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rape culture and the drinking age – a feature, not a bug

Posted by pocochina on March 29, 2010

I know I’m far from the first person to criticize our national policies on mind-altering substances, particularly among social justice types, so I thoroughly doubt that anyone will disagree with my eventual conclusion on the issue.  What I would like to do is turn some dominant narratives on alcohol liberalization* a bit on their sides, to see the strong and powerful element of rape culture running through them.

Triggers below – read w/caution and self-care

This post – I’m linking to it not to critique, because it’s a really good post, it just also happens to be a good jumping-off point – takes a look at studies in Australia concerning the factors which correlate to a rape prosecution is treated appropriately, and its unsurprising findings are that when college-age victims are suspected of drug or alcohol use at the time they were attacked, police officers fail to investigate the crime being reported.  It’s coming in the wake of a series of articles which highlight the important work organizations like SAFER Campus have done for years, which is to show the failure of colleges to hold rapists accountable for their crimes.  These stories, unsurprisingly, are running concurrently with a new spate of studies in and discussion of predator theory.  “Predatory theory” is a non-victim-blaming social examination of sexual assault which studies the ways in which rapists – predators – select their victims.  Equally unsurprisingly, they choose women who have chosen to make the relaxing effects of mind-altering substances such as alcohol or part of their recreational occasion.  They may ply their victims with alcohol, or they may simply target women who have been drinking (lightly or heavily).  This is far more likely than the use of drugs which are widely recognized as date rape drugs, and as such, are less readily available.  This is not because of fear of physical self-defense – that’s aptly rendered unlikely or null by rape culture – but because the victim is likely to blame herself for the rape, and if she does not, the social and legal structures which she has previously relied on to protect her will step in to do the blaming.

A hugely important impediment both to effective campus sexual assault policies and to criminal or school reporting of sexual assault is the actual criminalization of drinking for adults under the age of 21.  There are all kinds of other excellent arguments against our ridiculous drinking age that I assume I don’t need to rehash here.  But the unfortunate reality is that the strange drinking age has two direct threads wrapped into rape culture.  It exacerbates the social stigma around drinking and reinforces the idea that drinking is a risk from which people need to be protected, and which you undertake at your own risk – and for women, one of those risks is implied to be rape.  While changing the drinking age would not on its own change this particular social misconception, it might go some ways toward furthering healthier attitudes surrounding alcohol consumption.

Laws criminalizing young adult drinking are not about an expectation that most people will follow the law, but about selectively enforcing it against certain socially-determined undesirables, which includes young rape victims.  The years between 18-22 (termed college age, but of course women are vulnerable to rape whether or not they are enrolled in college) are when women are most likely to be raped.  By retaining criminality among older teens’ drinking, we ensure that a significant percentage of victims – those who were raped after voluntary consumption of any alcohol at all – will not come forward.  If they do decide to report, victims must admit to their own criminality.  Not embarrassing behavior.  Criminality.  And our society duly punishes the transgression of alcohol with far more certainty than it punishes the crime of rape.  This law takes social victim-punishing and turns it into legal victim punishing.  The colleges that (wrongly) hoard jurisdiction over sexual assault issues gladly impose draconian governmental sanctions on campus drinking.  Remember, in a rape culture, sexual violence is not a bug, it is a feature, and a flourishing one at that.  The ineffective drinking age only seems inefficient if you assume that its actual purpose is its stated purpose.  Viewed as an extension of rape culture – as a significant impediment to justice for a huge number of rape victims, allowing rapists a clear means to rape women who engage in normal social behavior with impunity, without criminalizing adult males who enjoy drinking – it makes perfect sense.

This terrible, rape culture law is where terrible campus alcohol policies come from – or, rather, is the handily convenient excuse for colleges to claim with straight faces that they are “resting on [their] laurels” in their clearly insufficient sexual assault prevention and punishment strategies.  This isn’t even about colleges wanting to preserve an air of sobriety and respect for an un-respectable law, or as Marcella so charitably puts it in an otherwise characteristically excellent post, a “clueless” attitude towards dealing with sexual assault.  This has been too well-established for too long a time to simply be an unfortunate consequence of a functioning policy.  This is rape culture at work, shamelessly and consistently implemented by real fucking people.

Here’s the thing:  colleges employ and are run by rational adults with impressive levels of education.  It’s kind of their thing.  When something as massive as sexual assault on campus presents itself consistently, for decades, rational and reasonably intelligent actors who give a shit about women’s safety would do something substantive about it.  And in the process of all that shit-doing, they would inevitably come across the issue of stigma surrounding student drinking.  Given the immense amount in their power to do something about that – real alcohol education, substantive and well-publicized amnesty policies, and yes, lack of enforcement of the underage drinking law – and the fact that they are not choosing to do so, I’m pretty much forced to conclude that they not only don’t give a shit about sexual abuse, but are in some cases openly choosing to incentivize a campus life, specifically targeted at boys, marked by secretive binge-drinking and complete lack of responsibility concerning sexual agency and health.

