The “feminist response to drinking culture” that isn’t.

I have a serious bone to pick with the article Girl Talk: Why Being Drunk Is A Feminist Issue by Kate Torgovnick, which was included in June 1st’s What We Missed post here on Feministing. In fact, contrary to Feministing’s echoing the notion that the piece is a “feminist response”, I will argue that the piece contains a cognitively dissonant, problematic, and potentially destructive message. In essence, I don’t believe it’s a “feminist response” at all.

First, let’s look at the thesis for the paper:

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.

This is certainly an issue worth discussing, but here’s where I think the author begins to go wrong (emphasis mine):

…there is one thing most women don’t want to say: what if this victim had recognized she was getting drunk, slowed down, and had a few glasses of water before leaving that bar in that cab? The reason we don’t want to go there is because it sounds like victim blaming. And do not mince my words here—there is only one person to blame in this situation—the police officer who used a drunk women’s keys to enter her apartment four times. At best, as he’s admitted, he cuddled with her when she was in nothing but a bra and kissed her on the forehead and, at worst, as the victim remembers it, he rolled down her tights and penetrated her from behind.

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.

In these two paragraphs, the author demonstrates that if there is to be an address of the heavy drinking culture, women should bear the burden of altering their behaviors around men. That’s the narrative.

And I disagree with it.

If there’s to be a challenge of “heavy drinking” culture, it should put on the onus on men to not use alcohol as an excuse to rape or otherwise exploit the vulnerability of a woman. Furthermore, the author adopts a fatalistic attitude toward reaching out to men on this issue, which I definitely disagree with as well. The Student Health Services at Illinois State University provides a model example of what such engagement should look like:

Because of the high incidence of rape, especially acquaintance rape, women have a hard time distinguishing the “nice” guy from the potential rapist. This hurts all men and all potential relationships. For positive change to occur, it is critical for men to become involved as part of the solution.

What can men do to become part of the solution?

  • Approach gender violence as a MEN’S issue.
  • Make sure that the sex you are having is consensual. Do not accept the myth that “no” means “yes”. Understand that submission is not consent. Do not make assumptions about consent, ASK for consent.
  • Remember that having sex with someone who is drunk is sexual assault. If an individual is drunk, they cannot legally consent to sex (they cannot make an informed, rational decision).
  • Communicate clearly how you feel and what you want. Listen to your partner. Do not rely on body language.
  • Do not make assumptions about consent based on style of dress, body language or previous sexual activity. ASK for consent.
  • Understand, and help friends understand, that sexual assault is assault, and has little to do with sex.
  • Do not remain silent, do not look the other way. Become an “active bystander” – confront friends who are becoming disrespectful or abusive towards women. Intervene when a friend is making a decision that could have devastating consequences.
  • Examine your attitudes about women and men that may perpetuate sexism and violence against women.
  • Interrupt actions, comments or jokes that support rape and other acts of violence.

Of course, such engagement needs to go beyond the student health services of one university, but there are examples of that too. The This Is Not An Invitation to Rape Me campaign provides an excellent example of how to approach the issue as well.

We need to approach overhauling this destructive culture with a robust messaging machine that makes it clear that the burden is on men not to rape. I agree with the author that we do not live in an ideal world, but she’s using it to set up with a dichotomy I don’t agree with: live in an ideal world or take preventative steps since it’s unlikely we’ll get men to change. I think such fatalism is destructive. Men can say no to rape, even when a woman is drunk. The reason “drinking culture” should even be a Feminist issue at all is because alcohol is so often invoked as an excuse or explanation for rape. And that demands a counter response.

What I’m taking issue with is the notion that the message should be “women, don’t drink around men.” The message should be “men, a woman who drinks is not asking to be exploited.”

Now, things get a bit hairier later on because the author also details an experience that I believe has influenced her views here. She and her friend got sufficiently inebriated, went out dancing with her friend’s guy friends, and she eventually left to go home, leaving her friend with the guy friends. A few days later, her friend detailed what happened that night:

She said that by the time they got back to her place, she had a hard time standing up and dropped her keys several times as she tried to open the door. In an ideal world, this guy—her friend—would have opened the door, put her in bed, and left. Instead, they made out. He took off bits of clothing even as she made it clear first base was as far as she wanted to go, but she went along with it—mainly because the room was spinning. Next thing she knew, she was having sex, even as she asked him to stop. And she wasn’t sure if he’d used a condom.

In this conversation, neither of used the word “date rape.” But that’s what I think it was.

Uh. It definitely was. The friend was in no position to give consent if she imbibed “room spinning” levels of alcohol. And the dude essentially ignored the fact that she didn’t want to go past first base.

The author makes it explicitly clear that she believes that the only person to blame for this is the man, but she does two more things with which I take issue. The first comes from an examination of two sentences I believe are cognitively dissonant:

Thinking about all of this reminds me of a situation I still feel guilty about years later.

