I just finished my first year on the podium side of the classroom. Between undergrad, grad school, and now teaching, I’ve shared campuses with bright young women for almost a decade. They’re smart, discerning, and self-aware. They know how to avoid dangerous situations. They don’t walk alone at night, they carry pepper spray, and they take an Uber instead of driving home drunk. So why do so many — me included — end up an alcohol-related sexual assault statistic? Because being drunk drops women’s ability to resist like Skrillex drops bass, and guys seem to know this. Brock Turner certainly did.
According to Violence and Gender, one-third of male undergraduates say they would commit rape if they thought they wouldn’t get caught. In the eighteen-student first-year seminar I taught last year, that means there were at least three men who would be rapists — if only they could get away with it. Out of those three, at least two would use alcohol or drugs to complete the deed, because apparently, three-quarters of collegiate date rapists admit to getting a date drunk or stoned so they can have sex. They knowingly manipulate their victims to get what they want. This sounds like To Catch a Predator-type stuff, but it’s common. It’s happening on university campuses everywhere.
In most college rape cases, the perp had been drinking, too. Why does that matter? Men think alcohol gives them more sexual prowess. If a man thinks he’s got moves like Jagger and looks like Justin Timberlake, he might even think he deserves to get laid. Turner’s victim, known as Emily Doe, says Turner had unsuccessfully come on to multiple women that night. Maybe he felt like he’d earned a hook-up because he’d tried so hard, and his disgusting entitlement outweighed his common decency. I’d seen that kind of thing happen during my own partying days. Men wouldn’t start hitting on me until they’d had a few beers, and then they’d get upset if they didn’t get results.
I can remember saying no to an acquaintance named Luis who was trying to make out with me. I tried to laugh it off. “Dude. No. We’re friends and that’s all, okay?” He accused me of lying, claiming he could “feel the chemistry between us,” and leaned in for another kiss. I pushed him away. He put his arm around me. I moved to the other side of the room. He called me names. I eventually had to go home. Luis made fun of me in public for months afterward, punishing me for not giving in. He went from inviting, to demanding, to angry, and he held a grudge.
Once, a guy did more than get angry. Dre was an older dude who had gotten me alone in his car with the promise that he could find weed. He was drunk, I was drunk, and he put the moves on. I said no, nicely. Dre looked me in the eyes as he reached for me again, claiming that I should do what he wanted because he’d heard I was easy. I said no again, this time more forcefully. “No. I’m not like that!” He asked me why I’d gotten in the car with him, called me a tease and a slut, and tried again. This time he succeeded, but it wasn’t because I was willing. Later that night, I was filling out a police report. I left that car a different person. I left that car a victim.
In the eighteen-student first-year seminar I taught last year, that means there were at least three men who would be rapists — if only they could get away with it.
It doesn’t seem possible that something like alcohol can create a sense of entitlement over someone else’s body, but it does. Booze makes college-aged men more aroused by rape. They don’t even need to be drinking—they just need to think they’ve had a few. In multiple studies, young dudes who either were drinking or thought they were drinking got more turned on by pictures, video, and stories of rape than the ones who thought their drinks were non-alcoholic. Their actual alcohol consumption had no effect on their arousal. This smashes the “drinking made me do it” myth. Brock Turner tried to pull that card, but I call bullshit, and more importantly, so does his victim. She said it best: “Alcohol is not an excuse.”
Who or what is responsible? The rapists, of course. The perpetrator is always responsible. The fact that there are more of these perpetrators now than there were ten years ago makes it clear that rape prevention education needs to change. I don’t remember learning about the importance of consent during my public school sex-ed class. I had to figure it out for myself. The kids learning abstinence-only are probably even worse off. This must change. Early education and intervention, especially for young men, is going to be vital if rape culture is going to turn into a culture of consent.
A major shift like that could take decades, so in the meantime, let me address you college dudes directly. All that advice that women get about keeping themselves safe at parties? You should follow it, too, so you can each other accountable. Go to parties in a group. Don’t wander off alone. Check in with each other before you hook up with someone. Maybe this wouldn’t work, but I have to hope that the group conscience would be better than one dude with a bad idea. Maybe you fellas can even designate someone to stay sober enough to make sure no one gets rapey. You can call him the DCB: Designated Cock Blocker.
