Thursday, October 23, 2008

Don't take your guns to town

By Brandon McGinley
Originally published in The Daily Princetonian (that's right, we're "excellent.")

In perusing Princeton's excellent new feminist blog Equal Writes, I came across a post that linked to a fascinating video. It is a 30-second public service announcement from the government of Queensland, Australia, where, one of the blog's contributors writes, there is a significant underage binge-drinking problem. The commercial begins with the disturbing scene of a young woman being raped in a dark alley. The viewer then sees the preceding events in rewind while a background voice says, "67 percent of teenagers have been abused or assaulted while under the influence of alcohol."

Two men had taken her, helpless, to the alley. She had been drinking heavily at a party with friends. She had changed her clothes and makeup at a friend's house. Her dad had lovingly waved her goodbye. Her dad had given her a case of alcohol. The announcement concludes: "Don't kid yourself. Buy your children alcohol, and they could pay the price."

I was immediately impressed by the power and boldness of the video and hoped - and continue to hope - that such a message could hit the airwaves in this country. But to the contributors and commenter over at Equal Writes, this was "victim-blaming." And so, ipso facto, it was "ridiculous" and "flat-out disgusting." One writer dismissed with sarcasm the idea that "it's her duty to be ‘good.' "

Whatever happened to the idea of duty? And more to the point, what's wrong with responsibility? Sometime in the recent past the concept of responsibility slipped, or perhaps was pushed, out of vogue. From contraception to abortion on demand, we as a society have systematically tried to take the risk out of risky behavior, to establish a realm of personal, pleasurable freedom liberated from consequences. In this fantasyland, asking a young person to exercise responsibility, to fulfill a duty to be "good," can only be justified via sexism or paternalism; it is politically incorrect; it is illiberal.

Let me pause for a moment to assure the reader that nothing here should be construed to "blame" a victim of sexual assault. The blame in such horrific cases is certainly on the perpetrator. But it is both fundamentally unethical and counterproductive to reflexively toss aside talk of personal responsibility as simply "victim-blaming." Alcohol lowers both inhibitions and defenses, a potentially tragic cocktail, and to dismiss the undeniably true statement that the young woman's behavior was irresponsible and unsafe denies reality and increases the likelihood that this horror will befall another young person.

We do not live in the fantasy land where we can freely engage all of life's pleasures, where risky behavior is devoid of risk, where being "good" is merely a societal construct. For only in the presence of responsibility, to ourselves and to others, can we enjoy the full measure of freedom or, to use a word with more social and cultural baggage, of liberation.

Introducing alcohol into the highly sexually charged social atmosphere of college life is like introducing firearms in an old western town. Both are absolutely inevitable; both significantly increase the systemic danger of the situation; neither is necessarily evil, but they both require an enormous amount of responsibility on the part of the user.

This reminds me of an old Johnny Cash song, "Don't take your guns to town," which tells the story of young, innocent Billy Joe, who had something to prove. His mother implores him to "leave your guns at home, Bill," but he rides off to the cattle town reassuring her that "your Billy Joe's a man." In a bar he encounters "a dusty cowpoke" who mocks him. Billy responds how he thinks he is expected to, tries to draw his gun and is immediately shot and killed.

It is not Billy's fault that he was killed; the blame belongs to the "dusty cowpoke" who initiated the exchange and fired his gun. But the tragedy of Billy Joe is that his fate was avoidable. If he had not toted his guns into the bar, he would not have engaged his violent neighbor. If he had not felt pressured by the expectations of "manliness" to draw, he would have finished his drink and gone home.

Like the hundreds of Princetonians and millions of college students who go out on the weekends, drink excessively and embrace the hook-up culture, Billy Joe engaged in risky behavior. It does no good to cast aspersions on him, and he certainly did not "deserve" his fate. But it is equally unproductive, in fact it is far worse, to ignore what preceded his murder, to assert that his behavior was a completely acceptable personal choice about which no judgments can be made.

Consuming alcohol, having sex, carrying firearms. These are all activities which can be quite safe and productive, but they are fraught with physical and emotional risk. When we deny this latter crucial factor, when we push responsibility out of the process, we significantly decrease the likelihood of fulfilling experiences and court tragedy.

Brandon McGinley is a politics major from Pittsburgh, Pa. He can be reached at


At October 24, 2008 at 11:11 AM , Blogger LSG said...

Hi Brandon! In many ways, I think you're making a valid point. While sexual assault is never a victims fault, drugs and alcohol can increase risk. Everyone should take responsibility for minimizing her (or his) risk by monitoring the amount of alcohol she (he) has consumed, pouring or mixing her (his) own drinks, making sure friends know where she (he) is, trusting her (his) instincts, and so on. In addition, everyone should take responsibility for keeping on eye on her or his friends, and helping to minimize their risk. (And, of course, everyone everyone everyone should take responsibility for getting unimpaired consent before sexual activity, but that's not the of your post, it's an underlying assumption.) I agree that we should be doing everything we can to encourage young men and women to take all possible precautions to avoid being assaulted, and that it is possible to do so without blaming the victim of an assault that is committed.


First, I think it's worth pointing out that part of what disturbing to the critcs of the video (as far as I can tell from their posts) was that the assault seems to be eroticized. Portraying rape as even slightly sexy takes the ad away from strictly cautionary "please please please do everything possible to make sure this doesn't happen" and into the realm of "she was asking for it."

Second, there is a very significant problem with your analogy, and one that I think reflects the victim-blaming attitude that underlies many of our discussions of responsibility and rape EVEN WHEN WE ARE MAKING EVER EFFORT TO AVOID SUCH AN ATTITUDE - as I believe you are.

See, here's the thing about guns -- they really have no purpose except to kill people. Or moose, in some cases. It can be innocent fun to shoot tin cans in your backyard, but I think Cash's point is that swaggering into town with a gun on your hip is bound to be construed as an aggressive action. And I think his point is valid, because a gun is designed to kill things. Of course bringing a gun to town is not inviting dusty cowpokes to shoot you, but the singular nature of firearms does reveal something about your intentions in a way that alcohol does not. Why did the cowpoke shoot? It's not just because he saw an opening -- an unarmed victim would have been easier to kill. It's because although he initiated the fight, Billy Joe has drawn on him! And, may I remind you, even if Billy's intention isn't to fire and he's merely indulging in manly posturing, the whole point of guns is to be fired -- and to kill when fired.

Translate this to college parties and the analogy falls apart. So the girl with the beer was... threatening? The boys were afraid she might rape them if they didn't rape first? Or is the woman herself a weapon, a piece of flesh so explosive that she shouldn't have taken herself into town?

I understand what you're trying to get across, Brandon, but look how you've framed it. The situations are absolutely not equivalent, and the analogy you used to make a legitimate point (avoid risky behaviors) reinforced the idea that a girl with a beer is a girl with "something to prove" (that's how you describe Billy Joe...), and in fact, has gotten what's coming to her. The dusty cowpoke shooting Billy Joe no doubt sees himself as enforcing a kind of vigilante justice, or at least as putting down an obnoxious upstart. If we buy into this analogy will rapists feel the same?


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