Ex-GWU president criticized for remarks about women, drinking and sexual assault


Former George Washington University president Stephen Joel Trachtenberg is honored at a gala at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in this 2007 file photo. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
August 29, 2014

The former president of George Washington University — who declared this week that women should be “trained not to drink in excess” so they can “be in a position to punch the guys in the nose if they misbehave” — said Friday that he did not mean to imply that drunk women should be blamed if they are raped.

Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, who retired as GWU president in 2007 after 19 years in the position, drew criticism for comments he made Tuesday on “The Diane Rehm Show” on the WAMU (88.5 FM) radio station. The show, on the topic of fraternities and sororities, veered into a discussion of sexual misconduct on campus.

“Without making the victims . . . responsible for what happens, one of the groups that have to be trained not to drink in excess are women,” Trachtenberg said on the show. “They need to be in a position to punch the guys in the nose if they misbehave. And so part of the problem is you have men who take advantage of women who drink too much. And there are women who drink too much. And we need to educate our daughters and our children on that — in that regard.”

A few minutes later, another panelist on the show questioned Trachtenberg’s remarks. Caitlin Flanagan, a writer for the Atlantic, said she wanted to “take a slight exception or maybe a real exception to what Dr. Trachtenberg is saying about how if young women are sober they have a better chance of protecting themselves from rape by being able to punch the guy in the nose. That’s not a realistic strategy for protecting ourselves from rape.”

In ensuing days, many others raised objections to what Trachtenberg said. A petition on change.org demanded, among other things, that the former president apologize.

“I’m furious at his remarks” wrote one person who supported the petition. “Even if he thought he was saying the right thing, he needs to know better.”

Another wrote: “10 out of 10 rapes are caused by rapists. Not survivors who were drinking too much, wearing ‘too little,’ or walking alone at night.”

Reached by telephone Friday, Trachtenberg said he had been misunderstood. He said he was simply trying to make “a constructive point” about the dangers of alcohol. To anyone who asks, he said, his message is clear: “I’m not trying to shift blame. The predator is the predator. They are criminals, and they ought to be treated as such.”

He went on to say: “The rapist is culpable. I don’t care if the woman is dead drunk and wearing the most provocative gown you ever saw.” He added that he did not mean to be taken literally when he suggested women should be able, if needed, to punch a man in the nose.

Asked if he was apologizing, Trachtenberg said: “Apologizing isn’t exactly the word I would use. I’m explaining.”

The 76-year-old president emeritus expressed some regret after several students from GWU’s Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration e-mailed him to say they were disappointed in his remarks.

“I was perhaps less clear than I should have been,” Trachtenberg wrote in his reply. “If so I am sorry. I was trying to say only that people need to know their limits. That sober is safer. That someone who is drunk is more vulnerable to attack. I also think that being educated about what to do if attacked is empowering.”

Trachtenberg said he hoped the uproar over his remarks “helps to educate men who need to understand their role in these matters and become robust partners in the struggle to make our community a safer, better place for all.”

Trachtenberg is a professor of public service at GWU. University President Steven Knapp said in a statement that his predecessor “is free, as an individual faculty member, to express his personal views. My responsibility as president is to make my own and the university’s position – and the steps the university is actually taking – as clear as I can. My strongly held position is that sexual assault under any guise and regardless of the circumstances is utterly repugnant and unacceptable.”

Nick Anderson covers higher education for The Washington Post. He has been a writer and editor at The Post since 2005.
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