Compare that with:

Again—the only person to blame is this guy, who I would kick hard in the nuts if I ever saw again.

Here’s my question: if you believe that the guy is the only person to blame, why do you feel guilty? Here’s my answer: you’re not guilty of anything. The victim isn’t guilty of anything. Period. I realize that this is a very difficult experience to process, but when you try to make a cognitively dissonant message based off of it that I genuinely believe could promote feelings of revictimization in rape victims, particularly those who were raped while drunk and who might buy into alcohol being partially at fault… sorry, I’m really going to take issue.

The second thing the author does is characterizes the culture of sexual assault like a disease, which I think is problematic when you read her description:

I’ve been thinking about sexual assault like a cancer. If cancer spreads, your odds of fighting it are slim. But if you go for preventative screenings and catch it early, your chances of survival are much higher. What I’m talking about here is prevention. And on that end of things—my friend could have done things to keep a fun night of dancing from going to a traumatizing place. I could have, too. When I saw how drunk she was, I could have stayed at the club and urged her to share a cab home. I could have suggested going for food to help sober her up. I could have told her that she seemed too drunk, and should meet up with this guy another night. If we’d been able to break out of party hardy mode, so many things could have changed what happened.

The distinction between the misogynist who goes “She shouldn’t have gotten shitfaced that night!” and the writing here kind of fades away for me, hence why I think characterizing this as an analog to disease prevention makes for a problematic message.

As for the last parts of the paragraph… the author sounds like she is blaming herself for letting her friend be raped and this is despite her explicitly saying, more than once, that the only person to blame is the man.

I’m not really convinced that the author is convinced. And unfortunately, I believe that uncertainty has seeped into the message I see before me, hence why it’s problematic.

A reading of the comments confirms my fears of how it would be interpreted.

Addressing rape culture requires us to put the onus on men not to rape and requires us to build a robust messaging apparatus around that framing. Addressing rape culture means telling men that because a woman is vulnerable doesn’t mean you have the right to take advantage of her. That’s my message and I’m sticking to it.

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  • Napoleoninrags

    Couldn’t agree more.

    I just posted a response as well on the main page which is now criticizing the article without acknowledging that Feministing actually promoted it (Rather than just “mentioned” it) in their previous post.

    • davenj

      While I don’t think the article is as egregious as some others have found it to be, it is a certainty that Feministing is trying to backtrack on actively promoting the article. It wasn’t just “mentioned” neutrally, Miriam posted it with the title “A call for feminist response to drinking culture.”, clearly implying support.

      I think the “Psychology Today” parallels are striking.

  • Matt

    While I do not agree with putting the onus on women, there gets to be a problem when both parties involved use drugs that “lower their barriers.” Your friend’s example sounds like a clearer case. But if both people are drunk, the man asks “hey, you wanna do it tonight?” and the woman says “mmmm… okay,” even she isn’t thrilled with the idea but is too drunk to put up resistance, it’s hard to blame the man any more than the woman. Even if the man asks twice before getting a “yes” answer, as long as he does so non-aggressively, I find it difficult to justify pressing charges him. It’s very possible to flip the gender script here, and we wouldn’t want to penalize a drunk woman for doing the same to a drunk man, right?

    We can say however much that people should not have sex with drunk people, and that works well and all when one of the two people is sober, but how do you cast blame when both people are drunk? 47% of the cases were where both people were drunk (a majority of the cases involving drunkenness). Even if you focus on the one-sided cases (where you emphasize that someone should not have sex with a drunk person), assault was more common when the *perp* (17%) rather than the victim (7%) was drunk. These numbers would leave 29% for sober-on-sober rape.

    The tone of this post is that rape is about men who are in control of their faculties forcing themselves on drunk women, but the numbers in the original article suggest something quite to the contrary. These asymmetrical results are actually quite interesting. To some extent it makes sense that a sober person could fend off a drunk rapist who isn’t physically in control of themselves, but the fact that the reverse only happens 7%, where the victim is actually quite vulnerable in comparison, suggests that sober would-be rapists aren’t abusing their opportunity for an “easy” lay. As such, the tone seems very well separated from the reality of the problem.

    The problem with alcohol seems to be most significant when both participants are drunk, as both of them are more likely to engage in sex than they would otherwise. In order to prevent pairings where such outcomes occur, and in order to achieve equal treatment, the answer is to encourage people (not just women but men) to not drink to excess, or at least to not be drunk in areas where they would compromise someone else’s liberty. Excessive drinking is a feminist issue, but it must concern drinking as done by *everyone*, not just women.

    • davenj

      “The problem with alcohol seems to be most significant when both participants are drunk, as both of them are more likely to engage in sex than they would otherwise. In order to prevent pairings where such outcomes occur, and in order to achieve equal treatment, the answer is to encourage people (not just women but men) to not drink to excess, or at least to not be drunk in areas where they would compromise someone else’s liberty. Excessive drinking is a feminist issue, but it must concern drinking as done by *everyone*, not just women.”

