College Men: Stop Getting Drunk

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Photo: Chuck Savage/? Corbis. All Rights Reserved.

A response to Emily Yoffe.

In one awful, high-profile case after another — the U.S. Naval Academy; Steubenville, Ohio; now the allegations in Maryville, Missouri — we read about a young man, sometimes only a boy, who goes to a party and ends up raping. As soon as the school year begins, so do reports of male students sexually assaulting their female classmates. A common denominator in these cases is alcohol, often copious amounts. But the obsessive focus on blaming the victim has made it somehow unacceptable to warn young men that when they get wasted, they are putting young women in potential peril.

A 2009 study of campus sexual assault found that by the time they are seniors, many college men will become rapists, overwhelmingly of a fellow classmate. Very few will ever be reported to authorities. Studies, mostly conducted on college campuses, find that between 6 percent and 14.9 percent of men who were never formally prosecuted admit committing acts that meet legal definitions for rape or attempted rape. More than 80 percent of campus sexual assaults involve alcohol. Frequently, both the man and the woman have been drinking. The men tend to use the drinking to justify their behavior, as this survey of research on alcohol-related campus sexual assault by Antonia Abbey, professor of psychology at Wayne State University, illustrates, while for many of the women, having been drunk becomes a source of guilt and shame. 

Let's be totally clear: Perpetrators are the ones responsible for committing their crimes, and they should be brought to justice. But we are failing to let men know that when they drink their decision-making skills into oblivion, they can do terrible things. Young men are getting a distorted message that their right to match each other drink for drink is proof of their masculinity. The real masculine message should be that when you lose the ability to be responsible for yourself, you drastically increase the chances that you will become the kind of person who, shall we say, doesn't have others' best interests at heart. That's not saying all men are rapists; that's trying to prevent more rapes.

The Campus Sexual Assault Study of 2007, undertaken for the Department of Justice, found the popular belief that many young rape victims have been slipped "date rape" drugs is false. "Most sexual assaults occur after voluntary consumption of alcohol by the victim and assailant," the report states. But this crucial point is not being articulated to young and naïve men: "Despite the link between substance abuse and sexual assault it appears that few sexual assault and/or risk reduction programs address the relationship between substance use and sexual assault." And despite decades of efforts aimed at making women responsible for their own safety — from distributing rape whistles to holding Take Back the Night marches to publicizing sexual-assault hotlines — rates of sexual assault have not declined over the last five decades.

"I'm not saying all men are rapists," says one expert. "But when your judgment is compromised, your risk is elevated of perpetrating sexual violence." A 2001 study found that "alcohol consumption may contribute to some sexual assaults because it allows perpetrators to focus on their immediate feelings of sexual desire and entitlement rather than on more distal cues like the victim's suffering or their own feelings or morality."

I've told my son that it's his responsibility to take steps to not commit or enable rape. ("I hear you! I'll stop!") The biological reality is that women do not metabolize alcohol the same way as men do, and that means drink for drink women will get drunker faster. I tell him I know alcohol will be widely available (even though it's illegal for most college students to drink) but that he'll have a good chance of knowing what's going on around him if he limits himself to no more than two drinks, sipped slowly — no shots! — and stays away from notorious punch bowls. If male college students start moderating their drinking as a way of looking out for their own self-interest — and looking out for your own self-interest is a primary masculine principle — then I hope their restraint trickles down to the women.