What's actually wrong with telling women not to drink

[trigger warning, both for sexual violence and righteous anger]

I was going to stay out of it. Of course everyone on earth sent me Emily Yoffe’s too stupid for words Slate piece about how we should tell college women not to drink so that they don’t get raped.

I’ve got other things to do – like, my actual job of preventing sexual assault, just for a start – than join an internet fight about whether or not it’s okay to tell women not to drink as a strategy for preventing sexual assault.

But then the New York Times did this Room for Debate on the topic, and I was stunned to find that they had not included in the debate ANYONE WHO ACTUALLY DOES SEXUAL ASSAULT PREVENTION WORK. I was stunned, too, to find that there is no mention of the multiple decades of research on what WORKS to prevent sexual assault. The focus is entirely on whether or not it’s “okay” to tell women not to drink, not on whether or not it’s EFFECTIVE at preventing assault.

Let me say this as plainly as I can: I don’t care even a little bit whether or not it’s “victim-blaming” to tell women not to drink; I have my own opinions, of course, but political acceptability of any particular approach to preventing sexual assault has only a marginal place in my decision-making about what strategy to implement on my campus.

The primary – and almost the exclusive – criterion I use in determining what approach I will take in preventing sexual assault on my campus is:


That’s all. Anything else would be a waste of my time and resources. Anything else would be professionally negligent. Anything else would be an insult to the students whose wellbeing I serve.

I have this important job, see. I have the job of preventing sexual violence. And if I wasted time and money on an approach that people feel comfortable with but that doesn’t work, I would – as far as my own conscience is concerned – be allowing sexual violence to happen.

So if telling women not to drink WORKED to prevent violence, I would do it. I would do it every day, at the top of my lungs.

It does not. So I don’t.

The thing is, if sexual assault is just about Person A, who intends to do harm, and Person B, who is the target of the harm, then our only options are to try to persuade Person A not to do harm or to persuade Person B not to be in harm’s way.

But the days of seeing sexual violence as something that happens between Person A and Person B are over. If we zoom out from Person A and Person B we will see that there’s Person C and Person D and Person E… all way the way to Person Z. According to Green Dot, Inc, there’s between 20-40 witnesses to some precursor of the violence, who could step in and do something to interrupt the flow of violence and prevent the assault before it ever happens.

When we include the bystanders, we don’t need to think about victim-blaming, because there are no victims!

When we include the bystanders, THE NUMBERS ARE ON OUR SIDE.

Let me tell you three stories of bystander action, and then I’ll go back to doing my actual job and writing my book and living my life:

Story 1: Two students who were trained as bystander peer educators were at a party on campus, where they noticed some dude engaged in what I will euphemistically describe as an explicit sexual behavior with a blackout drunk student, against a wall in the living room. These two students were PISSED at the dude and at the crowd of people who were studiously failing to notice the assault happening right there in the living room.

So they told a friend what they were doing, so that friend could keep an eye out and call for more help if necessary, and they approached the dude. One student put her hand on the shoulder of the blackout drunk student and said, “Do you want some water?” The drunk student nodded blindly, “Yeah, water.” My student put her to bed.

Meanwhile, the other student gave the dude what-for. Kicked him out. Told him never to come back.

They kept themselves safe while still interrupting the flow of violence. They had other options – they could have called the police or spilled a drink on the dude or any number of other things. But being an active bystander isn’t about doing any specific thing, it’s about doing SOMETHING – and something is ANYTHING THAT ISN’T NOTHING.

Story 2: Two different bystander peer educators were at a county fair and saw a couple arguing violently, in a way that made my students feel uncomfortable, unsafe. So they harnessed their fear and stepped into the sphere of the argument and said apologetically, “Hi, we’re lost, could you tell us where to find the parking lot?”

They interrupted the flow of violence. Did they rescue the targeted partner from that dangerous relationship? Did they persuade the abuser to find a more appropriate outlet for that rage? No. But they interrupted the flow. They let the couple know that they were not unobserved. And they showed all the other witnesses that it’s possible – and important – to do SOMETHING.

Story 3: A student who is herself a survivor of sexual violence witnessed a classic sexual predator strategy being used at a bar where she was celebrating a friend’s birthday. A stranger was separating a younger, shy student from the group and buying her drinks – persuading her in an apparently friendly way to come with him. The student couldn’t put her finger on what wasn’t okay, but every cell in her body froze, locked up. All of a sudden, all she wanted to do was go to sleep.

When she recognized what this physiological shift meant – that she was triggered – she turned to a friend and said, “That situation over there is really not okay. I need to go home right now, but I couldn’t leave before I pointed it out to someone. Could you ask the bartender to interrupt?”

Her friend delegated to someone else the job of interrupting the unsafe situation and escorted the triggered student home. I don’t know whether or not the assault in progress at the bar got interrupted and prevented. But I know that student DID SOMETHING. Actually she did two somethings: she told someone what she saw, and she took care of herself. I am so proud of her for both those things.

Again, the question isn’t what’s politically acceptable to say or not say, to prevent sexual violence. The question is WHAT WORKS to prevent sexual violence? And that question is too important for us to be distracted by whose fault it is that violence happens or who should be responsible for stopping it.

We are ALL responsible for stopping it. YOU are responsible for doing SOMETHING, when you notice something not okay – and “something” is ANYTHING THAT ISN’T NOTHING.

Okay then. I’m going back to work.