Editor’s Note: As the #metoo movement that originated ten years ago with Tarana Burke reached a critical mass this week, together we bore witness to innumerable traumas. Perhaps, like me, you felt far more than you were able to articulate. In times like these I turn to poetry to find the words there are no words for. To that end, today I turn to poetry of witness and testimony. To poems that are unafraid to call out sexual assault and its aftereffects. To poetry that says: me, too.
Last week, Emily Yoffe wrote an article urging young women, especially those on college campuses, to stop getting so drunk if they’d like to reduce their risk of being sexually assaulted or raped. Yoffe writes Slate’s popular advice column “Dear Prudence,” of which I am an avid reader. Traditionally, much of Yoffe’s writing has offered at least a thoughtful perspective on issues that are complicated or don’t always have a clear answer, but this piece is not one of them. “College Women: Stop Drinking” is disappointing and dangerous.
As many other writers and bloggers have aptly discussed already, teaching men not to engage in risk-taking behavior that has the potential to hurt or victimize others—educating men not to rape—is the fundamental, and most important, part of abdicating rape culture. In her piece, Yoffe uses Antonia Abbey’s research (some of which, by the way, is more than twenty years old) to note that “more than 80 percent of campus sexual assaults involve alcohol,” though she fails to make clear that the perpetrators of sexual assault are often more likely than the victims to be intoxicated. And even if this weren’t the case, how can it seem acceptable to put the onus of risk avoidance squarely on the shoulders of college-aged girls when the reality is that ALL college students would be safer and better off if they drank responsibly?
As an undergraduate, I was not quite a prime example of the young women Yoffe addresses in her article. I didn’t drink often, and despite what Yoffe claims, when I did choose to drink or party with my friends, these actions were not the product of a post-feminist society in which I was brought up being told that I have every right to match men drink for drink without somehow asking for it (though girls do have this right and are not asking for it). Conversely, I was not any more deterred from drinkingby the anxious “advice” I received from my father, a single dad who, as I was growing up, echoed many of the warnings Yoffe offers in her piece.
The summer after my freshman year of college, I traveled with two close male friends whom I’d known for years to Montreal. Our first night there, we were chatted up by Jerimiah, an affable bartender in his early thirties who bought us a round in celebration of our arrival and offered to take us out the first evening he had off work.
When that night came, he escorted us to an impressively popular bar in the city, the line to get in stretching down the block in that forever-long way in which all things are exaggerated when you’re still a teenager. He walked us smugly ahead of everyone else, nodded to the bouncer, generously paid our cover fee, and led us through the door like he owned the place. It’s so mortifyingly obvious now, as an adult, to see how we were targeted. Once inside, he made sure the three of us had drinks in our hands at all times.
As Yoffe’s article suggests, like most victims, I didn’t need anything slipped to me — I took each drink willingly. Despite the dangers of being in an unfamiliar city in another country, I was with two friends whom I trusted. Everyone we had met thus far on our short trip had been extraordinarily friendly. And anyway, I rarely partied. A society full of misinformed, well-meaning grown-ups just like Yoffe had, consciously or otherwise, made me think that rape was something that happened to other girls—ones who were far more reckless and irresponsible and slutty than I was. I felt safe.
I started to black out before the night was over, so getting me out of there was easy. Though my memory of that night is only in pieces, I was told later that Jerimiah asked my friends if they would be able to get home okay on their own and then told them he was taking me to his house. Plenty drunk themselves, they didn’t argue. And why should they have? When we propagate the idea that victims are responsible for their own safety, or even when we target messages about consent only to the men who are themselves engaging in sexual behavior, we fail to encourage (or even acknowledge) the importance of bystander prevention or social responsibility.
But instead of going to Jerimiah’s home as he’d told my friends, I was taken to a hotel. Here, my credit card was used to pay for the room—something I can’t imagine offering on the tip money I made waitressing when I wasn’t in class. At one point as we kissed on the bed, I made it clear that I was not going to have sex with him. I had only slept with one other person in my life, news I delivered half-proudly, half-sheepishly: my high school boyfriend of three years with whom I had recently broken up. I distinctly remember feeling self-consciously young as I offered this explanation. I was interested in some type of hook-up (whether genuinely or because of all the alcohol I had been plied with, I can’t be sure), but for nineteen-year-old me, that kind of intimacy wasn’t going to come in the form of intercourse.
