October 25, 2013

As parents, both Ruth Marcus and Emily Yoffe are doing their jobs in saying to their daughters (in Marcus’s words), “The best step that young women can take to protect themselves is to stop drinking to excess.” (As long as they have the corresponding conversation with their sons.)

When it comes to public discourse about rape prevention, though, that approach fails. It fails precisely because we live in a society that is dogmatic and didactic about rape prevention (don’t go out alone at night, don’t dress like a slut, wear shoes you can run in, don’t have too many sex partners, don’t “lead someone on,” don’t list your first name on the mailbox, always park in a well-lighted space, be aware of everything at all times and so on ad nauseum).

It fails because if a woman is raped (approximately one in five women are), she is blamed (see “It takes two to tango,” and “she was asking for it,”  “I’m not saying she deserved to be raped, but…what did she expect to happen at 1 a.m. after sneaking out?” and so many, many more).

I, too, hope both young women and young men would drink less and that the prevalence of alcohol-facilitated rape would decline. But the way to get there is free of lectures and finger-wagging.

Instead of prescriptions (“No shots!” says Yoffe), we should equip young women and men with the information they need to make healthy decisions. Instead of prescriptions, we should equip young women with the skills and strategies to deal with any violation or disrespect, large or small, that comes their way. These skills and strategies take the form of awareness (understanding risks), assertiveness and boundary-setting, physical strikes for when things get rough, and more.

Prescriptions are paternalistic and of limited practical use. Skills are empowering. They go with the young woman wherever she goes, and they affect her life whether she has to actually use them or not.

The good news in the firestorm that Yoffe set off is that we’re talking about the relationship between alcohol and sexual assault. We need to make sure we’re talking about it in a helpful way – a way that doesn’t echo the victim blaming of most rape prevention tips — full of “don’t!” and “always!”

Sexual assault is about power –- the assailant’s power and the victim’s powerlessness. Let’s not make women more powerless in our attempts to help them be safer.