If “Princeton Mom” Susan Patton ’77 is right about anything, it’s that the hookup culture on college campuses has a dark side. Where she goes wrong is vesting the responsibility for sexual assault entirely in young women, whom she thinks shouldn’t allow themselves to be “preyed upon” by drinking to excess.
Patton’s comments come at a time when both Princeton and universities across the country are formally doubling down on alcohol-based sexual violence, but they reflect an attitude still prevalent across college campuses — that the responsibility for rape lies not with the rapist but with the intoxicated. Such an attitude creates a culture in which “boys will be boys” is a good enough excuse for alcohol-induced assault and perpetrators are wrongly relieved of their responsibility for their criminal actions.
This ethos harms more than just victims, who out of a belief they were responsible are often too ashamed to report their attacks. It underpins a broader party culture in which the joys of drinking are shared, yet drinking’s consequences are seen as unfortunate but unavoidable personal mishaps.
If the problem is shared, so too should be the solution. That is why increased bystander intervention — or its colloquial counterpart, cockblocking — is a far preferable solution to Patton’s motherly advice that women watch out for themselves. Yesterday, Sexual Harassment/Assault Advising, Resources & Education peers wrote a Letter to the Editor detailing the ways students might put bystander intervention in practice. In this column, I hope to explain why putting their steps into practice is the best way to reduce on-campus rape.
A clear reason in favor of bystander intervention is simply that people behave better when they know they are being watched. The key to reducing sexual assault, then, is to apply pressure from the outside rather than relying on the internal moral compasses of these young men, who, according to campus rape researcher David Lisak, are often repeat offenders. The President agrees: In January, after assembling a task force on college sexual assault, he implored, “I want every young man in America to feel some strong peer pressure in terms of how they’re supposed to behave and treat women.”
Moreover, in an alcohol-sodden environment like the Street, where students’ level of intoxication ranges from near-sobriety to incoherence, bystanders are often better equipped to thwart a would-be attacker than the victims themselves. The idea is to reduce sexual assault by empowering those most able to judge what pop star Robin Thicke would call “blurred lines,” which provide an opening for assault. As one male student (not from Princeton) who drunkenly assaulted a friend recounted, “Alcohol loosened us up and the situation occurred by accident. If no alcohol was consumed, I never would have crossed that line.”
Often, drunkenness is clearest to an outside observer, particularly when both parties are consuming alcohol. And given that when women do attempt to demonstrate disinterest, it is frequently through what one study calls evasive tactics, rather than an explicit “no,” outside intervention might sometimes be necessary to translate a nonverbal rejection into reality.
This is not to paint women as helpless, disempowered creatures incapable of making their own decisions. But it is to acknowledge that young women are making decisions about how much to drink within a system that encourages they drink to excess and then refuses to share in the consequences. If other students are prompting the binge drinking that has become commonplace on college campuses, then it seems only natural that they also seek to reduce the risk associated with such environments. After all, such an environment is safer for everyone, ensuring both that drunk women won’t be taken advantage of and that drunk men won’t find themselves guilty for a crime they never meant to commit.
Some, including the dissent in Monday’s editorial, have urged instead for Patton’s approach of increased personal responsibility on the part of women. Few would deny the empirical fact that drinking to excess carries health risks for women, sexual safety chief among them. In fact, if I had a daughter, I might give her common-sense safety advice that sounds rather like Patton’s: drink moderately, travel in pairs at night.
But it is not productive to suggest that being drunk therefore makes women blameworthy for their own assaults. By ignoring the responsibility of the perpetrators, arguments like Patton’s do nothing to solve the real root of the problem: there will always be men who will take advantage of drunk women, and there will always be women drunk enough to be taken advantage of. Targeting these men, not blaming individual victims, ought to be our goal. If we want to reduce sexual assault on campus and make Princeton a safer place for all, it will take a village.
Cameron Langford is a politics major from Davidson, N.C. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.