Oct 252013

[trigger warning, both for sexual violence and righteous anger]

I was going to stay out of it. Of course everyone on earth sent me Emily Yoffe’s too stupid for words Slate piece about how we should tell college women not to drink so that they don’t get raped.

I’ve got other things to do – like, my actual job of preventing sexual assault, just for a start – than join an internet fight about whether or not it’s okay to tell women not to drink as a strategy for preventing sexual assault.

But then the New York Times did this Room for Debate on the topic, and I was stunned to find that they had not included in the debate ANYONE WHO ACTUALLY DOES SEXUAL ASSAULT PREVENTION WORK. I was stunned, too, to find that there is no mention of the multiple decades of research on what WORKS to prevent sexual assault. The focus is entirely on whether or not it’s “okay” to tell women not to drink, not on whether or not it’s EFFECTIVE at preventing assault.

Let me say this as plainly as I can: I don’t care even a little bit whether or not it’s “victim-blaming” to tell women not to drink; I have my own opinions, of course, but political acceptability of any particular approach to preventing sexual assault has only a marginal place in my decision-making about what strategy to implement on my campus.

The primary – and almost the exclusive – criterion I use in determining what approach I will take in preventing sexual assault on my campus is:


That’s all. Anything else would be a waste of my time and resources. Anything else would be professionally negligent. Anything else would be an insult to the students whose wellbeing I serve.

I have this important job, see. I have the job of preventing sexual violence. And if I wasted time and money on an approach that people feel comfortable with but that doesn’t work, I would – as far as my own conscience is concerned – be allowing sexual violence to happen.

So if telling women not to drink WORKED to prevent violence, I would do it. I would do it every day, at the top of my lungs.

It does not. So I don’t.

The thing is, if sexual assault is just about Person A, who intends to do harm, and Person B, who is the target of the harm, then our only options are to try to persuade Person A not to do harm or to persuade Person B not to be in harm’s way.

But the days of seeing sexual violence as something that happens between Person A and Person B are over. If we zoom out from Person A and Person B we will see that there’s Person C and Person D and Person E… all way the way to Person Z. According to Green Dot, Inc, there’s between 20-40 witnesses to some precursor of the violence, who could step in and do something to interrupt the flow of violence and prevent the assault before it ever happens.

When we include the bystanders, we don’t need to think about victim-blaming, because there are no victims!

When we include the bystanders, THE NUMBERS ARE ON OUR SIDE.

Let me tell you three stories of bystander action, and then I’ll go back to doing my actual job and writing my book and living my life:

Story 1: Two students who were trained as bystander peer educators were at a party on campus, where they noticed some dude engaged in what I will euphemistically describe as an explicit sexual behavior with a blackout drunk student, against a wall in the living room. These two students were PISSED at the dude and at the crowd of people who were studiously failing to notice the assault happening right there in the living room.

So they told a friend what they were doing, so that friend could keep an eye out and call for more help if necessary, and they approached the dude. One student put her hand on the shoulder of the blackout drunk student and said, “Do you want some water?” The drunk student nodded blindly, “Yeah, water.” My student put her to bed.

Meanwhile, the other student gave the dude what-for. Kicked him out. Told him never to come back.

They kept themselves safe while still interrupting the flow of violence. They had other options – they could have called the police or spilled a drink on the dude or any number of other things. But being an active bystander isn’t about doing any specific thing, it’s about doing SOMETHING – and something is ANYTHING THAT ISN’T NOTHING.

Story 2: Two different bystander peer educators were at a county fair and saw a couple arguing violently, in a way that made my students feel uncomfortable, unsafe. So they harnessed their fear and stepped into the sphere of the argument and said apologetically, “Hi, we’re lost, could you tell us where to find the parking lot?”

They interrupted the flow of violence. Did they rescue the targeted partner from that dangerous relationship? Did they persuade the abuser to find a more appropriate outlet for that rage? No. But they interrupted the flow. They let the couple know that they were not unobserved. And they showed all the other witnesses that it’s possible – and important – to do SOMETHING.

