More on why victim blaming is not a good way to prevent binge drinking

*Trigger warning*

Yesterday was a wake up call for me about the pervasiveness of rape culture. Victim blaming is so ingrained it shows up in the views of well meaning people, like Keli Goff, who are trying to prevent rape. The “avoid risky behaviors” meme was called out twice, first with the original PA Liquor Board ad and then with Goff’s response. Yet folks continue restating the same line in comments, tweets – all over the internet.

Is this conversation really necessary? Does anyone think women aren’t constantly afraid we might be the victim of a sexual assault? That we aren’t always on edge anyway? The threat of stranger rape is a constant topic of conversation among my female friends (especially the ones who aren’t feminist organizers). This is what it’s like to live in a rape culture.

Arguing that the focus should be on not drinking so we don’t get raped is called perpetuating rape culture. It’s saying hey, if you avoided these behaviors you could have avoided being raped. When anyone, including feminists, puts their focus on preventing rape by avoiding risky behaviors they are putting the responsibility for avoiding rape on the shoulders of the victim.

And it doesn’t work. You can’t prevent rape by not drinking. You might be able to prevent alcoholism by not drinking, alcohol poisoning, drunk driving. But you can’t prevent rape by not drinking, just like you can’t prevent rape by not wearing a short skirt. You can probably prevent rape by not being in the world at all and never interacting with other people. Which is what rape culture wants to do – take away your humanity.

I’ve noticed the supposed prevention tactics people keep bringing up – don’t go out binge drinking, don’t wear a short skirt, don’t walk down the street alone – pack the widespread assumption that rape is committed by strangers. But in fact, 77% of rapes are committed by an acquaintance.

Of course, victim blaming dominates the dialogue around acquaintance rape, too. The alcohol argument here is that everyone was just too drunk to be sure what they were doing – the rapist didn’t realize they were doing anything wrong and the person who was raped was too drunk to say no. When we focus on avoiding risky behaviors instead of always prioritizing consent, this line of reasoning works. Because being drunk is the risk. Hell, if someone gets drinks pushed on them by the rapist we still blame them for getting drunk. We’re basically telling rapists they can get away with it when the lines of consent are hazy, that they should target drunk people.

If we were having a conversation about prevention based on the reality of rape, we’d be talking a lot less about going out binge drinking and instead telling women they should never go on dates and work exclusively from home. Now, there are plenty of folks who think that if two people have dinner together there’s no need for consent, but I hope feminism’s been successful enough that most readers get that this is bullshit. So why do we think it’s OK to tell women drinking makes them vulnerable?

This is the conversation rape culture wants us to have. How about instead we put the responsibility on the shoulders of the rapists?

The risky behavior talk needs to stop. It’s not helping, at all. It’s extraordinarily insulting to survivors – and people who have dealt with the real dangers of alcoholism. The original PA Liquor Board ad used the threat of rape as a scare tactic to keep women from binge drinking. (Another part of the problem – risky behavior campaigns only target women as potential victims, since we’re fine with limiting women’s options but not men’s). That’s how easily we default to victim blaming, even when it’s not actually relevant. As a result we’re not even having a real dialogue around the dangers of alcoholism. Yes, I’m saying Goff hurt her own crusade against binge drinking. Getting drunk can be a bad idea for a whole host of reasons and that is a conversation to have. But the one that says getting drunk makes other people a danger to you? Not so much.

You really want to talk about drinking and rape? Well, in 1 in 3 sexual assaults the perpetator was intoxicated. I still don’t think it’s the smartest prevention campaign, but at least it would be based on facts and put the blame on the right person.

To counter rape culture, we need to build a culture of consent. We need the default to be that it’s not OK to rape someone if they’re drunk. We need to prioritize positive consent always, and this needs to permeate feminist discourse, any future campaigns from agencies like the PA Liquor Board, and make its way to the courts and court of public opinion. We need support networks that don’t let rapists get away with blaming alcohol.  We need cultural change.

