Back in November I wrote a post laying out some of the biggest questions I have about the “having sex while intoxicated” question; mainly that “how drunk is too drunk?” is a fundamentally flawed question and what we should be examining is “isn’t it predatory for people (usually men, not always) to target intoxicated people (usually women, not always)?” and “why isn’t enthusiastic consent the standard?” Neither of those questions are rhetorical, and I highly encourage you to check out the discussion in the comments– I think it was one of the best conversations I’ve had on my blog to date.
At the time I wrote it I was sort-of-not-really responding to the Emily Yoffe disaster, but yesterday something else started cropping up in my various news feeds: James Taranto essentially making the argument that if a drunk man rapes a drunk woman, there’s no crime (link is to an analysis, not original). In his view, both people– the rapist and the victim– should be held equally responsible, or not responsible at all. I barely managed to make it through Taranto’s Washington Post column; it took me a couple of tries to get all the way to the end.
So, I’m going to be responding to this general idea, but not really Taranto in particular, because it’s the narrative that makes his argument believable to people that concerns me.
Taranto compares rape to two drunk drivers who get into a car accident. This is not a new comparison, at least not to me– and if I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard it trip glibly off the tongue of someone who is hilariously uninformed . . .
There is a premise backing up this statement, and it is a premise that a horrifying number of people– of all genders– believe. It is the idea that women who say they were raped while intoxicated are actually lying about having sex because they regret it. You can easily stumble across this argument almost anywhere– in living rooms, in bars, on the internet. This argument only exists because there is something even more insidious hiding beneath it, and this is the real problem with how Americans, at least, think and talk about sex:
Women only say no to sex because they are supposed to; it is the man’s job to do whatever he can to override that no. Women actually want to say yes, even when they are saying no.
That is the belief that allows us to believe all of the others– that the woman’s only job is to be the chaste, asexual gatekeeper, and men are the lustful, lascivious animals who are willing to go to any length– coercion, deceit, force — to achieve the ultimate goal of The I Had Sex with Her Trophy. It is the underlying rape-culture idea behind songs like Billy Joel’s “Only the Good Die Young” and Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines.”
Another fact that Taranto seems to be completely unaware of is that rapists are not just “people who are too drunk to realize what they’re doing and stop.” Rapists are predators. People who rape– and they are usually men, but not always– are a rather small slice of the population (3%-10%), depending on the study you read and the country you’re in. However, all the studies reveal a common pattern: predators and rapists target specific victims with only one goal in mind: to get away with it.
- They spend time identifying vulnerable people.
- They use cultural narratives in their favor. They find people who, by cultural standards, “deserve” to be raped– gay people, trans people, drunk people, alone people, “slutty” people . . .
- They become acquaintances– or even friends– of the victim. They insinuate themselves into the victim’s group and deliberately communicate an image of being a “nice guy,” someone who is trustworthy.
- They use whatever circumstances they can– making sure the victim is seen “flirting” with them, making sure their victim is drunk. . .
- They do whatever they can in order to make sure their victim is discredited.
Remember, the ultimate goal is that no one believes their victim and that they get away with it. Rapists are not stupid. This is one of the reasons why so many rapes are linked to intoxication on college campuses: alcohol has become another weapon in a rapist’s arsenal– just like roofies, just like coercion, just like threats, just like violence. They can use alcohol in order to get away with raping someone, because they know campus officials and police officers will ask “were you drunk?” and then dismiss anything else their victims say.
Before we get into the discussion, I’d like to circumvent a few possible questions.
There is a gray area when we start talking about sex and alcohol. I’m not dismissing that. However, there are a few things to keep in mind when we talk about rape by intoxication.
First, if a person says “no” or “stop” or “I don’t want this” even if they have engaged in other sexual activities, anything that follows that “no” is rape. End of story. There is no other explanation, no surrounding circumstances, nothing. If they say no, it does not matter how drunk they are, it does not matter if they have been making out with you for an hour or just gave you oral, it does not matter. It’s rape.
Second, if a person is unconscious and you engage in sexual activities with them, you are raping them. That should be obvious, but thanks to things like Steubenville we know it’s not. It’s beyond all sense and reason that I even have to say this, but this is the world we live in, apparently.
Thirdly, the fact that they didn’t say “no” doesn’t mean they consented. Rape is sexual behavior that the other person did not consent to. Them “not saying no” doesn’t count. It’s insane that the only time we think of “consent” as being “they didn’t say no” is when we’re talking about sex. If some company dumps poison into my water supply, they can’t walk into court and say “welp, they didn’t say don’t dump poison into our water!” and get away with it. The same principle applies to sex: if they did not consent, then, legally, it’s rape. Consent is “yes, I want to have sex with you.”
And here is exactly where we run into the gray area, because consent can sound like and look like a lot of different things depending on the people involved in the situation. My partner and I don’t give verbal consent like that because we don’t need to– we know each other well enough where body language is enough. If you don’t have a trust-based relationship with the person you’re about to have sex with, make sure you get explicit, verbal consent. This is why I’m such a fan of enthusiastic consent— and why I’ve talked about it so much.
I want to address, specifically, this concept that people have sex, wake up in the morning, regret it, and then claim that they were raped. I’m not going to make the case that this never ever happens, but we do know beyond all doubt that it is incredibly rare. People have sex when they’re drunk and then regret it the next day all of the time. People have sex when they’re not drunk and then regret it all of the time, too. People make mistakes. They do things they regret. They also don’t usually wake up in the morning and say “I’m going to go accuse this person of rape for no reason!”
When a woman, especially, accuses someone of rape, it is an excruciating process. She is frequently ostracized and isolated. Her friends abandon her. The police intimidate and frighten her, and frequently accuse her of being a liar or an attention whore. She is slut-shamed, victim-blamed. Her entire life can be destroyed. Coming forward and saying this person raped me usually comes with so much risk and danger that most rape victims never report their rape.
There are probably a hundred other circumstances we could talk about concerning sex and alcohol, and they’re worth the conversation. I’m not going to say that having sex with a drunk person is always rape, because it’s not. Plenty of people have sex while intoxicated and it’s perfectly ok. However, and this is so important I’m going to be shouting about it the rest of my life, if you want to have sex with someone, get their clear consent. It really is that simple.
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