EDITOR’S NOTE: Today’s post is written by Points contributing editor Michelle McClellan.
Like many others, I read the story in Rolling Stone magazine about a gang rape at the University of Virginia with a sense of mounting horror. Then, when I began to hear hints and then assertions that the victim’s story might not hold up, I felt angry and confused—for a lot of reasons. The fallout from this story and its aftermath has been extensive, and will likely change again before you read these words. The cover page of the December 5, 2014 Chronicle of Higher Education includes the headline “UVa Rocked by Account of Rape” but that is overshadowed on the page by a photo of recycling bins heaped high with Bud Light cans to illustrate a special report called “Alcohol’s Hold on Campus.” How, if at all, do these stories go together?
The statistic “97,000 sex assaults” on the cover of the Chronicle makes this connection explicit. As it happens, I am teaching a social science methods class this semester, and we have been discussing how certain kinds of data are more convincing than others in shaping perceptions of social problems. That number—almost 100,000!!—is huge and yet impersonal; its very scale makes it hard to grasp. An individual story as relayed in the Rolling Stone example can make a much bigger impact on readers. But any such exemplar then carries a heavy burden of reliability.
Some people argue that it does not matter whether “Jackie,” the victim in the UVa incident, is telling the truth in every detail because the larger story of campus rape needs attention regardless of what did or did not happen to her that night. Others, including advocates for sexual assault victims, fear that if Jackie’s account is shown to be inaccurate, other cases will be more easily denied or dismissed. The idea that women fabricate rape charges has a long history and has shaped courtroom procedures. In her excellent Nymphomania: A History, Carol Groneman analyzes key legal cases involving rape and sexual assault, pointing out that the term “prosecutrix” was used for the victim in some states even in the middle of the twentieth century. Groneman explains that this term, “unique to rape trials,” suggested that “a vindictive complainant, rather than the state, was pressing charges.” (96) So the credibility of victims is important and complicated. I’ll leave the specifics here to journalists who have parsed out what the reporter should have done much more knowledgeably and persuasively than I can.
Despite the juxtaposition of these stories about college drinking (“a culture still soaked in booze” as the Chronicle put it) and sexual assault, it is still difficult to talk across them. But the links are there, as even casual observers know. Yet college presidents who encourage female students to drink less and be aware of their circumstances have been harshly criticized, with one even resigning. Any such cautions can easily shade into blaming the victim.
Prohibition casts a long shadow in the United States, and calls for moderation are often dismissed as reactionary. Maybe this is a sign of my own advancing age, but the more I read about college drinking practices, the more troubling they seem.
Even when everything goes right—when there is no sexual assault, when no one winds up in the emergency room—there can be significant health and social effects for women and also for men. It may be too that there are unintended consequences of the medicalization of problem drinking. Some young people feel that if they are not full-fledged alcoholics, then what is the problem? But the state of intoxication can also be dangerous: alcohol-related accidents and injuries kill 1800 students every year. And intoxication can make women especially vulnerable. Pointing out that this situation is unfair is not enough to change it.
We acknowledge that intoxication brings risks to oneself and others when it comes to driving. How can we develop practices that take that danger into account in other settings? The Chronicle special report includes descriptions of programs on various campuses to educate students, prosecute those who use or make fake IDs, encourage bystander interventions, and other measures to mitigate the effects of heavy drinking. I wish these initiatives every success and I hope that they can contribute to a form of “damp feminism” as I called for in a previous post.
The casual misogyny in some UVa rituals such as the song “From Rugby Road to Vinegar Hill” is shocking and disturbing, and of course no should always mean no. Still, I wonder whether male students are doing things while drunk that they would never do while sober. With the complicated legacies of Prohibition and “wet” feminism, it is politically loaded to discuss women’s drinking in the context of sexual assault, since cautions aimed at women may sound like a return to a double standard. But if we can’t discuss women’s alcohol consumption, maybe we have finally reached a point where we can start talking about men’s.