Boston, MA

Jos Truitt is Executive Director of Development at Feministing. She joined the team in July 2009, became an Editor in August 2011, and Executive Director in September 2013. She writes about a range of topics including transgender issues, abortion access, and media representation. Jos first got involved with organizing when she led a walk out against the Iraq war at her high school, the Boston Arts Academy. She was introduced to the reproductive justice movement while at Hampshire College, where she organized the Civil Liberties and Public Policy Program’s annual reproductive justice conference. She has worked on the National Abortion Federation’s hotline, was a Field Organizer at Choice USA, and has volunteered as a Pro-Choice Clinic Escort. Jos has written for publications including The Guardian, Bilerico, RH Reality Check, Metro Weekly, and the Columbia Journalism Review. She has spoken and trained at numerous national conferences and college campuses about trans issues, reproductive justice, blogging, feminism, and grassroots organizing. Jos completed her MFA in Printmaking at the San Francisco Art Institute in Spring 2013. In her "spare time" she likes to bake and work on projects about mermaids.

Jos Truitt is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Development.

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Join the Conversation

  • Stephanie

    This article should be made into a PSA.

    • Jos

      Wow. Thank you.

    • Ryder

      Stephanie, you took the words out of my mouth. Thank you so much, Jos, for writing this – and in particular for drawing attention to the absolute disrespect this sort of narrative shows to survivors.

      I have always had trouble containing my outrage and despair when I hear conversations turn in this direction because my heart is just breaking as I think of (1) how common rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment are, (2) how omnipresent rape culture is, and, therefore, (3) the likelihood that someone in the conversation or overhearing the conversation is a survivor who is now questioning him- or herself. What a destructive and hateful thing to do… and so many people perpetuate these conventions of victim blaming without even thinking.

      So, again: thank you, Jos. And Stephanie could not be more right about this needing to become a PSA.

  • Beth

    I’ve been reading this blog for a long time and loving it, but never felt the need to post a comment until now. And that comment is this: THANK YOU.

    You don’t really know what this article meant to me (but you can probably guess…) and I just don’t even have words besides thank you, thank you, thank you!

  • Michael

    Amen. Blaming the victim validates the rape. Humans ARE NOT animals. We have free will, and anyone who throws that away and decieds they are an animal should be treated as such.

    As far as preventative measures, victims need to be taught to defend themselves, and to trust their instincts. For anyone who reads this, if you ever get the heebadabajeebies about a situation or a person, follow it. Always always ALWAYS trust your gut. The predators out there who commit this kind of thing are often times manipulative, and might lure a kind soul into a back room ‘needing to talk’ or some other such bullshit. If you are going to be alone with someone, make sure it is someone you trust with your life.

  • Sheevz

    “Is this conversation really necessary? Does anyone think women aren’t constantly afraid we might be the victim of a sexual assault? That we aren’t always on edge anyway?”

    Thank you for this!
    As a woman who doesn’t even feel safe commuting (i.e. avoiding the bike path at night because it’s a bit dark and out of the way, walking home from the bus stop, pepper spray in hand and phone ready to dial 9-1-1), I was infuriated by Goff’s response. Rape culture is my father telling me that “women have to protect themselves, that’s just the way it is.” I won’t stop telling him that he’s actively perpetuating the rape culture that resulted in my sexual assault. I just hope that one day he and the likes of Goff actually hear us.

  • Lauren

    I hope you guys take this post seriously, I’m going to have to disagree, with pretty much everything in this article.
    I’ll start with:
    “Avoid risky behavior”
    It makes sense. A person who drives a new BMW into the hood, parks it with the keys in the ignition and a neon sign that says “My keys are in the ignition, the doors are unlocked, and I won’t be back for weeks, but please don’t steal this car” won’t like it when their car is stolen and their insurance company denies their claim because…they share in the blame for the incident. The thief is Blamed, and if caught, they go to jail, but the “victim” is also at fault because they took part in their victimization. This is what YOU call “Victim Blaming” but the victim deserves the blame.