Story 3: A student who is herself a survivor of sexual violence witnessed a classic sexual predator strategy being used at a bar where she was celebrating a friend’s birthday. A stranger was separating a younger, shy student from the group and buying her drinks – persuading her in an apparently friendly way to come with him. The student couldn’t put her finger on what wasn’t okay, but every cell in her body froze, locked up. All of a sudden, all she wanted to do was go to sleep.

When she recognized what this physiological shift meant – that she was triggered – she turned to a friend and said, “That situation over there is really not okay. I need to go home right now, but I couldn’t leave before I pointed it out to someone. Could you ask the bartender to interrupt?”

Her friend delegated to someone else the job of interrupting the unsafe situation and escorted the triggered student home. I don’t know whether or not the assault in progress at the bar got interrupted and prevented. But I know that student DID SOMETHING. Actually she did two somethings: she told someone what she saw, and she took care of herself. I am so proud of her for both those things.

Again, the question isn’t what’s politically acceptable to say or not say, to prevent sexual violence. The question is WHAT WORKS to prevent sexual violence? And that question is too important for us to be distracted by whose fault it is that violence happens or who should be responsible for stopping it.

We are ALL responsible for stopping it. YOU are responsible for doing SOMETHING, when you notice something not okay – and “something” is ANYTHING THAT ISN’T NOTHING.

Okay then. I’m going back to work.

Emily Nagoski

  22 Responses to “What’s actually wrong with telling women not to drink”

Comments (21) Pingbacks (1)
  1. Thank you Emily, for putting into words what I think and feel in my heart of hearts. The conversation in the media is disturbing to me on many levels. And the lack of “voice” of people who do the work, is typical

  2. This is so brilliant! Why isn’t it at the core of the discussion on how to prevent sexual violence?

    • That is a very important question, and I don’t know the answer. I think it might have something to do with the way fear makes people’s brains fritz out, so they can’t even consider whether or not they’re trying to answer the right question.

  3. Very stimulating piece. I am glad I followed thr the link on Facebook. I hope to generate some meaningfully discussion around your article and the references you quote. Thanks for taking the time to write this down and publish it.

  4. Reality and politics ambiguously merge into one, where the politics of telling someone not to drink gets in the way of the relative safety of remaining compos mentis.

    The politicalisation of modernity is its very downfall.

    Great article.

  5. This is so important. Thank you for writing this.

  6. For a article exhorting evidence-based guidance for preventing sexual assaults — something I wholeheartedly agree with — it’s notably light on actual evidence. It does have three anecdotes that illustrate what is also good advice, though, two be fair, the dangers of alcohol feature prominently in two of them.

    In contrast, Emily Yoffe’s “too stupid for words Slate piece” does provide some actual statistics, namely that more than 80 percent of assaults involve alcohol. She also cites a study about links between alcohol and sexual assault (http://www.collegedrinkingprevention.gov/media/journal/118-abbey.pdf), which in turn cites a study that indicates a correlation between that heavy drinking and assaults.

    Evidence-based sexual assault prevention is something that should be championed. Dismissing Yoffe’s article, and the studies she cites, strikes me as counter to that goal.

    • Emily Yoffe doesn’t talk to any sexual assault prevention educators and she presents no research on the efficacy of of sexual assault prevention strategies. Of course there is a relationship between alcohol and rape. But telling women not to drink in order to prevent the rape doesn’t work to prevent the rape. That’s like… saying people shouldn’t go to a baseball game if they don’t want to see their team lose.

      Follow the link if you want the science. I’ve learned in the last six months of writing a book about the science of women’s sexuality that people who want to understand the science will find it; everyone else will be more persuaded by true stories.

      • The problem here is you still appear to have a dog in this fight.

        Not drinking to excess helped in all of those situations, as people lose their inhibitions when they drink.
        Seeing a situation of possible sexual violence and doing something sensible to stop it require being level headed, no?

