The XX Factor

Drinking, Rape and Feminism: The Conversation Returns and We’re Getting Nowhere

One women’s magazine writes a story saying that women shouldn’t “get smashed” because it leaves them vulnerable to rape. Another women’s publication calls this sort of admonishing slut-shaming and victim blaming , and argues that women’s alcohol consumption should not be monitored. These links are from 2007, when Laura Sessions-Stepp published an article in Cosmo identifying a “new” kind of alcohol-fueled date rape that she called ” gray rape ,” and the identical conversation is being rehashed now in the lady blogosphere because of the acquittal of two New York City cops on charges that they raped a heavily intoxicated woman.

In one corner we have the Frisky: ” Why Being Drunk is a Feminist Issue .” Writer Kate Torgovnick argues that we should try to change our culture into one that looks down on people who binge drink, since alcohol is involved in so many rapes. On the other side, there’s Feministe, where Jill Filipovic writes , “there have always been predatory people who seek out those they deem vulnerable. But the problem is with the predators,” not with the women who have had too much to drink.

I’ve seen these arguments go back and forth for years, and there never seems to be any movement made forward. You can believe that no woman’s behavior-around alcohol or anything else-should be policed. But you can at the same time believe that when heavy drinking is involved, sex gets really complicated. The biggest problem is that these issues of women and alcohol consumption seem to often bubble up in the context of rape, which makes it hard for nuances to enter into the conversation. It all boils down into the same (correct) nugget: Blame the rapists, not the women.

But there’s so much more to the discussion of women and alcohol and sex than just rape and victim-blaming. My favorite writer on this topic is Caroline Knapp, who wrote about the intersection of sex and drinking in her book Drinking: A Love Story . This passage is in reference to this same discussion that emerged when (sometime DoubleX contributor) Katie Roiphe’s published her 1993 book, The Morning After:Sex, Fear, and Feminism , which argued that the date rape crisis on college campuses was overblown. Here’s what Knapp had to say :

The deeper connections between alcohol and self-worth and sexuality, the way women (at least women like me) use alcohol to deaden a wide range of conflicted feeling-longing for intimacy and terror of it; a wish to merge with others and a fear of being consumed; profound uncertainty about how and when to maintain boundaries and how and when to let them down-weren’t addressed with much texture or depth.

No is an extraordinarily complicated word when you’re drunk. This isn’t just because drinking impairs your judgment in specific situations, like parties or dates (which it certainly may); it’s because drinking interferes with the larger, murkier business of identity, of forming a sense of the self as strong and capable and aware. This is a difficult task; for all human beings, but it’s particularly difficult for women and it’s close to impossible for women who drink.

Is it possible that we can talk about these things, and our experiences as women, without falling into the same closed circuit?