There are very real incentives for college administrators to be acting in bad faith.  I am sure that many do wish to prevent rape and help victims when it does occur.  But sexual assault on campus is the kind of thing that makes a school feel embarrassed, and it’s thus swept under the rug for the sake of grants, prestige, and donations.  College administrators are just as invested in rape culture and the victim-blaming that goes with it as anyone else.  More specifically, social expectations of the American college experience are heavily intertwined with rape culture.  Institutions such as Greek life and athletic teams can be positive experiences which foster healthy attitudes, but they are often experienced as – and more to the point, more frequently thought of – as places where lifelong attitudes on socially constructed masculinity are formed.  Colleges allow prestigious athletic teams loose reins in order to foster “school spirit,” often going so far as to offer pretty girls as objectified incentives for high school athletes to attend their schools. Greek organizations are billed as part of “student life” even when their parties are openly known as booze-soaked binge-drinking events where sexual assaults are not uncommon.  The ability to tout the fun of these parts of college life – and yes, sports and parties are fun for lots of people, I don’t think they should be eliminated – strongly encourage colleges not to look to closely at the consequences of such environments for female students.  Because boys, after all, will be boys, and if you don’t let them do it on your campus, they’ll just go somewhere else.

I know some aren’t going to like my suggestion that colleges create policies which cease or curtail disciplinary actions for underage drinking or soft drug use on campus because hey, it’s the law.  Not their jurisdiction, not their decision to make (though many academics are fighting the good fight, and should be duly praised for it).  Except we know that American colleges are more than happy to take this course of action when it suits them.  You know what else is against the law, and college campuses are rarely and selectively taking disciplinary action on?  RAPE.  This illustrates, more clearly than anything I’ve seen around the ‘sphere in a while, the blatant nature of rape culture.  Both legislatures and colleges could put their resources toward punishing the serious crime of rape, for fuck’s sake, but are instead criminalizing underage drinking.  Among the many reasons this law is not just ridiculous but immoral is the fact that it not just sucks resources from enforcement of sexual assault laws, but makes enforcement of these laws more difficult by discouraging victims from reporting.  Again.  If you take these folks at their word, they’re not just “clueless,” they are criminally incompetent at their jobs.  What self-respecting academic admits to being unable to make a simple cost-benefit analysis, or to see a straightforward decades-evident cause-and-effect pattern?  One who is, consciously or subconsciously, covering for an institutional preference to let rapists continue to rape.

Moreover, this is a particular vulnerability in the social and economic prospects of the next generation of women.  I understand and agree with the discussion point that focus tends to fall on economically privileged rape victims because of their position of privilege, and that’s an important point, but the fact remains that rape in college serves overall to solidify male privilege socially, economically, and politically.  Rape victims are far more likely to be forced by the resulting trauma to drop out of school than rapists – who, remember predator theory, are consciously and methodically committing the same crime over and over and over again – are to suffer any sort of mild inconvenience.  Even if they do stay in school, their education is likely to be negatively impacted by the trauma which follows from an assault.  Whereas the men who are rapists – far from all men, but still an entirely too high number – learn not just that rape can occur with impunity if they follow the rape culture rules, but suffer no derailment of or distraction from their education, allowing them to be more likely to develop the networks and tools necessary to be a person in power.  This further limits the overall earning and prestige potential for women in the workplace, and reproduces a dynamic where straight-and-bi women as a population are likely to be economically and socially dependent on men, reducing the potential consequences for physically, sexually, and emotionally abusive men.

Mostly, my point is this:  to lay the fucking blame, on rape culture generally, and on legislators and universities which refuse to consider sensible laws, rendering prosecution of the second most violent crime there is hugely difficult.  Culturally there’s a lot of apathy and misinformation about these issues.  While I don’t think that apathy reaches into the general social justice types in the anti-rape movement, I think that we are far too likely to attribute good faith to everyone.  The illusion that college administrators are acting in good faith is a comforting one, naturally – if we just tell them the truth, if we just convince them, they will do the right thing!  Unfortunately, there is a deliberate pattern of action and inaction which suggests that they are openly and knowingly choosing to do wrong.   And young women pay the price.

*A lot of these arguments apply to drug laws and their law enforcement as well as on campus-enforcement as well, and indeed my first draft was a lot more explicit about that, but girl howdy, long post got long and tangential, so I’m hoping this is the first in a series.

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