I expected his disappointment, but Jeremiah seemed unfazed. Maybe he responded with, “Sure,” and a shrug of his shoulders; or maybe he said nothing at all and kissed me in a way I might have found, at the time, to be romantic. Maybe his eyes lit with the sudden understanding that this was going to be even easier than he’d thought. We kept kissing. He took off my panties. Then he kissed me some more. When his pants came off and he climbed on top of me, I told him again, “Hey, no sex.” Then I came to with him inside of me.
I panicked, but I didn’t fight him. I’d like to think that I was beginning to realize, finally, that I might be in very real danger, alone in a foreign city with a complete stranger, separated from my friends who would have no idea where to even look for me. More likely, I was probably still too drunk to think rationally and coherently about what to do next. Finally, he stopped having sex with me and passed out on the bed. I waited until I heard snoring, managed—still stunned—to quietly dress and quickly gather my things, and fled.
The part of our brains that helps with sound judgment and realistically processing long-term consequences doesn’t fully develop until our mid-twenties. However naively, I thought that the fun, cool person my friends and I met at the bar on the first night of our summer vacation had a genuine interest in showing us a good time. And though Yoffe warns of predators who act just like this, some with even less obvious warning signs, I have a hard time believing I would have acted differently even if I’d read Yoffe’s article days before our trip. I’m too smart for that kind of manipulation, I surely would have thought, much in the same way that teenagers and young adults often feel inappropriately invincible.
When we fail to account for these relevant factors, articles like Yoffe’s reinforce the terrible idea that if girls didn’t actually want it, they shouldn’t have been out drinking in the first place. In the wake of the horrific news out of Steubenville last year, I came across an article comment from a man who expressed dismay that a teenage girl would dare to feel victimized by the boys who assaulted her while she was intoxicated. When a girl goes to a party with the guys and gets wasted, “this is just the price of admission,” he said, and the casual insistence of his statement, the way in which this seemed so obvious to him, has been impossible for me to forget.
Speaking to this, Andrew Smiler writes for the Good Men Project in “It Takes a Village to Raise These Rapists” that many people within a community (parents, teachers, coaches, peers, the media) contribute to the kind of entitlement that drives teens and young men to target and assault girls, particularly when they’re compromised in some way. Though it’s evident that Yoffe finds such behavior rightfully appalling, she doesn’t spend much time in her piece taking those who participate in it or enable it to task.
In a response to her critics, Yoffe acknowledges that other action needs to be taken too, particularly in how we educate men about consent, but that “[i]n the meantime, this weekend, some young, intoxicated women will wake up next to guys they never wanted to sleep with.” To warn people (and not just women, but everyone) that predators find drunk, vulnerable girls to be easy targets is not irrelevant to rape prevention. But in the way Yoffe elects to address it, she perpetuates the idea that the women who fall outside of the safest or most conservative standards are, in fact, asking for it, that rape is still just a women’s problem. (Though Yoffe does state emphatically that “perpetrators are the ones responsible for committing their crime,” in a piece that talks almost exclusively about how the best way to prevent rape is for girls to get less drunk, what else can we expect the take-home message to be?) Even worse, to the most twisted and predatory young perpetrators, Yoffe’s sentiments can easily be misinterpreted as yet another justification for these crimes, empowering rapists who seek out and prey on victims who are too drunk to say no.
Not long ago, one of the friends who accompanied me on that trip to Montreal (perhaps forgetting in the intervening decade what happened to me there) casually mentioned that he feels the media makes too big a deal out of rape culture, that although things are surely bad for women in some parts of our country and elsewhere in the world, the hysterical, hypersensitive concerns over objectification, sexism, or victimization don’t very accurately reflect what he’s witnessed or experienced, that rape culture in America hasn’t been his reality. I think articles like Emily Yoffe’s, and the ideas they condone, are likely a big part of the reason why.
Kirsten Clodfelter holds an MFA from George Mason University. Her writing has been previously published in The Iowa Review, Brevity, and Narrative Magazine, among others. A Glimmer Train Honorable Mention and winner of the Dan Rudy Prize, her chapbook of war-impact stories, Casualties, was published this October by RopeWalk Press. Clodfelter teaches in Southern Indiana, where she lives with her partner and their awesome, hilarious daughter. KirstenClodfelter.com