Skip to main content

Don't blame women's drinking for rape

By Matthew C. Whitaker, Special to CNN
November 6, 2013 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Parents should talk with their children about peer pressure and alcohol abuse even before they begin dating.
Parents should talk with their children about peer pressure and alcohol abuse even before they begin dating.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Matthew Whitaker: Articles said women could avoid rape if they didn't drink too much
  • He says it's ridiculous to focus on women's behavior and not crime of the rapist
  • He says women should not be expected to prevent their rape, made to feel guilt if they didn't
  • Whitaker: This discussion is retrograde. To prevent rape, fix misogyny, not women's behavior

Editor's note: Matthew C. Whitaker is an ASU Foundation Professor of History and founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at Arizona State University. He is the author of the forthcoming "Peace Be Still: Modern Black America From World War II to Barack Obama." He can be followed on Twitter at @Dr_Whitaker.

(CNN) -- A recent, widely discussed column in Slate rekindled an old debate about women, drinking and rape. It argued that young women should not become intoxicated because studies have shown that drinking, and the incoherence it produces, can lead to rape. Last week, in an article in USA Today law enforcement officials identified alcohol as "the No. 1 date rape drug," and health care providers urged women not to conduct themselves in ways that increase the likelihood of sexual assault.

The conclusion that these articles draw from studies and health professionals show just how far we have not come in understanding the inextricable link between power, violence, misogyny and rape culture. Indeed, some who have contributed to this dialogue have come perilously close to blaming the victims of rape for their own attack.

Matthew C. Whitaker
Matthew C. Whitaker

In The Daily Campus, Southern Methodist University's student-run newspaper, student Kirby Wiley last week, argued that "If the media would focus more attention on the fact that the majority of the women who are sexually assaulted are intoxicated, as opposed to stating and restating how horrible the perpetrator is, then maybe young women would start to listen."

SMU student op-ed links drinking irresponsibly with rape

Focus more attention on the drinking habits of women than on the viciousness of rapists? As Jasmine Lester -- the founder of Arizona State University's Sun Devils Against Sexual Assault, a group that aims to cut sexual violence -- recently told me, "rapists are rapists, regardless, and it's dangerous to focus on telling potential victims what not to do rather than focusing on punishments for rapists."

Warning women about heavy drinking places the burden of not being sexually assaulted squarely on the shoulders of victims, and when they are raped this twisted dynamic often leads them to blame themselves for their own mauling. This is particularly disturbing because there is no female behavioral pattern that will thwart an assailant who is determined to harm them. The bottom line is that the victims of rape should not be expected to have forestalled their attack, and are never to blame for it, even if they are a drunken "hot messes" at the afterparty.

My mother and other feminist mentors taught me at a young age that rape is about power, control and the more widespread problems embedded in our enduringly misogynistic society. Many men believe that women, as allegedly weaker people, should be conquered, and that rape is merely an assertion of inherent masculinist supremacy. Many men simply do not subscribe to women's historian Gerda Lerner's "radical notion that women are," in fact, "human beings."

CDC: Women, teen girls binge drink
Soldier tells her story of sexual assault

We need to look no further for evidence of this than the Steubenville, Ohio, incident in 2012 in which a teenage girl was sexually assaulted, was dehumanized, and then blamed and vilified by some in her community and beyond, while others appeared to lament that the futures of her football-hero assailants were ruined by their rape conviction.

In a similar case in Maryville, Missouri, this year, a teenage girl alleged she'd been raped, the sheriff "described it as a 'horrible crime'," declared that the perpetrators should be "punished," and then the county attorney declined to prosecute, saying "there was not a criminal offense." (The charges were dropped, but after a wide outcry, the case was, thankfully, reopened.)

Despite these realities and the frequency with which women are subjected to sexual violence, the dialogue of late has recalled pre-feminist movement denunciations of "bad girls" who invite sexual assault by wearing provocative clothes, drinking too much and losing their wits.

As a father of a young daughter, I find this very disturbing. Blaming excessive drinking for sexual assault among women is like blaming someone who left their keys in their car for the theft of their vehicle. Is leaving your keys in your car unwise? Yes. Is it the cause of your car being stolen? No. The person who stole your car is the responsible one. Besides, they do not need your keys to take your car.

Sadly, the certainty of punishment for stealing a car is often much greater than the certaining of punishment for raping someone; 97% of rapists receive no punishment, according to an analysis by RAINN and the Justice Department.

Even if someone is being "stupid" and leaving his or her car unlocked, and it is stolen, few people will respond by saying "we should not punish the car thief because who can blame him for taking advantage?"

If we want to help protect women from sexual assault, let us do so by ridding ourselves of misogyny and moving against the source of the problem, not the victim.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Matthew Whitaker.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1231 GMT (2031 HKT)
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1450 GMT (2250 HKT)
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1200 GMT (2000 HKT)
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2152 GMT (0552 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2121 GMT (0521 HKT)
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
ADVERTISEMENT