    Telling people not to “avoid risky behavior” is one of the most dangerous things you could tell someone. A person can only control themself and take whatever precaution that are available to them to prevent being a victim. You can’t tell criminals to not be a criminal and expect them to not victimize others, but you CAN protect yourself by “avoiding risky behavior”
    …and/or carrying a gun (I do, and suggest other women do the same)…

    There seems to be a misunderstanding here on what the fallacy of “Blaming the Victim” is.
    Victim Blaming is only a fallacy when a person is blamed for their victimization when there is nothing they could do to avoid it. For example, a bully punching a nerd in the face, and then blaming the nerd by saying “If you wasn’t a nerd, then he or she would not have hit you” It’s a fallacy because the nerd is just being who he is. In the case of the Sexual Assault or Rape of a woman who gets totally wasted and flashes her goods and flirts with everyone on the block…alone… turns up her odds of victimization. She is being risky and while the rapist is blamed and sentenced to a million years in jail, it’s not a fallacy to look at her and say “why were you being such an idiot?”

    “How about instead we put the responsibility on the shoulders of the rapists?”
    The rapist is a criminal. Only someone completely detached from reality would think that telling a criminal to…not be a criminal would make that criminal say “Oh…ok, I won’t do that anymore” Criminals already know that what they’re doing is wrong…and they don’t care. We already put them in jail, what more do you expect?

    “Hell, if someone gets drinks pushed on them by the rapist we still blame them for getting drunk.”

    This statement is very insulting to me and to every woman in the world. It treats women like we can’t say “no” when a man offers a drink. Unless he’s holding you down and forcing alcohol down your throat, there is no one to blame but yourself when he offers a drink that you don’t want, but take anyway. We’re Adults who make Adult decisions, not children.

    “Is this conversation really necessary? Does anyone think women aren’t constantly afraid we might be the victim of a sexual assault? That we aren’t always on edge anyway?”

    I think the problem is that women *aren’t* constantly afraid of victimization. We *aren’t* always on edge. That’s why so many women have to be told to “avoid risky behavior”. They know that the odds of being victimized are so low, that they don’t feel like they need to be on guard. Not to mention that there are people telling them to ignore the very real advice to “avoid risky behavior” these people tell them “No matter what happens, you’re not at fault” and ignoring that criminals are going to be criminals no matter how many times you tell them not to be a criminal. It’s like you’re telling them “Here, wear this flotation device made of raw meat and jump into this pool of sharks. If anything happens, it’s the shark’s fault!” No matter who’s blame it is, the victim is victimized…and there are things that he or she could have done to lower those odds of becoming a victim.

    I’ve been reading this site for months, and there is a lot of articles that I agree with, and a lot that I disagree with. I really hope that you don’t just dismiss this comment without addressing it. I hope I didn’t just type this all out just to be thrown out or ignored via “moderation”

    • athenia

      You are onto something there Lauren—if I didn’t have a vagina, it would greatly lower my odds of being sexually assaulted! If those boys that Sandusky raped weren’t boys who came from disadvantaged families, the likelihood of them being victimized would be lowered too! If people weren’t trans or LGTQ, there chances of being victimized would be lower too!

      But alas, things like this, we cannot change, therefore, we need to punish rapists instead because we will not tolerate that shit.

      • Lauren

        Congratulations! …You somehow managed to completely and totally miss my point!
        and I said it more than once too!
        These things in your example are out of control of the victim, therefore, to blame them for their victimization would be “fallacious victim blaming”.
        To blame someone who behaves risky and recklessly, with total disregard for the world around them, who does things that INCREASES their odds of victimization, is NOT fallacious to blame them for their part in their victimization, moreover, to do so DOES NOT remove blame from the criminal who took advantage of him/her.

        • athenia

          So how is it useful or logical to have a hierarchy of victims?

          If we are so comfortable with blaming certain victims, then why not blame all victims?

          Why do we even need to “blame” victims?

          Do we praise non-victims? Do I get a cookie every time I’m not raped? Does that make me an awesome person? A good person? What does not being raped say about me?

          No, being raped or not being raped, has no reflection about what type of person I am and has everything to do with why type of person my attacker is.

    • Emer

      I understand your point–we all engage in risk reduction behaviors to increase our chances of staying healthy and happy. We wash our hands after using the bathroom. We exercise. We lock our doors, we monitor what we eat and drink, we take self-defense classes.

      And make no mistake–the odds of sexual victimization are pretty damn high. The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey recently released by the CDC shows that 1 in 5 women have been raped within their lifetime–80% of which happens before the age of 25. There is a legitimate risk to be concerned about.

