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Student op-ed argues 'drinking responsibly' may reduce risk of rape

CNN
Monday, November 4, 2013 - 8:40pm

(CNN) -- The editorial ran on the opinion page of Southern Methodist University's student-run newspaper on November 1: "Drinking responsibly may reduce risk factor."

In The Daily Campus column, Southern Methodist journalism major Kirby Wiley wrote that the best way for women to prevent sexual assaults "is to never drink so much that they cannot control themselves."

Men might be less likely to try to take advantage if women "quit putting themselves in situations where they appear vulnerable," she wrote. "If the media would focus more attention on the fact that the majority of the women who are sexually assaulted are intoxicated, as opposed to stating and restating how horrible the perpetrator is, then maybe young women would start to listen.

"The details on the offenders should not be omitted, but how are young women supposed to learn from the incident when they don't know the details?"

The editorial was picked up on social media sites and Change.org, pushing it beyond the Dallas campus and into the ongoing national debate over how much responsibility potential victims of sexual assault bear.

It's a position that researchers say is flawed because it creates a false sense of security by making people think they can control willful criminal behavior. They also say it distracts from more effective approaches to rape prevention, such as bystander intervention and policies that target perpetrators.

Wiley's column picked up on some sentiments from Slate contributor Emily Yoffe, who suggested last month that "a misplaced fear of blaming the victim has made it somehow unacceptable to warn inexperienced young women that when they get wasted, they are putting themselves in potential peril."

Yoffe's column, "College Women: Stop Getting Drunk" stirred impassioned conversation about drinking culture on campuses. The piece flew across social media and drew more than 3,700 comments.

It led to a rebuttal on Jezebel, in which writer Erin Gloria Ryan accused Yoffe of victim blaming, and a conversation in The New York Times "Room for Debate" blog that offered several viewpoints on victim blaming, binge drinking and the line between protection and prevention.

Daily Campus editor-in-chief Katy Roden stood by the decision to publish Wiley's column in the opinion section, in keeping with the newspaper's mission to be an "open forum" for students. She pointed out the Daily Campus' coverage of campus sexual harassment in an investigative piece. A few months after its publication, school leaders formed the Task Force on Sexual Misconduct Policies and Procedures.

Wiley also stands by her column, stating that its sole purpose is to "educate women and hopefully prevent future victims."

The column was inspired by media coverage of rape allegations in her hometown of Nashville, in which four former Vanderbilt University football players are accused of raping an unconscious female student in June. A fifth football player pleaded guilty to helping cover up the alleged on-campus gang rape.

"Being from Nashville and watching the coverage of the Vanderbilt rape case, I appreciated that the perpetrators names and faces were reported, but I was also shocked by lack of explanation on the unconscious victim. As a woman in college myself, I believe knowing the full details of the case would benefit the safety of all college women," Wiley said in an e-mail to CNN.

"The purpose of my column was to call the media's attention to an often overlooked side of sexual assault and rape cases on and around college campuses -- the all too common intoxication of victims. I feel the facts of a woman being too intoxicated should also be included in reports, not to place blame or any additional stress on the victim, but rather to inform other women of this factor that studies have shown increases the risk of sexual assaults."

Wiley's column generated mixed reviews around the Southern Methodist campus.

"At the end of the day, you wouldn't tell a victim of gun violence that it was their fault for being intoxicated. You wouldn't blame victims of a mugging that they should have prevented it. Why is sexual assault different?" said a letter written by Alexandra Day, a junior majoring in psychology and English at Southern Methodist.

"... Why are we singling out women here? Men are just as likely to binge drink (in fact, many studies have suggested that they are more likely). Instead of singling out female victims, why don't we address the culture on campus that promotes binge drinking to the point where women are unable to give consent? Why don't we teach men that women physically cannot give consent at that point of intoxication?"

It also led to a Change.org petition from SMU's Women's Interest Network asking the Daily Campus to stop "publishing articles contributing to rape culture and misogyny," citing Wiley's column and two others.

Southern Methodist University spokesman Kent Best said the university has no control over the newspaper because it is an independent student publication. Still, "SMU expects all of its students to uphold high standards of behavior and to treat one another with respect," Best said in an e-mail.

"In SMU's sexual assault prevention and education programs, students are urged to be aware that alcohol use increases risk for all students, that it impairs judgment and that it is no excuse for failure to obtain consent. SMU also educates its students that sexual assault is a crime and that it violates University policies and the federal law Title IX. SMU does not tolerate sexual misconduct in any form."

Tips on the school's Health and Safety website encourage students to "drink in moderation or not at all," cautioning that "risk increases significantly when judgment is impaired." The website also says that "intoxication is not an excuse for failure to obtain consent."

Research shows that focusing on victims' behavior is an ineffective strategy in rape prevention because it doesn't work, said Caroline Heldman, an associate professor of politics at Occidental University. To the contrary, it conveys the false impression that people can control the actions of perpetrators, while most assaults are planned by serial offenders who start their night in search of easy prey, Heldman said.

The argument that binge drinking increases the likelihood of getting raped is illogical, she said, because it would imply that men (who are known to binge drink at higher rates) would also be targets of sexual assault, she said.

"What you're really saying is you can't be female and engage in college party life," Heldman said.

It's important to talk to college-aged students, male and female, about the health risks of binge drinking, she said. But when it comes to preventing sexual assault, conversations about hookup culture, the giving and seeking verbal consent -- and intervening when something seems wrong -- are just as important, she said.

"If I were a parent, I would talk about communication and sex, about having the confidence to say no in social settings," she said. "Hookup culture raises the moral hackles of previous generations so it make us feel better to say don't have sex and don't drink.

"But it's unrealistic advice."

CNN's Marlena Baldacci contributed to this report

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