        The advice not to get falling down drunk, or to leave your drink untended, or to make sure you are with people you trust is not dismissing your advice, it’s common sense.

        The fact that common sense can be called “victim blaming” by anyone is bad.
        I admire that you at least seem to want to educate everyone, so more people are aware and understand what they can do to help. It’s much better than “teach men not to rape” which is the normal counter to advice on drinking.
        I mean, that’s so super effective it gets wide support and poster campaigns, because if there’s one thing that a rapist will do, it’s “learn not to rape” because some posters said so.

        I really don’t believe in safety anyways. I’ve maintained since I was a child that the only thing a locked door will get you is a broken door, if somebody wants to rob you.
        I don’t think people suggesting I lock my door are stupid, vile, victim blaming or even misguided. Locking a door is a sensible precaution, even if I don’t think it is very effective.

  7. This is brilliant, thank you.

  8. Emily Yoffe is not telling women not to drink… simply not to drink to excess (which should be sage advice for anyone) and eliminate some of those opportunities where sexual violence can occur instead of waiting to hopefully saved by some brave soul’s intervention.

    Your first scenario is admirable but would have been unnecesasary if the woman had not gotten so drunk that she caught the eye of a predator looking for a victim.

    To me, all the outrage seemes… well, outrageous.

    • “Sexual violence can occur,” hell. It’s not weather. It doesn’t just “occur.” No matter how drunk you get, if there is no rapist present, you won’t get raped. (I once got accidentally completely smashed at a party where I was the only woman and no one else was more than mildly lit. No one raped me. They patted me on the shoulder, told me I would be okay, got me glasses of water, and my boyfriend drove me home.) No matter how sober you are, if a rapist gets an opportunity to rape you, most likely you will get raped. The point is what you do around possible rapists — NOT what you do around people getting drunk.

    • Jon – let’s think this through. “Hey women, it’s okay to drink, just don’t get too drunk because every man you’ll ever know will probably rape you.” (But you’re not allowed to assume any particular guy mightn’t be the safest person in the world, coz then you’re a bitch.)

      a) A lot of people can’t always identify the line between tipsy and too drunk. Obviously that means they’re at risk of problems, but if they’re out with friends those problems should be “embarrassment” and “a hangover”.
      b) Rapists deliberately try to force alcohol on their targets. Since they don’t wear shirts that say “Hi, I’m a rapist” and are often quite personable, it can be hard to tell the difference between “I’m getting you drunk” and “I’m having fun with you”, especially if they’re matching you drink for drink. The difference is they are likely to get less drunk off the same amount of alcohol, and sometimes they’ll order something that looks the same but has less alcohol.
      c) Women are socialised not to make a fuss, to go along to get along, to be nice. It can be very hard to say no if the only “reason” you have is “this doesn’t feel right”. Even if you have a damn solid reason like I have a test in the morning, my ride is leaving, I have to bike home and I can’t drink too much, etc, rapists will take any form of no as a sign that they need to keep negotiating and finding solutions to her “problem”. “It’s okay, I’ll take you home” “I’ll pay for a taxi” “You can come back for your bike tomorrow” “You’ll be fine, I bet you know it inside out”. Repeating a no is a very hard thing for most women to do. And they are often punished for it, for being a buzzkill, for being uptight, for being frigid, “I thought we were having fun”, “what’s your problem?”, “don’t you trust me?”

      Further, rapists find a target by looking for women who have trouble saying no early. They try to buy her a drink, she says “no, I’m only having a couple tonight”, he insists. If she backs down, he has a target. If he goes away, buys her a drink anyway, and then forces it on her because “well I’ve bought it now, you have to drink it” and she does, he has a target. And you can’t just tell women to stand up for themselves more because while it would be great if they couldn’t, they get taught basically FROM BIRTH that their no isn’t very important and they have to be nice to people even if those people make them uncomfortable or scare them. You see families who think it’s cute to violate the boundaries of little girls by tickling them or kissing them while she’s yelling “No!” and then expect that fifteen years later she’s going to suddenly know that actually this time she HAS to say no and magically it will be the first time anyone actually listens to her.