      I think the point the author was trying to make is that even when a woman does everything “right” to reduce her risk, she can still get raped–it’s happened many, many times. Your solution of being constantly on guard is the soul of the very problem–it doesn’t *matter* how on guard or on edge people are–it still happens, and the onus of blame is placed firmly on the victim for not doing enough to prevent somebody else’s actions.

      Regarding the perpetrator of the crime: I’m not sure of this, but I’m assuming that most rapists aren’t plotting and scheming who and how they’re going to rape. I imagine it “just happens”–and in those instances, they’re not criminals until the action is taken.

      I think it’s too easy to assume that all criminals are heartless, soulless assholes who don’t care that they’re hurting others. The fact that the majority of victims know their rapist (8 in 10) suggest that there’s a certain level of existing (if misplaced) trust between those people to NOT be an asshole to each other.

      But let’s face it–we exist in a society that blames rape victims for inciting their rape by wearing the wrong clothes or flirting or being drunk–the message is loud and clear that it’s OK for someone to have sex with a person that sends certain “socially-approved” signals. Those “criminals” don’t THINK they’re acting in a criminal way in the first place. Those “criminals” THINK they’re doing something that’s culturally acceptable because we aim our collective focus on the things the victim could have done to prevent being victimized instead of the ways that the “criminals” could have not raped them.

    • Ben
  • Stella

    I think I now better understand Jos’ point in both recent related posts, but I continue to think the way this point is often made is a little imprecise, which is what prompts some of the visceral responses.

    It seems like their are two possible points here, and they are mutually exclusive:

    1. Rape happens essentially randomly. Therefore any suggestion that it is more or less likely to happen to any woman at any time is just contrary to the data we have. All that was relevant was the presence of a rapist, and that is just as likely to be the case at any given moment in any given place. I’m not sure if this is true, but I’m sure there is data we can look at on this point, and this seems to be the point some people are making.

    2. We may have evidence that in certain situations, rape is more likely to happen. However, it is not constructive to point that out for three reasons:
    1. It is a form a sexist social control to ask women, and not men, to modify their behavior due to the actions of criminal third parties.
    2. It is a waste of resources that could be directed at outreach or punishment of potential or past rapists.
    3. It implies that victims were somehow acting negligently when they were victimized by not avoiding a particular behavior they have every right to do if they choose.

    I think that 2 is the better point, and 2 is my personal opinion. But when you make point 2, you need to own up to the fact that implicit in your position is that if we DO have true information about places and situations where rape happens more often, we should essentially keep that information quiet. That is just a fact of position 2.

    And I don’t think that people who disagree with position 2 are NECESSARILY evil, sexist, unintelligent or “victim blamers.” Its a difference of opinion on the consequences of sharing true information (if in fact there is evidence that rape is more prevalent in certain situations, which again, I don’t know the answer to).

    And when we argue with people who think that “study x showing rape happens when alcohol is present” should be advertised, I do not think it is productive to just shout them down with name-calling; I think we need to engage them on the point that yes, even though information like that may be out there, that it is simply not acceptable to ask women to circumscribe their freedom to exist in this world in or to, at best, slightly reduce (and certainly not prevent) their chances of being the victim of criminal conduct.

    • David

      This ^. I find the discourse about rape and victim blaming really confusing, and it’s important that we have access to the logic behind this criticism. Sometimes it feels like people are happy just to shout down the other opinions. Thank you Stella <3.

