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Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente.
Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente.

MARGARET WENTE

Alcohol and assault: What all young women need to know Add to ...

Long, long ago, when I was younger and less wise, I sometimes had a drink or two with men. Alcohol made me delightfully less inhibited. I was sure I could take care of myself. One evening, I found myself in the apartment of a man I’d just met. I think he was a football player. For some reason, I decided it would be fun to match him drink for drink. Eventually, over his strenuous objections, I insisted that I had to go home, and managed to stumble out the door before anything bad happened.

I’ll never know how close I came to being a statistic. All I know is that I was lucky. And that I had acted like an idiot.

Alcohol plays a huge role in sex assaults. Unfounded, The Globe and Mail’s deeply reported series, found that alcohol is a factor in close to half of the incidents that are reported to police. The same is true of sexual assaults on campus. In one survey involving U.S. first-year undergrads, 83 per cent of rapes occurred while the woman was incapacitated.

Read more: Unfounded: Police dismiss 1 in 5 sexual assault claims as baseless, Globe investigation reveals

Read more: What it's like to report a sexual assault: 36 people share their stories

So if alcohol is such a major factor, why don’t we warn young women about the risks of heavy drinking?

Simple. No one wants to blame the victim. Reformers have rightly spent years educating the public and the courts that victims are not responsible for sexual assault – their assailants are. But this taboo has resulted in a mass evasion of certain unpleasant, but essential truths.

Earlier this month, a British judge, Lindsey Kushner, broke that taboo during the sentencing hearing for a man who had raped an 18-year-old girl. They’d met in a Burger King after she’d spent the night out drinking. The judge said there is “absolutely no excuse” for sex attacks. But she added that girls and women put themselves at risk when they get drunk. They are less likely to fight off an attack, less likely to report one because they don’t remember what happened and less likely to be believed than someone who was sober. “Girls are perfectly entitled to drink themselves into the ground,” she said. But they “should be aware” that potential assailants “gravitate toward girls who have been drinking. It shouldn’t be like that, but it does happen and we see it time and time again.”

The pile-on was predictable and swift. The judge was accused of victim-blaming, and of deterring other women from coming forward. “When judges basically blame victims for rape – by suggesting how much alcohol a woman drinks or what she wears is part of what causes rape – we remove the responsibility from the man who did it,” one advocacy group said. Fortunately, she had nothing to lose. It was her final case before retiring.

None of this is fair or just. It’s unfair that women can’t drink like men, unfair that alcohol provokes certain men to be sexually aggressive and women to be less resistant, unfair that some men regard drunken women as prey, unfair that the justice system is often very far from perfect. Some of these things can perhaps be changed; others assuredly cannot.

Yet as one mother of two daughters told me, “We can’t wait until the legal system improves. We can’t wait until all men are good. We have to teach our daughters how they can stay safe in the world as it is.”

But some of the most important things they can do to stay safe are never mentioned in anti-violence campaigns. Perhaps that is also because heavy drinking among women has been normalized. One consequence of gender equality is that this behaviour, once considered underclass, is now perfectly acceptable. The trouble is that women’s tolerance for alcohol is much lower, even after accounting for body size. “There is no gender equity when it comes to the effects of alcohol on men versus women,” Gyongyi Szabo, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, told The Washington Post. Some women’s health experts call it “an equal-rights tragedy.”

Of course alcohol isn’t responsible for rape. Rapists are responsible for rape, just as muggers are responsible for mugging you if you walk down a dark alley in a dicey part of town at 4 a.m. But if you could do something to reduce the risk of getting mugged, wouldn’t you?

There are many things we can do better to reduce sexual violence. We must teach more young men to have respect for women. We must also teach young men and young women alike to have respect for booze. That’s not blaming women – it’s empowering them to manage risk.

One woman who agrees is Megan Clark, the British rape survivor. This week she gave up her anonymity in order to defend the judge. “She was absolutely right … She just simply said ‘be careful’ basically.”

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The story behind how The Globe's Unfounded series was reported (The Globe and Mail)

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