Response to Responses to Yoffe

Predictably, Emily Yoffe’s Slate piece telling college women not to get drunk has caused a lot of asinine outrage. Huge numbers of people seem to have (deliberately) misread it as "joining the campaign against drinking while vagina," to quote a particularly disingenuous Huffington Post … erm … post. Of course, anyone who has actually read the article knows it does no such thing, and while I suspect that most of the people complaining are not reading in good faith, let’s give them the benefit of the doubt anyway and stop for a second to imagine a good-faith approach they might be taking that leads them to their conclusions.

The only one I can think of is that they’ve misread Yoffe as trying to make women feel guilty for getting raped if they got drunk. The author of the aforementioned Huffington Post bit of nonsense in fact cites that as one of his reasons:

And though I’m certain Yoffe would adamantly deny she intends to make women who have been raped feel guilty if alcohol was involved, that’s exactly what’s she doing.

Alright, so let me just proceed from the assumption that that’s the real complaint here. Yes, drinking makes it considerably more likely that you’ll fall victim to rape or sexual assault, but the crime is still the perpetrator’s, and so we shouldn’t pile on personal guilt to the feelings of shame that a girl already goes through for being a victim.

That’s a valid concern, of course – and given how focused partisans on this issue are on exactly that aspect, maybe Yoffe could have worded her piece more carefully. Following links from the comments section of a Pharyngula post on the matter, I think I found the antidote: another FTB post from one Nimukta called Arguments From Analogy in Victim Blaming. The point of this post is to show that there are problems with most analogies that people use to defend themselves for urging women to be more cautious in exactly the way that Yoffe was doing – and to imply that most such people are being disingenuous as well – but no matter: Nimukta introduces some useful vocabulary that people like Yoffe could benefit from in the form of a distinction between moral and causal responsibility.

Moral responsibility is on the perpetrator. That’s when you intentionally cause something bad.

Causal responsibility is simply noting that some decision in your chain of decisions put you in a position to become a victim; it does not imply that there is any fault in your character for having made said decision.

That’s a pretty useful distinction for these cases. The man who takes advantage of a drunk girl is morally responsible for what he does, and can (and should, in most cases) be punished for it by society. The girl who finds herself a victim of sexual assault for having drunk too much around the wrong people is merely causally responsible: this is not a crime, and she cannot (and should not) be punished for it by society. Having made that distinction and made it clearly, I wonder whether it is now OK to give girls the good advice not to get so drunk that they lose control of what they’re doing around horny men?

I suspect it’s not, and I think so because so many of the responses to Yoffe are so pathetically disingenuous that it’s clear that they have a different primary agenda than preventing rape. For example, the aforementioned Huffington Post writer says things like this in response to a line in Yoffe’s essay that she would also tell her son not to get drunk because he might "find himself accused of rape:"

Finds himself accused? It makes it sound as though college male rapists just happen across rape as surprisingly as one might get a jury duty notice in the mail.

Um, no, you moron, she’s talking about the very real possibility that her son could be falsely accused of rape after having gotten drunk and been in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s like the author has never drunk alcohol before, and is completely unaware that it clouds not only judgement, but perception and memory as well.

Or this:

But here’s what really pisses me off: that "it’s not in his self-interest" because as we all know, any article on rape should point out how badly a man accused of rape could be damaged rather than… oh, I don’t know… maybe emphasizing that respecting personal boundaries of women and acknowledging enthusiastic consent before proceeding should be key here?

Really? Every single article on a subject must only ever concern itself with what the author thinks is "key?" Bandwidth and public attention are such limited resources that even if he’s right about what’s "key," there’s no room ever to discuss some side issues?

No, honestly, this guy’s deliberately spinning. There’s no way he read Yoffe’s article and seriously has those points as his takeaways.

It raises the question why we can’t have an honest conversation about this – and the answer is, I think, obvious: it’s that Nimukta’s categories are a bit fuzzier than defined in the article where alcohol is concerned. If we hold people responsible for what they do while drunk – as I think we must – then we’re faced with the problem of explaining how drunken consent is not consent. It’s a pretty glaring double standard that jails people for rape while drunk and jails people for manslaughter for any fatality they cause whilst driving drunk, but cannot be bothered to ask girls to take responsibility for people they sleep with while drunk. Note that I’m not talking about the passed-out drunk, someone takes advantage of you kind of sex: I mean the more typical encounter, where a girl gets drunk, gives something like consent to a guy who’s also too drunk to stop and think about that, and ends up sleeping with someone she later regrets sleeping with. The encounter was completely "consensual" in terms of desires expressed at the time, but with "consensual" in shock quotes because consent wouldn’t have been given without the alcohol. Trying to police that border is damn hard, and it doesn’t fit neatly into Nimukta’s moral and causal responsibility columns. More accurately, there is some mixture of moral and causal responsibility at work, and even if society decides to tilt the rules in favor of saying that women must be stone cold sober to legally consent, i.e. to just arbitrarily declare that this is one kind of decision that a person is NOT responsible for while she’s under the influence in contradistinction to all those other decisions that people are legally responsible for, the scientific, chemical facts on the ground about how alcohol works on human perception are still going to be such that people under the influence are going have difficulty determining just how sober or not a girl is, and just how much legal consent he has or hasn’t got, and just how much he does or does not need to second-guess the situation. Which is to say, he may "find himself" in a situation where he’s legally considered a rapist owing to exactly the kind of poor judgement on the girl’s part that she is NOT legally responsible for because vagina.

