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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