Beyond Victim-Blaming: Incorporating Risk-Reduction in Sexual Assault Prevention

Emily Yoffe’s recent Slate.com article titled “College Women: Stop Getting Drunk” has received much attention, and is problematic for a number of reasons.

To start, I agree with her premise that we must talk about the role of alcohol in sexual assault and present students with a variety of risk-reduction strategies that include decreased alcohol use. In fact, this was one of the considerations offered in response to a recently released EverFi Insight Report examining data on the connections between student alcohol use and sexual assault. However, risk-reduction IS NOT prevention in the primary—and, arguably, the most important—sense.

I’m reminded of my training as a self-defense instructor in which the trainers talked about three necessary elements in sexual assault: victim, perpetrator, and opportunity. Self-defense (and really any secondary prevention measure) was described as “removing or minimizing opportunity.” I would always tell women in my self-defense classes that there’s no guarantee these techniques will prevent them from being sexually assaulted. Will they feel more empowered upon completing the training? I hope so. Are they going to be better trained to protect themselves? That’s certainly one of the goals. But the most important question I asked these women was, “Protect yourself from what and who?” Simply put, self-defense is not a program geared towards the people who are doing the sexual assaulting. The same is true when it comes to young women’s alcohol use and their risk for being sexually assaulted.

One of the biggest problems I have with this article is the title: “College Women: Stop Getting Drunk.”  By narrowing our focus to the behavior of the group who is primarily the victim of sexual assault (women), we conveniently lose sight of the group primarily responsible for committing it (men). Sexual assault is often referred to as gender-based violence for a reason – it is disproportionately committed by men against women (although men are certainly sexually assaulted as well, and often by other men). To almost exclusively reference “prevention” as the responsibility of women is not only victim-blaming, but perpetuates a culture where rape goes unreported, perpetrators go unpunished, and we continue to endorse the insulting and intolerable assumption that “boys will be boys.”  So when Yoffe says the best rape prevention is to tell college women to stop getting so wasted, that is problematic. The best rape prevention is to get college men to stop using alcohol to increase women’s vulnerability, stop preying on drunk women, STOP RAPING.

However, this message doesn’t sit particularly well with most college men, and for good reason. An overwhelming number of campus sexual assaults are committed by a small minority of men (~5%) who are often repeat predators (averaging ~6 rapes). Given that most men do not commit sexual assault and the ones who do tend to be particularly defensive about the “stop raping” message, a more effective approach is to promote campus environments and cultures that no longer support this behavior, even tacitly. How? We need to empower all students to raise the bar and hold these men accountable. This is the premise of bystander intervention approaches – responsibility appropriately placed on perpetrators as well as the larger campus community, NOT victims.

We know both statistically and anecdotally that alcohol is involved in the overwhelming majority of campus sexual assaults. According to a 2007 study conducted for the Department of Justice, roughly 80% of victims and 70% of perpetrators had been drinking at the time of an assault. As a field, it would be reckless and irresponsible to continue to largely ignore this relationship and not include information about the role of alcohol in sexual assault prevention programs simply because of the potential for perceived victim-blaming.

To send a balanced message, we need to focus on how alcohol is used as an enabler, facilitator, and scapegoat by perpetrators. We can talk about the cognitive and physiological impairments caused by alcohol, and the fact that women and men differ in terms of their biological ability to process it. It is possible to talk about reducing alcohol use as a form of risk-reduction from a feminist and victim-sensitive perspective; we just have to think about how we say it and what the overall focus of our approach is.

It’s a fine line between talking about how all students can keep themselves safer by drinking less and making victims feel they’re to blame if something happens to them when they were drinking. In our prevention programs, we should always proceed with caution if and when we shift our focus from perpetrators to victims. And because of the historical and unfortunately ongoing tendency to blame victims in response to sexual assault, it is critical that we believe students who are brave in reporting sexual assault and assure them that the assault was not their fault.

The bottom line is that while drinking to excess puts students at risk for all sorts of negative experiences, sexual assault is an egregious violation committed by another person to the drinker and thus should never be framed as a drinker’s self-induced consequence. Victims do not ask to be raped, and alcohol does not cause a person to be violated. Perpetrators are the cause, period.

Until we change the attitudes and behaviors of predatory students, as well as the broader culture that promotes their behavior and allows them to hurt others, sexual assault will continue to be an unacceptable epidemic on college campuses. So yes, we should encourage students to drink less because it’s in their best interest for a variety of reasons. However, the real problem is the people who are committing sexual assault. Prevention efforts aimed at perpetrators and the culture and environment that support them (i.e., primary prevention) must be our main focus. That needs to come through loud and clear in our campus violence prevention policies and programs, and unfortunately that message seemed to be lost in Emily Yoffe’s piece.