      For all women, everywhere, to effectively protect themselves from manipulative, coerced sexual assaults, we need to completely change the way we raise women, which will take at least a generation – and that’s if EVERYONE suddenly stops being sexist and actively learns how to respect a group of people they’ve never respected before. Or, we could keep an eye out when we’re in social situations, and think “That looks dodgy, I’m going to see what’s happening.”

  9. This is a fantastic post – thanks so much for taking the time out of the rest of your life to write it up and publish.

  10. The link to the research doesn’t seem to work, fyi. Thanks!

  11. As a guy solidly in the group described above as “bystanders”, it is startling to be included as part of the solution. Instead of telling me I only qualify as a potential bad person since I have a Y chromosome… you’re telling me that there’s this really useful job I can help out with. That’s a refreshing change, and I personally find it to be encouragement for me to try to stay aware of where I can help.

    I haven’t seen the media referred to in the article, but it sounds likely to carry the widely accepted standard “be a passive doormat or an aggressive douche” message for Y-carriers. And that’s my problem with most of the anti-rape messages I’ve seen: they usually display assumptions that support the stereotypes behind “nice guys are losers”. And if “nice” is “loser”, more guys consider the alternatives to being nice. And worse, when these stereotypes prevail “Dude, you’re just jealous, lay off” is a significant part of the response to guys trying to “break the flow” that leads to rape or other “relationship”-based violence.

    Thank you for the encouragement, and recognizing that there is a “good” alternative to being passive.

    • Oh, there is so much you can do as a man. And most places if you ask, instead of giving an opinion (not saying you do, but lots of men do) most women will tell you. Starting with telling other men that rape jokes aren’t funny. And if someone tells a story about raping someone (usually oh man she was so drunk.. etc.) make sure the whole group hears that that is rape and laughing about it is not ok. And this is a lot of what we mean when we mean men can stop rape. Stop letting rapey behavior be ok in your presence. Of course if you’re friends with a lot of creepers or people who don’t think clearly, you may lose friends. But maybe the ones you keep are better friends for you.

      Captain Awkward had a long discussion of how people (usually) fail to deal with creepers in their social groups. By standing up and saying that’s not ok, that’s not funny, and how would you like it if someone did that to you? You can help the fight. Also I think there are a lot of webpages and even training on how to interrupt this stuff, I’ve never done any, but those would give you ideas.

  12. Based on my own experience in college, I think it’s very important to educate young women about how excessive drinking increases their risk of rape. Unlike how Chris portrayed a rapist above, some who rape aren’t necessarily plotting and planning ahead of time. Alcohol reduces inhibitions on both sides, creating a potentially dangerous environment. If a girl doesn’t have the wherewithal to proclaim a loud, clear “no,” but is saying no to intercourse while enjoying other aspects of intimacy, a guy can go too far with it by forcing intercourse, even if it’s not in the violent way it’s often portrayed. The bottom line is, if a girl is drunk, she may have a harder time setting boundaries; but unless she says yes, it’s rape.

  13. Thank you for this piece. It allows me to think of myself as part of the solution instead of expecting someone else (the potential victims) to do all the heavy lifting. You’re a good writer.

  14. “When we include the bystanders, THE NUMBERS ARE ON OUR SIDE.”

    Just wanted to repeat the whole point of the blog post, which people seem to be overlooking because the “tell women not to drink?” argument is such a compelling distraction.

    In fact, I might tighten that quote down to just “[I]nclude the bystanders[!]“

  15. How do you prove a negative? Specifically how can you say telling women not to drink does not prevent sexual assault? If we assume (in a simple model) telling a woman not to drink (or not to drink certain quantities, or to put themselves in certain situations) actually can result in her not drinking (or not placing herself in certain situations) – how can we say that then this doesn’t work to prevent assaults when we can’t prove the absence of an assault is or is not equated with the prevention of an assault. How do you make that claim that it doesn’t work?

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