How To Write About Rape Prevention Without Sounding Like An Asshole

This morning, Slate ran a rape prevention piece by Emily Yoffe with the aggressive headline: COLLEGE WOMEN: STOP GETTING DRUNK. Subhed: "It's closely associated with sexual assault. And yet we're reluctant to tell women to stop doing it." The URL of the piece advertises telling silly women to stop drinking is "the best rape prevention." Unsurprisingly, this bit of e-prudery by the woman otherwise known as Dear Prudence was poorly received because, you know, we're all pretty tired of the "ladies be getting themselves raped" trope — and for good reason. Is there a way to discuss rape prevention and personal safety that both acknowledges the sad, rapey reality of the world without blaming the victims and, by extension, coming across like a scoldy asshole? Of course. Here's how.

DO encourage people of both genders to pay attention to their personal safety
As Jennifer Marsh, VP of Victim Services at RAINN (the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network) explained to me by phone, "[Rape prevention literature] shouldn't just be about sexual assault and awareness; it should be about being safe in the face of general danger." Excessive alcohol consumption, in addition to being Bad For You, can make a person vulnerable to anyone — muggers, robbers, evangelizing Christians trying to engage you in a conversation about America as a modern Gomorra. It's not victim-blamey to suggest that a person of any gender be mindful of their laptop bag on the bus, or to discourage a person who has been drinking from walking home alone through a neighborhood with a high crime rate. Promoting personal safety and vigilance for the safety of others is a good practice, and doesn't constitute "blaming the victim."

It's true that alcohol consumption compromises a person's personal safety, and it's true that rapists sometimes use alcohol to weaken their targeted victims. All of these things are helpful things for college-aged women to know. That being said...

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DON'T write a piece admonishing women for not doing enough to stop their own rapes.
Yoffe's assertion — that alcohol plays a role in a lot of on-campus sexual assaults — is a valid one, and she's got data to back it up.

A 2009 study of campus sexual assault found that by the time they are seniors, almost 20 percent of college women will become victims, overwhelmingly of a fellow classmate. Very few will ever report it to authorities. The same study states that more than 80 percent of campus sexual assaults involve alcohol. Frequently both the man and the woman have been drinking.

Fair enough. Yoffe totally has the "booze-in-rape" game on lock. Unfortunately, she doesn't seem to understand that while alcohol plays a role in many sexual assaults, there's only one element that plays a role in all sexual assaults: a rapist. Which brings me to my next point.

DON'T write a piece about rape prevention without talking about rapist prevention.

If alcohol plays a role in so many rapes, then ostensibly encouraging men to stop drinking excessively would prevent rapists — and therefore rapes— from happening. Right? I mean, if you locked me in a room with a handle of vodka and told me to drink it until I couldn't walk, at no point would a rapist materialize from the ether to sexually assault me. Drunk potential victims don't make rapists appear; for as miraculously good a dancer it makes me think I am, alcohol isn't magic. Therefore, a piece about the role of alcohol in rape that doesn't acknowledge the role of alcohol in rapists is half-written. Yoffe makes an effort to state, multiple times, that it's not a victim's fault for getting raped but it sort of kind of is the victim's fault for being a drunky mcdrunkpants, and does nothing to explain the role of alcohol in the lowering of inhibitions of rapists.

To re-applly Yoffe-ian logic to another fact about rape: know what else plays a role in many sexual assaults? Men who women know. Maybe if women stopped having male acquaintances then they wouldn't get raped so much.

DON'T write this paragraph:

If I had a son, I would tell him that it’s in his self-interest not to be the drunken frat boy who finds himself accused of raping a drunken classmate. Surely this University of Richmond student, acquitted in one of the extremely rare cases in which a campus rape accusation led to a criminal trial, would confirm that.

If Emily Yoffe had a son, she'd teach him how not to be accused of rape at a party. Not how to stay sober enough to remain vigilant and interfere with potentially alcohol-fueled rape situations, or how it's not okay to have sex with a woman who is too drunk to consent. Nope. Just how not to get accused of rape. Got it.

DON'T hoist your own weird neurotic shit about your college-aged daughter and your own self-righteous semi-teetotaling on the general public.
Yoffe admits in the piece that her daughter is preparing to go off to school in the fall (and hates how large a role alcohol plays in campus social life, to the point that she suggests college schedule all exams on Fridays so students can't go out on Thursdays) and also that she's never been drunk.

I will present myself as an example that it’s possible to have fun without being drunk. I enjoy moderate drinking and have only been hung over three times in my life. I have never been so drunk that I browned out, blacked out, passed out, or puked from alcohol ingestion. Still, as a young person, I did my share of fun, crazy, silly, stupid, and ill-advised things. But at least I always knew that I was responsible for my behavior, not the alcohol.

Is it possible to have fun without being a drunken idiot? Of course! But Yoffe has a history of sanctimony when it comes to her status as a light drinker. As Lori Adelman points out at Feministing, Yoffe has, multiple times, used her Dear Prudence column as a platform to scold women who were sexually assaulted after drinking. So is this column actually supposed to dish out helpful advice? Or is it yet another opportunity for smug piety?

DON'T write "how not to get raped" columns in the first place
According to RAINN's Jennifer Marsh, encouraging women to prevent rape by drinking less is an "oversimplification" of the crime of sexual assault. "[Rape] can take place anywhere, at any time," she says. "It's not just in a fraternity bedroom after a party." And it can happen to women who are sober, too.

Further, Marsh points out, rape is such an awful crime that no one wants to believe they'll ever be rape victims, or that they or their friends could be rapists. Because of this, literature that focuses exclusively on rape prevention often falls on deaf ears. Promoting sexual assault awareness in the context of general safety, community responsibility, and both physical and mental health is much more effective than hammering on it as though it's an isolated sort of event that ~*hApPeNs*~ to drunk girls.

DON'T close with a weird statement about self-control and omit links to organizations that can help survivors.

Here's how Yoffe closes her piece —

Colleges are supposed to be places where young people learn to be responsible for themselves. Lake says, “The biggest change in going to college is that you have to understand safety begins with you. For better or worse, fair or not, just or not, the consequences will fall on your head.” I’ll drink (one drink) to that.

According to Marsh at RAINN, while women (and men) can empower themselves to avoid the sort of vulnerability that predators target and avoid the sort of attitudes that can make them more inclined to prey on the weak, writing about rape prevention without pointing survivors to resources is a big no-no. So, if you, or someone you know has been sexually assaulted and needs to talk to someone — it's not your fault and you can call RAINN.

I'm no rape recovery expert, but I'd advise against writing a letter to Dear Prudence.

[Slate]