Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, president emeritus of George Washington University, is in trouble with his campus's feminist alliance, Jezebel, et al., for remarks he made about the causal relationship between intoxication and rape. His comments came during a panel discussion about campus sexual assault and how to stop it on the Diane Rehm Show. Here is what he said:
I think it turns out that there are good and bad in fraternities and out of fraternities. What we're focusing here on is a general situation. I think what we're doing is creating a false correlation. For example, we point out that the women don't drink—don't have sorority parties which have alcohol. They don't have to. They go to the parties at the fraternities. So it's not as if the women aren't drinking. They are, in fact, without taking—without making the victims are responsible for what happens.
One of the groups that have to be trained not to drink in excess are women. They need to be in a position to punch the guys in the nose if they misbehave. And so part of the problem is you have men who take advantage of women who drink too much. And there are women who drink too much. And we need to educate our daughters and our children on that—in that regard.
Co-panelist Cailtin Flanagan of The Atlantic challenged Trachtenberg on that, saying women generally can't overpower male assailants no matter how sober they are. Trachtenberg replied that he "didn't anticipate being taken quite so literally" and was "astonished that somebody would attack me for suggesting sobriety" as a remedy to the campus rape problem.
Jezebel has a world view that informs their prose. They are an advocate for an important cause and they take every opportunity to make their case. Sometimes in their enthusiasm they may get a little overheated. It's hard to resist an apparent opportunity when you believe you are on the side of the angels.
I don't think Trachtenberg should apologize for these comments. It's clear from his other statements he accepts that the blame for sexual assault falls squarely on the assailant. One can—and should!—hold the rapists responsible while still giving practical advice on how to deny would-be rapists the opportunity. And while his line about punching rapists in the nose to frighten them off may seem like a stretch, it's certainly the case that some rapists strike when their victims are immobilized from blackout drinking, and would be deterred if their victims could resist at all.
As my colleague Elizabeth Nolan Brown wrote in response to criticisms made by some feminists against a nail polish that detects date rape drugs:
At the crux of most of these complaints is the axiom that we should teach men not to rape instead of teaching women not to be raped. And that's an important message! Too much cultural focus for too long has been on how a women's own conduct contributed or may contribute to her assault, in a way that winds up absolving assailants of culpability.
But teaching men not to rape and helping women avoid rape aren't mutually exclusive options. It's been said so many times already so as to be a cliche, but no one accuses security cameras of encouraging "theft culture". And neither do most people blame theft victims for getting robbed just because they didn't have security cameras.
On the whole, I don't think Trachtenberg's comments are offensive. But that doesn't mean his advice—drink less—is particularly helpful, either. Instead, he should advocate a clear policy change that would actually reduce binge drinking (and by extension, opportunities for rape): lowering the drinking age. Since drinking any amount of alcohol is illegal for most undergraduates, they have an incentive to cram all their drinking into short windows of time. They can't just order a drink here and there; they have to go to parties where alcohol is being consumed recklessly, secretly, and illegally.
It seems likely that allowing more college students to consume moderate amounts of alcohol—in public, during the hours of daylight—would decrease campus rape, just as repealing Prohibition decreased violent gang crime.
Trachtenberg, however, is not a signatory to the Amethyst Initiative, which calls on lawmakers to "rethink the drinking age," nor is any other past or current GWU president. According to this column in The Chronicle of Higher Education, his opinion on the issue is decidedly mixed.
He should change his perspective and fully align himself with a lower drinking age. He shouldn't apologize to Jezebel, though.
Read more from Reason on efforts to combat campus sexual assault here.
Hat tip: Inside Higher Ed