  • laura

    Put 20 feminist in a dark house party with a keg. Ask them to binge drink to the point of blacking out. When they wake up in the morning no one will have been raped. That is because drinking does not CAUSE rape. There is only one thing that causes rape. Rape. So it is most productive to go at the heart of attacking the cause instead of things that people associate with rape. Victim blaming is a problem of misogyny firstly, but it is bolstered by misunderstandings between cause and effect.
    Lets say most people learn multiplication at age seven in school. You take that out of context and say “Look…statistics show that when you are seven you start learning multiplication. Therefore JUST being seven magically makes you learn multiplication.” When in reality it has nothing to do with being seven, vs eight or any age. It has to do with that is when teachers are mandated to start teaching multiplication. But it can be confusing looking at the raw data out of context…hard to say that, because the correlation is SO strong, that there is absolutely no cause and effect between being seven and learning multiplication. You would say we interviewed these five, seven and ten years olds and they all learned multiplication at seven, seven CAUSES learning of multiplication. Despite the data, you put a bunch of seven year old in a room without a teacher…they don’t just miraculously learn multiplication. You put women in front of a keg with no rapist, they don’t get raped. No matter how much they drink. I don’t think we have to “not talk” about the correlation. We don’t have to not talk about it because there is NO cause and effect. Binge drinking does not lead to rape. Illustrated by all the times women and men binge drink and DON’T get raped. Binge drinking does not increase the odds of getting raped. No matter how hard you try, if you binge drink all alone it doesn’t get you closer to rape. Being around rapist increases your risk of being raped. The one thing the data is clear on, there is NO correlation or effect on rape when people concentrate on what the victim can do to prevent it (victim blaming). If telling a woman to watch her drink or not get drunk prevented rape then you would see a drop in rape. There is no such drop.
    And I disagree whole hardheartedly that people with a criminal impulse can not be impacted away from that impulse. There are countries that have less rape specifically because of educational emphasis on gender equality and the importance of not rapping.

    • Robert

      “There are countries that have less rape specifically because of educational emphasis on gender equality and the importance of not rapping.”

      I had to comment on this because many countries define rape differently. In some countries a man is allowed to have sex with his wife whenever he wants. By the way what countries are you referring to? In the Scandinavian countries ,which are very feminist, there are many rapes, In fact the rate is double the UK rate in one country there. This leads me to believe that you can’t teach a rapist not to rape but you CAN teach women to avoid risky behaviors.

      • Stephanie

        I can’t comment on the countries you are talking about because I don’t have the statistics, but when about 10% of college-aged men admit to rape as long as the word rape isn’t used, this means that rapists don’t think of themselves as rapists. They think its okay to “have sex” with a woman that is unconscious and thus cannot give consent. Nobody ever questions or challenges this way of thinking. And THAT is the problem.

        So instead of shrugging off rapists’ behaviour as “boys will be boys” and laying all the blame on women, the effective way to stop rape would be to target the rapists. So instead of telling women “don’t drink too much, don’t wear that skirt, don’t wander into this neighbourhood, don’t talk to that guy, don’t give your number out, don’t accept drinks from strangers, don’t open the door for strange males when you’re home alone, etc”, tell men “Consent is affirmative. If you’re going out tonight and drinking, don’t rape anybody. If she is too drunk to know what’s going on, and you try anything, then you’re a rapist.”

        The fact that men are NEVER ever told that IS rape culture. And that is what perpetuates rape. So unless women lock themselves in their home and don’t allow any men–ANY men, and that includes their boyfriends and husbands because they are statistically more likely to be raped by them than by a stranger–inside, rape is going to continue happening. By not placing the blame where it belongs–ON THE RAPIST–you are perpetuating the culture that limits women’s movements and effectively relegates them to the status of second class citizens. If women cannot move in the world in the same way men can because of the fear of rape, they are second class citizens.

        So basically, rape can be stopped in two ways: either women can lock themselves in rooms and never have contact with men again, or men can stop raping. Its that simple.

    • Stephanie

      “Put 20 feminist in a dark house party with a keg. Ask them to binge drink to the point of blacking out. When they wake up in the morning no one will have been raped. That is because drinking does not CAUSE rape. There is only one thing that causes rape. Rape.”

      Very well put.

  • Dudley

    I’m a little confused about some of the ideas floating around here. I totally agree that drinking itself does not cause rape. People do. No question about it. Anyone who rapes somebody should be held accountable on their own accord. What I’m confused about is this notion that suggesting preventitive measures is the same as blaming the victim. I don’t think that suggesting that ladies walk down the street with somebody else for safety implies that she is to blame if she does not do this and is raped. There is a danger in this mentality, as it will potentially cause people to remain silent in terms of offering advice to protect women because they will be afraid to be labelled as enhancing “rape culture.” I think we need to be sure to accept comments that are designed to help protect women as just that, and focus on people who have proven they victim blame. If we assume that anyone who offers protective advice is blaming the victim, then we must follow that same logic with all preventitive advice. This would be like saying that a person who suggests we should wear seat belts blames the victims if a car accident occurs.
    I just hope that we acknowledge those who offer preventitive measures are doing so not from a mindset of victim blaming, but out of a true care to reduce the chances as much as possible of being attacked.

