This is how “Princeton Mom” Susan Patton sees sexual assault playing out with young people: “If you are provocatively dressed, drink too much and knowingly (or unknowingly) wander into an eager young man’s room, then you have displayed screamingly bad judgment and must bear accountability for what may happen next.”
With her grating new book Marry Smart: Advice for Finding the One, Patton, the notorious Princeton alumnus who first entered public consciousness last spring when she called on young women to devote more college time to scoring husbands, has joined a vocal cabal of female writers and thinkers who argue that women who binge drink and get raped play a significant role in their attacks. “If you are too drunk to speak, then you may be incapable of saying no or warding off unwanted advances. And then it’s all on you,” Patton writes. “Be smart about managing your alcohol consumption … and your image!”
Although Patton’s call is the most shrill, several high-profile writers have exhorted young women to curb their drinking and dress more modestly to deter would-be rapists. Last fall, Slate’s Emily Yoffe was excoriated for blaming victims when she wrote about the correlation between binge drinking and rape on campus.
“If female college students start moderating their drinking as a way of looking out for their own self-interest – and looking out for your own self-interest should be a primary feminist principle – I hope their restraint trickles down to the men,” Yoffe wrote. The National Post’s Barbara Kay and The Globe and Mail’s Margaret Wente have both urged young women to dodge sexual assault by drinking less. And Camille Paglia has argued that it’s ludicrous to “retrain” predators, while suggesting that more conservative jogging gear might dissuade rapists from raping.
Why are these outmoded messages bubbling up now, and from women no less? Covering up and drinking less are extreme components of the “risk reduction” approach to rape prevention, which aims to help women protect themselves with standard tips such as “don’t walk alone at night” and “don’t talk to strangers.” It’s a contentious strategy that too often sounds like victim blaming.
“It’s a self-preservation thing,” says feminist author Jessica Valenti in an interview. “If you believe that girls only get raped because they made a bad decision, then it means that you’re safe. The idea that this happens to women no matter how hard they try to protect themselves, that’s a terrifying prospect that some women would rather not acknowledge.”
But is there any room for risk-reduction in the modern dialogue around preventing rape? Advocates are divided. While some believe it’s time to be more realistic about actual risks, others remain adamant: social norms that let some young men feel so sexually entitled must be challenged – not partying college girls.
“In the same way as we might say ‘lock your doors,’ we might say ‘take care of yourself when you go off to university.’ There’s nothing wrong with a bit of well-meaning advice from one friend to another, one mother to a daughter or a son. But it’s problematic when it’s used as a strategy for curbing violence against women,” says Karyn Freedman, author of the new memoir One Hour in Paris: A True Story of Rape and Recovery, which details a violent attack she suffered in 1990 and the decades of trauma that followed.
Freedman, now an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Guelph, calls risk-reduction an “insidious failure” that “perpetuates a false notion that these potential victims can control what happens to them, such that so long as women are suitably careful – if they don’t drink, don’t wear provocative clothing, don’t go to frat parties – they won’t get raped.”
That advice doesn’t bear out: “What we know is that you could be wearing a mini-skirt or a hijab. You could be drinking, you might not be drinking,” she says. “And as all the statistics tell us, women and girls are most vulnerable in their homes and most likely to be raped by someone they know.”
Freedman is especially sensitive to suggestions that women can readily prevent their own sexual assaults. “Think about the corrosive effect that has on survivors themselves,” she says. As for the idea that drinking at a party makes women vulnerable to rapists lurking everywhere, or that most guys are incapable of restraining their sexual urges, “it’s a sad characterization of men.”
Even so, some reputable advocacy groups are urging that risk reduction deserves a place at the table. The sexual-violence-prevention organization RAINN – which in a controversial February report cast doubt on the existence of “rape culture,” focusing instead on individual predators – also came out in favour of risk reduction. “We believe that it is important to educate members of a campus community on actions they can take to increase their personal safety,” read RAINN’s statement to a White House task force to protect students from sexual assault.
Today, Valenti says, the “golden example” in risk reduction is bystander intervention. These campaigns encourage men and women to look out for each other on campus; they’re the most palatable form of risk reduction because they don’t involve blaming the victim.
Amanda Dale, executive director at the Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic, a Toronto organization for women facing violence, says she’s is in favour of factual information, not the modesty-first approach that Princeton Mom and her ilk are proffering. “Inform women sensibly in ways that they can actually make choices,” says Dale. “Treat them as responsible adults who can make decisions about how and where to conduct themselves.”
Part of that push is for realistic messaging for first-year students, not curtailing their basic modern freedoms. “The here and now does include a resurgence of a particularly persistent form of male sexual entitlement on campus,” says Dale. “It’s very troubling. We need to address it with the men, but we also need to tell young women this is what we know about it.”
Ultimately, risk reduction needs to be part of a wider conversation about why so many perpetrators aren’t charged while victims are doubted or blamed. Valenti points to the organization Students Active for Ending Rape (SAFER), which works to reform weak sexual assault policies on campuses across the United States, and to beef up consequences for rapists.
“A small percentage of men rape, and they do it a lot because the culture allows them to get away with it,” says Valenti. “I don’t know that it’s a matter of being able to teach some young man that he shouldn’t rape, but we can teach others to recognize rape for what it is and to believe women when they come forward.”