making it ours–how do we keep from being victimized when we are vulnerable? It is not about not drinking, or not walking alone, it is about doing it in ways in which we protect ourselves.

    Now, the issue of short skirts and “provocative” clothing is different from the issue of getting black out drunk at a party. What you are wearing does not make you indefensible, it does not make you incapacitated, it does not render you unconscious. What a woman wears has nothing to do with her ability to be victimized (despite the disgusting jury verdicts that a woman cannot have jeans taken off of her without her help), and any discussion surrounding what women wear when they are raped is victim blaming. No question. But drinking is not like wearing a short skirt. Comparing the two is not realistic, and it takes away from the collective discussion on empowering women.

    So to continue with the original idea that ‘drinking is a feminist issue,’ it is. We need to educate college women on safety tips for drinking at parties. We need to promote defense classes. We need to instill in women and girls that if you are in a parking lot and a stranger is getting too close to you, you pull out your mace in your purse and tell them that they need to step away from you. We enable women and girls to protect themselves, so that we can decrease rape. Because the end goal is empowerment of women and girls, and an end to rape.

    • Posted June 3, 2011 at 8:55 am | Permalink

      Brilliant reply. Thank you for perfectly verbalizing the way I feel about this.

    • Posted June 3, 2011 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

      You said everything that I wanted to say much more eloquently than I would have been able to manage. I agree wholeheartedly.

    • Posted June 3, 2011 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

      Except that really ISN’T helping women, because the overwhelming majority of rapes are committed by people we already know. So advice about drinking and mace and standing up to strangers doesn’t do shit to protect us, but it DOES reinforce the idea that our rapes could have been prevented — and voilà! — victim blaming. I mean, the idea that self-defense classes will bring an end to rape? Please.

      • Posted June 3, 2011 at 11:12 pm | Permalink

        I agree with both of you. That is, while it is true that victims usually know their rapists, it is also my understanding that rapists intentionally seek out vulnerable women. I don’t think gingersnap647 is necessarily reinforcing the narrative of the “jumps out of the bushes to get you” rapist.

      • Posted June 4, 2011 at 8:23 pm | Permalink

        “I mean, the idea that self-defense classes will bring an end to rape? Please.”

        Maybe not end it altogether, but I have on one occasion successfully used my training against an attacker. It may not be the entire solution, only one part of it, but I don’t think anything that can help with the problem of rape should be dismissed outright in this way.

        • Posted June 6, 2011 at 11:34 am | Permalink

          What I criticized was the idea that it would “end rape,” direct from the author’s post. I didn’t dismiss defense classes outright; I’ve taken them, I enjoy them, but I know they won’t end rape and I know they wouldn’t have done shit to stop my rape. So yes, I think it’s bullshit and harmful to say that using mace and being able to throw a punch can “end rape.” I didn’t say what you’re implying.

          • Posted June 8, 2011 at 10:26 am | Permalink

            That’s a strawman argument. gingersnap647 did not say carrying mace and moderating your drinking will end rape. Zie said doing those things reduces rape, which is true.

            When you say “X doesn’t do shit to protect us” then yes, you have outright dismissed X.

          • Posted June 8, 2011 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

            The part I was talking about in zir post:

            “We need to educate college women on safety tips for drinking at parties. We need to promote defense classes. We need to instill in women and girls that if you are in a parking lot and a stranger is getting too close to you, you pull out your mace in your purse and tell them that they need to step away from you. We enable women and girls to protect themselves, so that we can decrease rape. Because the end goal is empowerment of women and girls, and an end to rape.”

            When I read that, I see the author talking about saying no to strangers and being careful while drinking, and then summarizing those ideas as ways to “enable and empower women” and “end rape.” So, yeah.

          • Posted June 9, 2011 at 8:32 am | Permalink

            Zie makes a distinction between these measures, their effect (reducing rape), and an overall goal (ending rape) which reduction of rape works towards. You misrepresent hir position to be claiming these measures alone are sufficient to reach the goal; she never said that.

          • Posted June 14, 2011 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

            Zie never explicitly said it, but I felt it was implied. Agree to disagree.

            In any case, I think any discussion of how to decrease rape that only mentions physical defense and stranger-danger is tacitly–even if not intentionally–endorsing the idea that rape is primarily a violent act that the victim actively resists (if zie has the skills to resist). So many survivors didn’t resist, for so many reasons. Sometimes resistance leads to even more violence, so the self-defense route might backfire anyway. That’s the point: whatever women do, it’s really a crapshoot; we simply CANNOT control whether or not we are raped. The discussion shouldn’t be about what we are doing before, during, or after our rape — it should be about how to stop rapists from raping. Every time we add a a “yes, but” to the conversation, it’s perpetuating the myth that women have some control over whether or not they are raped.

