In 2013, journalist Emily Yoffe explained the relationship between sexual assault and drunkenness on college campuses in a column titled “College Women: Stop Getting Drunk.” Yoffe stated that “we are failing to let women know that when they render themselves defenseless, terrible things can be done to them.” Four years later, amid a surge of sexual misconduct scandals, neuroscientist and actress Mayim Bialik wrote an op-ed column for the New York Times titled “Being a Feminist in Harvey Weinstein’s World.” Bialik wrote that she still makes choices every day that she thinks of as “self-protecting and wise.” Even though Bialik and Yoffe both acknowledged that perpetrators are responsible for their crimes, many felt they blamed the victims of sexual assault.
Interestingly, advocating precautionary measures and wise decisions seem to be acceptable in many other situations. For example, in response to car break-ins in the area, the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office announced a “Lock it or Lose it” campaign urging the public to lock their vehicles so that they will not be an “easy target” for thieves. Protective behavior admits that threats exist, and it is worthwhile to employ whatever power we have over our fate to keep ourselves safe. Shouldn’t that same logic apply to sexual assault? I have received advice intended to protect me from harm throughout my life, ranging from refusing rides from strangers to wearing a condom during sex. None of it was meant to hold me responsible for someone else’s actions. On the contrary, it was intended to empower me.
Some of the criticism Yoffe and Bialik faced raises a few questions. When is it appropriate to explore steps that individuals can take to reduce their odds of being victimized? Where is the boundary that separates victim-blaming from practical advice? The cause of a sexual assault is the perpetrator, and not every sexual assault is preventable. But choices are not insignificant.
In 2015, a Stanford University student named Brock Turner was caught sexually assaulting an unconscious woman after she passed out behind a dumpster following a fraternity house party. In a statement published by BuzzFeed, the victim described some of the events leading up to her assault. “I made silly faces, let my guard down, and drank liquor too fast, not factoring in that my tolerance had significantly lowered since college. The next thing I remember, I was [on] a gurney in a hallway.”
If drinking to unconsciousness is unwise, then saying so is not necessarily blaming the victim. It is the truth, which might be easier to acknowledge if the victim passed out behind a moving vehicle’s wheel instead of a dumpster. The idea that women can make choices that will completely shield them from sexual assault is a dangerous fantasy. The idea that women’s decisions do not matter or that sexual predators will vanish tomorrow could be even more dangerous.
Reducing sexual assaults may require some combination of harsher penalties for offenders, lowering barriers to reporting attacks, stressing the importance of consent and restraint, and changing how people, especially men, view sex and sexuality. I am not sure. But I am convinced that criticizing individuals who offer women strategies to protect themselves is a step in the wrong direction. I fear that when we refuse to examine any victim’s actions leading up to sexual assault, we suggest that people are powerless to discourage abuse. Their safety rests solely in the hands of others. That is not a message I want to send to anyone. It is definitely not a message I want to send to my daughters. The cost is far too high.