And that, to put a fine point on it, is why we try to avoid double standards – because trying to maintain them leads to exactly the kind of absurdity where, say, the author of a Huffington Post screed who pretends to be ignorant of how a man could "find himself" accused of rape should actually be in a better position than anyone to imagine how it could happen. After all, he’s (implicitly) advocating a standard that guarantees it will happen. Because alcohol works the way it works.

I think driving is instructive here. When I was 16, they still taught driver’s ed in high school, and in the course that I took they spent a lot of time talking about something called "defensive driving," which is basically just a list of bits of advice that drivers should keep in mind to help them avoid getting into an accident that is completely someone else’s fault. The line was basically that in an ideal world you should be able to just follow the law and feel (and be) safe, but the trouble is that you can’t count on other drivers to always follow the law or be safe. In particular, some people drive drunk – which is dangerous and illegal and they shouldn’t do it, but they do. So, you should take precautions over and above merely obeying the law when driving. This will not prevent you from being the victim of an unfortunate accident, but the thinking was that it would lessen your chances. At the same time, they spent an awful lot of time pointing out the dangers of drunk driving – both legal and consequential – and urging us not to do it.

I don’t see why rape education can’t work this way. If everyone followed the law and drove responsibly, there would be vanishingly few traffic injuries and fatalities. In particular, if people would stop driving while intoxicated we could see a signifiant reduction in traffic injuries and fatalities. So, let’s definitely put the blame where it belongs: on people driving drunk (or otherwise recklessly). Nothing about that implies that it’s a waste of time to coach people on how to minimize their risks of becoming a victim of a drunk (or otherwise reckless) driver’s bad judgement. So, by all means, let’s do that too. Likewise, if everyone respected a woman’s boundaries, then there would be vanishingly few instances of rape and sexual assault. In particular, if people would take care when consuming alcohol to remember what those boundaries were, we could see a significan reduction in rapes and sexual assaults. So, let’s definitely put the blame where it belongs: on men who cross the line. Nothing about that implies that it’s a waste of time to also coach women on how to minimize their risk of becoming a victim of rape or sexual assault by not drinking to the point where her judgement and/or senses are so impaired that she loses her ability to give a clear "no."

But the kicker is, of course, exactly the point that people who deliberately misinterpret Yoffe’s article are trying to obscure: that just as defensive driving becomes harder to do when you yourself have been drinking, avoiding sexual assault becomes harder when you yourself have been drinking.

The reason Nimukta gets away with "knocking down" all the various analogies is because they’re all missing that crucial last piece – which is that in none of the analogies is there any possibility of misunderstanding. A laptop sitting in a car may be tempting for the robber, but nothing about leaving a laptop in a car says "you may steal this." Likewise, walking home alone after a football game wearing the wrong-colored jersey doesn’t say "beat the shit out of me." It presents an opportunity to be sure, but there is no implied consent to the beating. But in drunken instances of sexual assault and rape, there very often is implied consent – at least from the point of view of the "assailant." It often happens that a girl goes home with a guy under circumstances that imply she will sleep with him. That may even have been her intention when she left with him, and she changes her mind halfway through. The point is that any analogy that Nimukta comes up with that tries to capture that point is going to end up with … you guessed it! … some mixture of moral and causal responsibility. The responsibility might never get to the level of being all in the moral column, but neither is there a total absence of fault. In other words, when the author of our Huffington Post column writes:

And though I’m certain Yoffe would adamantly deny she intends to make women who have been raped feel guilty if alcohol was involved, that’s exactly what’s she doing.

the reason he "knows" that "that’s exactly what she’s doing" is because the facts of the situation often make it so. The same way that we feel a lot sorrier for someone who was stone cold sober and got clocked by a drunk driver than we do someone who also tested positive for alcohol after being hit.

These aren’t difficult things to grasp, which is of course why no one with a particular axe to grind can talk about them honestly.

In a bit of serendipity, The Volokh Conspiracy tears apart a study which wants to equate talking someone into having sex with you when you suspect they don’t really want to as "sexual violence." THIS is the kind of absurdity we’re dealing with, and why we make an issue out of these things, and why it really isn’t as simple as saying that "men need to stop raping." If you’re defining "rape" to be basically "any time the girl has second thoughts," you’re criminalizing a large chunk of sexual encounters. And I deliberately say "any time the girl has second thoughts," because I really don’t see a lot of these same activists getting worked up about a girl using "guilt" or "argument" or "pressuring" to get a guy to sleep with her – certainly I don’t see them calling it "sexual violence."

There is a reason people don’t take feminists as seriously as they want to be taken.

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