  • Peter Keller

    Here’s an anti-rape campaign in Ottawa, Canada that puts the onus back on those most likely who are most likely to commit rape:

  • Matt

    I think part of the problem with this topic in particular is that we as feminists are doing a poor job speaking directly to the criticisms at hand.

    For instance the phrase “rapists cause rape” is true to the point of being a tautology. It’s about as revolutionary of an epistemological concept as “agents cause actions.” The most common critique I read however is not whether or nor rapists cause rape, it’s whether or not there is a reliable, repeatable, observed way to dissuade rapists from raping.

    The truly horrifying answer of “given the evidence we have, no, probably not” is hinted at by the statistics in this article, but is overwhelmed by a more traditional message of “don’t victim blame.” This is not necessarily a bad thing depending on the intended audience for the article. For those activists who’s primary training is from a preventative perspective (community outreach etc.) a stronger focus on how/why empirically “prevention” methods fail would help differently-trained, but good-hearted activists grasp the message in your article.

  • Rich

    As someone who has not paid a great deal of attention to feminist discussion in the past, I am honestly shocked to find that whether or not it is a good thing to educate on risky behavior is even a topic of contention.

    I realize that much of what I will say will be redundant with some of the other comments… but I really want to emphasize a few points.

    First, I see the following logic over and over:
    1. Rape is caused by Rapists
    2. Rape is bad
    3. Therefore, rapists should stop raping.
    While this is technically “valid”… it is also childishly naive to say it is as “simple as that”. Would anyone seriously apply the same logic to any other crime? Can we just educate murderers to stop murdering, and thus end murder? Can we educate thieves to stop stealing, and thus end theft?
    It is good to educate on the importance of respecting consent as well as risk mitigation… but to pretend that rape can be ended in such a manner is unrealistic. This would require such a fundamental shift in human behavior that it is not at all feasible.

    Secondly, it is not clear to me whether people are contesting that there are controllable factors that can reduce the risk of rape.
    I am not making an argument of the specifics, but just saying that hypothetically such factors can (and likely do) exist, and as another commenter mentions, this is information we could have significant confidence in with an objective statistical analysis.
    So, if we can say with confidence that “doing X will lower your risk of rape”, why would we possibly want to withhold that information? We wouldn’t do the same for anything else, be it reducing risk of accidental death or being burglarized, so why the special treatment here?
    If the end goal is to reduce the number of victims, this is a practical means of doing so.

    Then there is also the question of what actually reduces risk, the associated cost, and how that message is broadcast. To me this is where there is the real need for discussion and study.
    Naturally whenever there is something that could be done to prevent a crime some will blame those that didn’t do everything they could have to stop it. The education should be made to make sure this is not implied, though it is unavoidable that some will still make the wrong inference. It is this inference that is the heart of victim blaming, and not something we can really control. The most important thing is legally it is given no credence.
    As an example, I often walk late at night where there is a non-zero risk of becoming a victim of a hit and run. I could mitigate my risk by wearing highly reflective clothing, or even flashing lights… but I do not. This is a risk I am aware of and accept. If I get struck by a car when crossing the street some would probably place part of the blame on me even though I have the right of way since I could have done more to prevent an accident. Let people think what they will: so long as the law still treats me fairly.

    Anyway, that was something of a disorganized rant. I guess I would conclude that it is more important to actually reduce the rate of rape and educate intelligently on how that can be done.

  • katherine

    i posted this to my FB. thank you for putting yourself out there. i agree up there that this should absolutely be a PSA. as the aunt of a young woman on the threshold of turning 18- thank you so much for this blog. i posted it on her page because i never want her to think that the pervasive idea if you don’t drink or act slutty- you’ll be safe is right. thank you again.