Want Less Campus Rape? Lower the Damn Drinking Age Already

This would discourage the sort of black out drinking most likely to lead to sexual assault disputes.


Zenon Evans / Reason

In the pages of The New York Times, columnist Ross Douthat bemoans that activists on all sides of the debate over the so-called "epidemic of rape" on college campuses have failed to put forth sensible solutions. Stricter adjudication under campus courts is unlikely to result in justice for victims or the accused, he writes.

Douthat does, however, offer an under-explored proposition for lessening instances of campus rape: Lower the drinking age from 21 to 18. This would discourage the sort of black out drinking most likely to lead to sexual assault, he writes:

The key problem in college sexual culture right now isn't drinking per se; it's blackout drinking, which follows from binge drinking, which is more likely to happen when a drinking culture is driven underground.

Undoing the federal government's Reagan-era imposition of a higher drinking age is probably too counterintuitive for lawmakers to contemplate. And obviously it wouldn't eliminate the lure of the keg stand or tame the recklessness of youth. But it would create an opportunity for a healthier approach to alcohol consumption — more social and relaxed, less frantic and performative — to take root in collegiate culture once again.

Many campus rapes happen because one person takes advantage of another's inebriated state. Subsequent accusations involve fuzzy memories and blurry definitions of consent. The current drinking age facilitates this by encouraging college students to drink a lot in a short period of time, since drinking is illegal for them at all times, regardless. (And thanks to the drinking age, intoxicated students who become victims of a crime or serious accident are less likely to seek help from the proper authorities, since they have broken the law themselves.)

Lest anyone think Douthat is on some sort of roll, he also proposes a solution that would be pretty much anathema to libertarians:

Finally, colleges could embrace a more limited version of the old "parietal" system, in which they separated the sexes and supervised social life. This could involve, for instance, establishing more single-sex dorms and writing late-night rules that apply identically to men and women. Bringing a visitor to your room after 10 p.m. or midnight might require signing in with an adult adviser, who would have the right to intervene when inebriation seemed to call consent and safety into question.

I've written that the state of California is inviting itself into the bedrooms of college students under its latest anti-rape legislation. This proposal is even more direct than that.

Watch ReasonTV explore the national debate over the drinking age below.