Groups of women can name a DCB, too, who would avoid alcohol for the night in order to keep her friends safe. I can imagine a whole DCB campaign. The mascots would be a pair of superheroes, one male, one female, both in blue leotards and tights, the initials DCB in bold red letters on their chests. They could throw a net over a group of Phi-Si’s ogling a passing woman. They could stand in front of a trio of Tri-Delts dressed for a night out. The speech bubbles could read, “No means no. And if they can’t say no, I’ll do it for them.”
I hate suggesting this, but women can also follow all that safety advice better than I did. They can let their roommates know where they are and when they’re coming home. They can stick together at the bar. They can leave the party in groups. They can follow each other, if, say, one of them wanders off to a strange man’s car. I’m not saying that it’s my fault I got assaulted. I’m not saying that women who go out by themselves are asking for it, and I’m definitely not saying that going to parties in a group is a failsafe. Emily Doe didn’t go out alone, and she still wound up a victim.
The fact that there are more of these perpetrators now than there were ten years ago makes it clear that rape prevention education needs to change.
I realize that what I’m suggesting makes it sound like the burden of avoiding rape is on women, when really, dudes just shouldn’t rape people. But when a fraternity’s initiation rites include yelling, “Yes means no! No means anal!” on the campus lawn, when one-third of college guys would commit rape if they could get away with it, and when someone like Brock Turner only gets six months in jail for a witnessed assault on a passed-out woman, women have to take action.
How else can we stay safe? The schools aren’t doing enough. The university denies it, but there are rumblings that Stanford tried to stop Turner’s teammates from writing damning letters to the judge. If that’s true, it’s inexcusable. We do know that Yale took action against Delta Kappa Epsilon, the fraternity responsible for the misogynist chant above. They were banned from campus, but only for five years. That incident happened in 2011, and it’s 2016, so DKE’s can be Yalies again. Hopefully their values have changed, but I’m not holding my breath.
Is higher education doomed? Things don’t look good. Since the 1990s, when a lot of the drinking and date rape research first got published, most universities started anti-rape campaigns. Unfortunately, posters with slogans like, “Is she falling for you or just falling over?” are magnets for crude graffiti and even cruder comments. The year Brock Turner entered college, Stanford had its incoming students go through orientation and online training that went over consent and sexual assault. A few months later, he was raping Emily Doe behind a dumpster. Schools can put up all the posters, hand out all the pamphlets, and do all the training they want, but they’re fighting centuries of ingrained culture. It’s going to take more than informative literature to change that. They aren’t ignoring the problem, but what they’re doing isn’t enough.
The numbers for on-campus sexual violence haven’t gone down since those campaigns got started. They’ve exploded. There’s been a 77% increase over the past ten years or so. College enrollment went up too, but not enough to explain it. Even if the number of sexual assaults on campus increased in perfect proportion to enrollment, it would leave a whopping 40% increase in sexual assaults dangling out there.
I’m sitting at a college campus Starbucks as I write this, and I’m watching dozens of young women enjoying the summer weather. Boho-print dresses and wedge sandals are out in full force. Women sprawl on the lawn to study and sunbathe. They play Frisbee. They chat in front of the bookstore. It’s a sweet collegiate scene, but I can’t enjoy it. I’m afraid of how many of those dresses could have unwanted hands wandering up their hems if the body inside them is slack with booze.
They’re learning that rape is okay.
I’m also watching the young men. Not one of them looks like a rapist. They seem nice. They open the door for people. They wave hello and join in the Frisbee game. They smile shyly. They seem like they’d be as disgusted by Brock Turner as I am. I look down if they look at me. I’m embarrassed by what I’m writing. I want these eighteen-to-twenty-two-year-old men to be as innocent as they look.
Most of them are. But according to the statistics, about a third would consider rape if they could get away with it, and they would probably get their date drunk in order to do it. Between freshman composition and their senior thesis, men like Brock Turner are learning more than critical thinking and inquiry. They’re learning that alcohol and sex go together like beer pong and Natty Lite. They’re learning that drinking makes sex come more easily. They’re learning that rape is okay.
Top photo: Brock Turner’s mugshot
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