One of the single-most puzzling (and dangerous!) arguments I’ve heard in debates about rape and sexual assault is the claim that if one urges women to take precautions against assault that you’re somehow engaging in “victim-blaming.” Yes, of course, if a man assaults a drunk woman the sole responsibility for the assault rests with the man. But guarding against assault isn’t just a matter of blame or enforcement, it’s also a matter of prevention. Why do we lock our doors at night? Why do we ignore a darker street in favor of a lighter street when walking at night? And isn’t a person less vulnerable when they’re not falling-down drunk? With that in mind, watch this astonishing exchange that Senator Kamala Harris tweeted out as if she is a champion for women and not Trump judicial nominee Neomi Rao:
Here's the bottom line: survivors of sexual assault should not be blamed for the trauma they've experienced. Neomi Rao's prior writings about sexual assault are completely unacceptable and her responses to my questions today were deeply troubling. pic.twitter.com/jlOuhHWtQx
— Kamala Harris (@SenKamalaHarris) February 5, 2019
Rao proposes the “common sense idea” of avoiding “excessive drinking.” She also clearly says that if you do drink too much, you’re not at fault if you’re attacked. Rao says she’s merely trying to keep women from becoming victims of crime. This is exactly the advice that responsible parents and peers should give. There is no circumstance in which excessive intoxication in any way enhances the safety of a woman or girl.
Yet Harris calls Rao’s response “deeply troubling.” This makes no sense. Isn’t an incapacitated person more vulnerable than a person who is fully conscious and in full command of their body? Is this even a debate? I remember the blowback against Emily Yoffe in 2013 when she wrote a thoughtful and well-researched essay at Slate noting that time and again terrible sexual assaults are inflicted on incapacitated women. It began:
In one awful high-profile case after another—the U.S. Naval Academy; Steubenville, Ohio; now the allegations in Maryville, Mo.—we read about a young woman, sometimes only a girl, who goes to a party and ends up being raped. As soon as the school year begins, so do reports of female students sexually assaulted by their male classmates. A common denominator in these cases is alcohol, often copious amounts, enough to render the young woman incapacitated. But a misplaced fear of blaming the victim has made it somehow unacceptable to warn inexperienced young women that when they get wasted, they are putting themselves in potential peril.
I understand the imperative to change male behavior (and punish male predators) to such an extent that women are completely safe even if they have too much to drink, but until this longed-for utopia is here (and it will never fully arrive), we are harming women and girls by deliberately deciding not to warn them of known risks. This is exactly when radical ideology passes from mere disagreement to real danger. Harris is so intent on blaming men that she neglects to empower women. In fact she scorns those who do.
The fundamental goal is to decrease sexual assault. We do that in two ways, by seeking to stop predators and by warning victims about behaviors we know render them more vulnerable. The only thing that’s “deeply troubling” about the exchange above is Senator Harris’s apparent indignant reluctance to tell women the truth.
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