      • Posted June 5, 2011 at 9:40 pm | Permalink

        MKE, why would an anti-rape measure have to stop the bulk of rapes to be considered valid? I look at it like any other risk reduction. Marginally effective measures become worth taking if their cost is low enough, and very effective ones may not be worth taking if their cost is too high.

        You dismiss moderation of drinking as being effective only against stranger rapists. If it is effective against stranger rapists, that seems to me more like a reason to consider it rather than to outright dismiss it. More importantly, I don’t even remotely understand your assumption that my level of intoxication has no bearing on my chances of avoiding rape by people I know. Some timid or calculating rapists will not attempt to rape a conscious person to begin with. Then there is the fact that the more drunk I am, the less capable I am of resisting, and resisting a rape attempt is statistically very productive.

        • Posted June 6, 2011 at 11:40 am | Permalink

          “Why would an anti-rape measure have to stop the bulk of rapes to be considered valid?”

          Uh, no. I didn’t say this. I said it’s ridiculous to suggest that mace and self-defense classes will “end rape,” which is NOT EQUAL TO saying that those things are bad.

          I was raped while drunk and drugged; I have been told over and over again that “You wouldn’t have been raped if you hadn’t ___.” It’s bullshit and I say so. Because I also wouldn’t have been raped if you had called me that night and we had gone somewhere that did not have rapists, but nobody every brings that up. I wouldn’t have been raped if I had done anything other than *getting raped*, yeah!

          I absolutely call any comments about moderating my own behavior to prevent rape as victim-blaming because that’s exactly what they are. We all make choices to protect ourselves—I certainly do—but whenever we enter a conversation about victim blaming with “Well if women did ___, they might not get raped,” we’re endorsing victim blaming and that’s not okay.

          • Posted June 8, 2011 at 10:39 am | Permalink

            “Except that really ISN’T helping women, because the overwhelming majority of rapes are committed by people we already know. So advice about drinking and mace and standing up to strangers doesn’t do shit to protect us”

            Your logic here is that (anti-rape measure) is worthless because it doesn’t help (majority of the time). This is equivalent to saying the only valid measures are those that do work the majority of the time.

          • Posted June 8, 2011 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

            No. Please re-read my response.

    • Posted June 5, 2011 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

      “Being drunk does not cause rape. A rapist causes rape. But a rapist will victimize someone that is easier to victimize, and that is NOT the victim’s fault–but they are still a victim. We have to separate “victim-blaming” from actively making it more and more difficult for rapists to find and perpetrate crimes against victims. And we do that by taking hold of the issue of vulnerability and making it ours–how do we keep from being victimized when we are vulnerable? It is not about not drinking, or not walking alone, it is about doing it in ways in which we protect ourselves. ” = Really well put synthesis of the two halves of this problem. Thank you.

  4. Posted June 2, 2011 at 6:10 pm | Permalink

    As much as I absolutely agree that warning women about the dangers of certain behaviors for fear of assault is borne of the same mindset that leads others to question rape victims about their activities/dress/etc., the fact is that binge drinking is dangerous behavior regardless. That being said, to write off such cogent advice as the Frisky posited strikes me as a knee-jerk reaction to anything that might remotely be misconstrued as being condescending to women in general. They weren’t preaching that women shouldn’t get drunk, shouldn’t have fun, should always have their guard up; they were merely suggesting that one keep one’s wits about oneself, which is smart advice in any situation.

  5. Posted June 2, 2011 at 6:15 pm | Permalink

    I think three particular issues I should take with the drunkenness/mini-skirt comparison is that while they would make the user more “desirable” in a sense,

    1) The enhanced desire comes for different reasons. A mini-skirt generally functions more in this way because the wearer is regarded as more attractive (in theory), whereas someone who is drunk is more vulnerable. The first is more about natural reaction and emotions, while the other is more opportunistic/calculating.

    2) Wearing a mini-skirt should only “cloud” the other person’s judgment, not the wearer’s judgment! Someone wearing a mini-skirt still retains her ability to say “no” and resist but also to consent.

    3) Wearing mini-skirts is generally woman specific, so they do not intrinsically create the dangerous “mutual drunkenness” situation.

