GUEST COLUMN - Journalists: Stop blaming women

Wednesday, January 22, 2014 - 13:50

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By Kelly Holloway

Emily Yoffe’s article “College Women: Stop Getting Drunk” published in Slate is yet another example in a long line of highly problematic advice to women to stop dressing, talking, walking or acting in a way that makes them victims of sexual assault. Nothing that a woman does justifies sexual assault. Period. The author’s defensiveness about being painted with that brush does nothing to dissuade that reading; she is blaming women for sexual assault.

Yoffe argues that the common denominator in the cases of women being sexually assaulted by their male classmates is copious amounts of alcohol. In fact, the common denominator is assault. If, as Yoffe suggests, some of the men who perpetrate these assaults are not thinking clearly because they are drunk, then perhaps they are the ones who should not drink. They are, after all, the perpetrators.

It is despicable to suggest that the solution is to tell women to stop drinking so much to curtail sexual assault. First, sexual assault does not take place because women drink. Second, if women curtail their drinking habits there will still be sexual assault.

If binge drinking is really a problem amongst college-age women, perhaps we should ask women why they drink. I assume that most women do not want to become so drunk that they are ill or incapable of making decisions to the point where they are hurt. So it is possible that like so many people, college women drink to relax, socialize and have fun (preposterous, I know), and that sometimes they misjudge the amount of alcohol they can metabolize and become drunk (men do this too). Perhaps they want to be drunk, for a variety of reasons. It is possible that some women drink to excess because they feel pressure to drink and want to fit in. It is possible that some women drink to excess because they feel lonely, isolated or sad and drinking makes them feel better.

I imagine that if I were to speak to women about why they drink, the responses would be a window into what it is like to be a college-age woman dealing with the pressures, responsibilities and inequities facing the demographic. There is considerable research demonstrating that women are much more likely to engage in risky or binge drinking if they have experienced earlier physical or sexual trauma in their life. These are important issues worth exploring further. (See CWHN resources on Women and Alcohol)

It would never occur to me, in this imaginary conversation, to ask women whether they drink to promote sexual assault. The absurdity of that question belies the problem with Yoffe’s argument which does infantilize women—a concern expressed by  one “expert” in Yoffe’s article. Many women are assaulted on a date with someone they know. Next we will be telling women not to date—to protect themselves, of course.

The most upsetting and exhausting problem Yoffe perpetuates is the refusal to address the perpetrators of sexual assault, and the culture that promotes sexual assault. How is it that after the sweep of campus misogyny involving frosh events trivializing rape this year that we still end up with the idea that the problem lies with women?

If we’re going to be dolling out advice to college students should we not be addressing the orientation leaders who performed the chant to about 400 students at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax spelling out the word “young” with a comment after each letter, including: “Y is for your sister ... U is for underage, N is for no consent,...”? 

Yoffe’s article is a sad reminder that feminists still have a significant struggle ahead; to do away with the idea that somehow we can blame women for the violence perpetrated against them.

Kelly Holloway recently finished her doctoral degree in Sociology at York University, and is now a post-doctoral fellow at Dalhousie University, studying the commercialization of academic research. She is a long-time feminist activist and advocate for women's reproductive rights.

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