I wasn’t going to wade into the debate over Emily Yoffe’s recent Slate post about rape. Written from the perspective of a mother advising her daughter on her way to college (with plenty of data to back up her arguments), Yoffe outlines some common sense tips women can take to avoid placing themselves in dangerous situations.
The internet predictably blew up because her article focused on getting drunk (especially binge drinking), and it was interpreted as a blame-the-victim piece. Lots of good counterpoints to Yoffe’s article were made.
Then came Amanda Hess’s response to Yoffe (also found on Slate). Hess chose to return the focus to how campuses can help prevent rape. Given that I’ve lived in the shadow of Penn State (which consistently ranks among the biggest party schools in the nation due to its size and large fraternity population) for 27 years, I figured I’d offer my perspective.
First of all, in the big picture I think Yoffe and Hess’s arguments can be boiled down to two valid perspectives: the academic view (Hess) and the maternal view (Yoffe). Or, to put it another way, it’s the difference between the longterm social challenge of dismantling rape culture and the short-term advice for how women should exercise caution during their next semester.
I get Hess’s perspective. I think she makes a lot of good points and presents some good strategic ideas. But even if the university Yoffe’s daughter attends chooses to wholeheartedly embraces a public strategy that puts the onus on punishing rapists and emphasizes that the rapist alone is to blame for their crimes, it won’t impact the cultural environment Yoffe’s daughter encounters next week or next month.
I’ll try illustrate my point with an analogy. I’m not going to pretend that it’s as grave in scale as rape or that it’s a fair comparison. But I hope it helps illustrate the psychological tension I see between their views.
I’m an epileptic. Epilepsy is a disease that can afflict anyone at any stage of life. There are a myriad number of reasons once can get epilepsy: you can be born with it; it can occur in the wake of an accident or a blow to the head; it can be a consequence of a tumor, illness or drug use; it can also be a biochemical problem. In most cases there is no clear “answer” as to why a person has epilepsy. You can’t blame the epileptic for their seizures, although many people do.
I get two types of seizures: simple focal (which looks like I’m spacing out or clumsy) and tonic-clonic (aka falling down, convulsing, biting your tongue or worse). My epilepsy is what doctors call “uncontrolled,” meaning that in spite of trying dozens of medications over the years, they’ve never found a combination that completely controls my seizures. Meaning that I can have a seizure at any given moment even if I take my medication.
On the other hand, there are practical steps I can take to greatly reduce the risk of a seizure: avoid prolonged vigorous exercise, high altitudes, and too much alcohol. But more than anything, I can take my medicine on time. Yeah, it’s boring, it reminds me of my limitations, and it provides no guarantee that I won’t get seizures during the next 12 hours anyway. But it drastically reduces the risk I face. My mother knows this, and she never passes up the chance to remind me to take my medicine. Her reminders are as annoying as they are eminently practical.
Over the years I’ve gone through just about every stage of dealing with my problem that one can imagine: keeping a rigid pill schedule for fear of my next seizure; refusing to take them when I’m told because damn it, I wanted some independence; skipping doses outright to see if I even needed them; being late on doses due to forgetfulness, laziness, or just plain not having them handy when I need them; and, now that I’m older, taking them on time because it’s the smart thing to do.
Now there’s two ways of viewing my situation. One is the Yoffe version: minimize risk, make sensible decisions, and have a friend around in case I get a bad seizure. It adds up to a safe and unadventurous life, so sometimes I feel the need to just get away from it and live a little.
The other approach is the Hess version: focusing on curing the disease rather than my day-to-day risk level; striving not to put too much onus on my behavior because, after all, no seizure is ever “my fault;” bemoaning the fact that society looks down on epileptics, and advocating drastic changes that would make society more conducive for epileptics to live normal lives.
I’m all for the Hess approach. There are definitive steps society can take that can make life easier for me, like restructuring communities so they are more pedestrian-friendly; increasing bus and mass transit service; engaging in public campaigns that reduce the stigma of having epilepsy, and curing the disease.
But these are long term projects. They’re costly, and while society has grown more sympathetic to people with disabilities over time, the deck is still stacked against them. And, of course, there are still plenty of people who resent the positive steps that have been made and pass down hateful and ignorant attitudes towards epileptics via their children and community. Most people still need to be sold on the idea that these changes are even necessary.
Over time victories on these fronts will yield bigger improvements in the lives of epileptics than just making sure I don’t drink too much or that I take my pills. But odds are I won’t live long enough to see these kinds of changes to their completion, and the problems epileptics face pales compared to the breadth and scale of the bigotry towards women. Especially female victims of rape.
So like epileptics, college-aged women are faced with short-term decisions: odds are going to a frat party will be a fun time, even if they get drunk. Odds are that if they want sex, it’ll be a consensual experience. But a frat party is a riskier environment for a woman’s safety than a sober party is, and it’s riskier still if a woman is drunk. The feminist goals of dismantling patriarchy and rape culture is a decades-long (and probably centuries-long) challenge. No one alive today will see it to its completion.
Yoffe isn’t advocating that women stop going to frat parties or stop having a good time. And she isn’t saying that we should blame drunk women who get raped for being victims. But there are a percentage of rapes that take place within the college-aged party environment. Women can never completely eliminate the risk of being raped at parties -even if they stay sober. But they can reduce the risk.