The Strange World Where Being Flat-Out Blasted is a Feminist Stance

Kudos to the ever-reasonable Ruth Marcus, who defends her friend Emily Yoffe, who wrote what seems on the deconstructed face of things to be banal advice: young women are safer from sexual assault on college campuses when they’re not smashed or unconscious from booze.

Some of the most appalling cases of rape in recent years have involved unconscious women, raped at parties—often by drunk men.

I’ve not waded through the backlash against Yoffe’s comments, because it’s too early in the morning, it’s Friday, and I don’t have the heart for it. As Marcus summarizes it, Yoffe’s critics feel that she’s blaming the victim (the feminist third rail, and not without good reason), and putting the burden of rape prevention on women, rather than emphasizing zero tolerance for rapists. Basically, as they construe it, Yoffe’s urging women not to enjoy a party or social life, rather than focusing on the perpetrators.

I understand that critique mostly in a specific political context:  Rape is so often dismissed, and trivialized, and this seems to be getting worse, that in some ways, we can’t even trust ourselves with the kind of common sense advice about wellbeing that Yoffe offers:  Her advice is too easily misconstrued, or too easily put to cross purposes with the spirit in which she delivered it, which is not in the spirit of belittling rape or victim-blaming, but a spirit of sensible-shoes pragmatism. In other words, it’s too scary politically to dispense even minimally-observant advice about campus safety.

Feminists were more tolerant of this sort of advice in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when rape really became part of the political agenda. At that time, things like learning to defend yourself and stay safe were examples of “self-empowerment.” Self-defense, broadly defined, was something to relish, as a newfound form of agency and personal control.

Women learned how to keep themselves safe—as opposed to relying on the protection or goodwill of men—and to take responsibility for their safety. They tried to overcome inhibitions against basic things, such as really yelling when you’re in trouble, or fighting back. Feminists flocked to self-defense classes, carried whistles to stay protected, walked with other women at night, and looked out for each other, and for themselves. 

The notion of giving a woman safety tips about rape prevention—when this had never even been discussed before--in no way diminished the energy with which feminists fought successfully to reform rape laws, and the popular idea of rape, and to prosecute rapists.

Rather, these two things—self-empowerment, and political activism against rape, and rapists—worked hand in hand.

Self-defense and the strict prosecution of rape aren’t mutually exclusive, which would be obvious—and easier to accept—in a social context where rape and feminism weren’t so distrusted, maligned, and trivialized.

Rapists have raped and should be prosecuted. Nothing changes that. If a woman can’t say “yes,” then it is rape. Doesn’t matter how drunk she is. Consent cannot ever be inferred from intoxication, or, what’s worse, sexual availability be inferred as the default stance unless a woman vigorously says no.

As I’ve written many times before, for all humans, women and men, the very highest standards need to attach to sexual consent, and to physical, bodily integrity, and protection against violation. In a free society, neither labor nor sex can be coerced or compelled.

Taking Yoffe’s prescription for young women’s safety at face value, I don’t see it as any different from, say, advising that your daughter not drive drunk, because she could kill herself or someone else. And the advice applies equally to men.

The elephant in the room is that alcohol impairs human judgment and safety. Talk to anyone who struggles with alcohol abuse, and they’ll confirm that.

And there is a deeper problem that Yoffe’s advice alludes to. Why are men and women compelled to drink so much that they pass out in the first place? Of course, most of us have done this, at college and beyond. But we can’t normalize binge drinking as just part of college, either.

I came across a chilling term the other day in Ann Dowsett Johnston’s book, Drink: The Intimate Relationship of Women and Alcohol. She refers to “drunkorexia.”  This is a new Frankenstein of psychological trouble among college women, who have both an eating disorder—anorexia or bulimia—and unhealthy, self-destructive drinking habits.

The term hit me the minute I heard it. Viscerally, I get it: These are two afflictions of people who are not comfortable in their own skins, and heads, who have social unease, sexual anxiety, or discomfort being in their own bodies and consciousness.

Most of us have been there. Most of us know that unease well.

Surely the biggest part of sexual safety and wellbeing, ultimately, is being comfortable in your own body, and able to live in it, without starving it or pickling it every weekend.

Bracketing the issue of rape for a moment, Yoffe’s advice that young women try to live a social life conscious and awake, however uncomfortable that can be, supports sexual health and a feminist agenda, in the biggest senses of those terms.

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