      This, this, a million times this.

      The OP is keen on focusing on “guilt”, but does not focus on the fact that getting drunk, in and of itself, is a dangerous behavior on its own, and people need to be careful with alcohol regardless of whether or not someone else might do something to them.

      The “both parties are drunk” thing is something that needs to be addressed, too. If both parties are drunk then, by definition, neither can consent to sex. This means that in many cases a “drunk hook-up” could meet the standards for rape for anyone involved. If that’s true then there are plenty of “technical” rapists walking around, both male and female.

      The issue here is that alcohol muddies the waters of consent for anyone who uses it. As a result, there needs to be a feminist response that goes beyond “drunk people can’t consent”, because the truth is that there are many, many people out there who are getting drunk with others and having sex.

      How do we address that? If my girlfriend and I get drunk and have sex, are we both rapists? Alcohol complicates things, and the response needs to be more complicated than the existing feminist responses. My girlfriend has not committed sexual assault, but if all we go by is bullet point #3 of the OP’s source, she has.

      This is the issue: many people have sex while tipsy or drunk that they consider to be perfectly consensual. If this is the case, then where do we go from “drunk people can never, ever consent”?

  • Matt

    The OP is keen on focusing on “guilt”, but does not focus on the fact that getting drunk, in and of itself, is a dangerous behavior on its own, and people need to be careful with alcohol regardless of whether or not someone else might do something to them.

    I agree. Wholeheartedly.

    The other problem is that it seems reasonable t to accept some alcohol use combined with intimacy as an acceptable form of adult sexual expression. That is, a cocktail or two on a date night with a significant other SHOULD NOT mean that any resulting intimacy is assault or rape. Heck, if the goal is total loss of control (some sort of chemical-enhanced BDSM) that should be “allowable” assuming that proper precautions are taken and communication is maintained – as well as it can be – throughout.

    In other words, the problem is choice. By decrying ALL intimacy with ANY use of alcohol I rob both men and women of their agency/freedom when it comes to sexual expression.

    Should alcohol be able to be used as a way for a rapist to slide out from legal action? No. But I feel as though we as feminists should do a better job outlining the difference in philosophy between the needs of the law and the practical situation. I understand that if the law had grey-area every rapist would slide through without any being punished for his or her crimes.

    • davenj

      “In other words, the problem is choice. By decrying ALL intimacy with ANY use of alcohol I rob both men and women of their agency/freedom when it comes to sexual expression.”

      And this is where the real danger resides: a lot of sexual expression occurs under the purview of alcohol use. This, in and of itself, isn’t a bad thing, but it is a dangerous thing, because alcohol is a drug, and it does have effects that can complicate the terrain of consent. There are many people (myself included) who have had pleasurable, consensual sex while under the influence of alcohol, or even while drunk, but the base position here is that I could not have given consent in those instances, and therefore was assaulted. This clearly isn’t the case.

      What we need is to try to discourage binge drinking, both by men and women. It’s a dangerous behavior that leads to a lot of health problems, some of them fatal, and while we offer people in our society the agency to make the choice to get drunk, we still have the right to push forward the notion that it’s a bad choice. This is a major issue for feminists not just because of rape, but because women are more likely to become accidentally intoxicated due to the differences in the way men and women process alcohol.

      • Matt

        accidentally clicked report comment instead of reply, might wanna use a confirmation function to prevent that.

        i was really interested that some posters here are willing to say that consent is complicated. i have a lot of concerns about a purely consent based system but ill stick to a particularly relevant one.

        we are all aware that certain substances change your behavior. suppose 2 people wanted to have sex under a mind altering substance. presumably we say that the consent was obtained before hand and they agreed to do it. both persons have given up self control to a drug. during the sex one person decides that they dont want to continue, for whatever reason. if the other person does not quit, is it rape? after all we’ve established that they arent in control of themselves. thats why they had to consent prior to taking the substance. if the person isnt in control of themselves, can we blame them for not stopping?

        further if you arent qualified to make a decision to have sex while under the influence of something as common as alcohol, what about going the other way? are you qualified to make the decision to stop? how do you reconcile the claim: “a drunk person is unable to consent to sex” with the claim: “a drunk person retains sufficient decision making capacity to refuse to have sex.” are they or are they not able to make decisions? are they in control of themselves or not? i have heard constantly that consent isnt static. which i agree with. consent is ongoing through an entire event. one can withdraw it at any time.

        but it seems to me that a lot of people, feminist and not, allow for the making of some decisions but not others while under the influence of alcohol and/or other drugs.
        why is one decision under the influence more valid?
        are we arguing that negative decisions are possible but positive ones are not?

        suppose i was drunk with my friends. they are pressuring me to do something i would never do sober. because im drunk i end up doing this thing and i wind up in the hospital. are they responsible for my bills? after all i wasnt legally capable of consent to this activity.