    In a comment on another post, I go a bit about the difficult situation of mutual drunkenness (which this post already does) but also to mention that the role of alcohol may facilitate the perp as much or more as making someone vulnerable to be a victim.

  6. Posted June 3, 2011 at 1:28 am | Permalink

    I think the one part of the article that I can stand behind is the bit about watching out for other women.
    In order to realize a world where women can drink as much as they want without fear of being raped, people need to step up to the plate and create that world.
    Giving a woman who is clearly having trouble getting home money for a cab, or even just checking in with friends at a party can make all the difference in the world. It’s the same idea as speaking up if you see a frat guy taking an obviously drunk girl into an empty room at a party. Speak up, check in, watch out for your fellow human beings.
    If everybody started watching out for people- even people they don’t know- we might be a little closer to that world where women can feel safe having a few fucking beers.

  7. Posted June 3, 2011 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

    I think what I find telling about articles like this is their sole focus on woman’s drunkenness and the threat of rape (I question the sincerity of the concern.) I remember a night in the mid 90′s where an older male relative was coming home around 4 A.M., drunk as a skunk. He decided to order a sandwich from one of those 24 hour bodegas where they don’t let you in after a certain hour, just do transactions through a revolving bulletproof window. As he stood waiting for the food, someone attacked him from behind with a crowbar. His wallet was stolen and he ended up having his jaw wired shut. It was a terrible time for us all to go through, most of all him.

    But I don’t think I’ve seen an article such as this one warning men of the dangers of drinking that heavily, and the vulnerable state it puts them in. Why? Are articles like this really about concerns over rape, or womens’ safety, or are they about policing and judging womens’ actions in a way society doesn’t expect of men?

    I’ll admit I like drinking and have had more than one night of partying in my life. I also understand that unless you have a place to crash or someone to help you home safely (preferably a friend or lover and NOT an NYPD officer) there are a lot of reasons for ANYBODY, not just women, to monitor themselves so they don’t get into such a state of sloppy, passing out drunkenness. I mean, in addition to the dangers of violent crimes such as rape or the assault I described above, it’s pretty ideal to avoid drunk driving accidents, losing your keys, throwing up in public, missing your subway stop, falling and getting injured, misplacing money, alcohol poisoning(to the point of needing hospitalization even!), I mean I could go on. But even in regards to that, ultimately? We’re all human. We may make mistakes, miscalculate how much booze we think we can handle, whatever. That should NEVER mean that rape is somehow okay or deserved because of a bit of poor judgment, which is why I also agree with the idea of looking out for each other if it seems someone has lost their facilities.

  8. Posted June 3, 2011 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

    Except that really ISN’T helping women, because the overwhelming majority of rapes are committed by people we already know. So advice about drinking and mace and standing up to strangers doesn’t do shit to protect us, but it DOES reinforce the idea that our rapes could have been prevented — and voilà! — victim blaming.

  9. Posted June 7, 2011 at 6:14 pm | Permalink

    First time posting here, please be gentle with me! :-) I agree that the original article had some serious flaws. It didn’t really seem to move the conversation about drinking in our culture forward in any interesting way.

    As others have pointed out, getting really, really wasted is different from wearing a miniskirt in a lot of significant ways. Just on a physical level, high levels of intoxication aren’t a simple matter of individual freedom, culture, gender norms, etc. If you drink too much you can die from alcohol poisoning. Or you could pass out, or drink yourself into a stupor where you were incapable of making decisions or meaningfully responding to your environment. And while obviously rapists bear full responsibility for rape, its not like there aren’t other environmental factors that can be ignored (choking on vomit, falling asleep with a lit cigarette, etc). Even absent gender questions, extreme drinking is fundamentally risky behavior for both men and women.

    To me the more interesting questions lie in how alcohol affects one’s ability to make decisions, ie to consent. And alcohol affects this, too. For me the grey area isn’t “is it okay to rape a woman who is too drunk to say no” but rather how ought we look at consent in the context of a drug that moderately impairs judgment at relatively low levels, and at high levels can *severely* impair one’s reasoning, decision-making, remove inhibitions, etc. Are there issues of power differences between two people when one is significantly more intoxicated than the other (analogous to teacher/student, doctor/patient, statutory rape etc)? Where do you draw the line? (Not talking about situations where someone is comatose or cannot fight back, but rather situations where someone is really *really* drunk but can still talk, move around, gives consent, is an active participant in sex, etc).

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