Sunday, November 9, 2008

Drawing bright lines

By Jordan Bubin

Originally published in The Daily Princetonian

During midterms two weeks ago, I had an exam that, for once, made me think rather than just vomit back material in a new and colorful way. My politics course examined the burden of proof in rape cases; until then, I had seen a gray area when it came to sexual assault. For me, it had nothing to do with blaming victims or protecting assailants. To be flippant, it had to do with beer goggles. If I do something drunk that I'm not comfortable with sober, I might regret it in the morning, but at the time I may have seemed enthusiastic and consenting. To me, this made for a gray area, and most of my friends - male and female - agreed. After a week spent pulling my hair out over the midterm, I have to disagree.

What made the difference for me was recognizing - with my preceptor's help - that considering something a gray area allows us to avoid making hard moral judgments. Now, I'm not trying to say that hooking up drunk is inherently wrong (as anyone who knows me will assure you), or that every awkward morning after is evidence that something bad happened. My point is simply that when we avoid making those moral judgments, we're just trying to pretend that they can't be made and that alcohol helped us do something we wouldn't do sober.

As college kids who most likely get our action (if any) on the weekend after a few beers, stripping the matter of morality makes it easier, but the mentality is guaranteed to create victims at the boundaries. The line between someone who was sexually assaulted and someone who wasn't is necessarily blurred by whether they were arguably ok with it at the time. If two people want to get it on, fine; but if someone's not ok with it, why does alcohol make the matter ambiguous? Consider the most likely heterosexual scenario. If a guy takes a girl on a date and pressures her into sex, why does the matter become different if they had a bottle of wine? Or two or three bottles?

I have several female friends who, as I see it now, were sexually assaulted. Each time, my initial reaction was to urge them to turn the person in. After a few days went by, I began to think that maybe it was just a tragic situation where no one could be blamed. On one occasion, the guy involved was drunk enough to fall down two flights of stairs, and the girl was nearly as inebriated. The next day, she saw what happened as rape but hesitated and convinced herself it was just a horrible accident. They had both been drunk, so she felt uncomfortable making a moral judgment on the situation; I hadn't been there, so I accepted her decision.

My preceptor pointed out that, for him, having a daughter destroyed the idea that the area was one of moral ambiguity. I have five sisters, and I'll admit easily that I would not buy into "the gray area" in any case regarding them, either. You could say that the love we have for our family clouds our moral judgment. Instead, I argue that forcing myself to consider circumstances closer to me opened my eyes. Condemnation means taking a clear stance, speaking out and being willing to ruin someone. Rationalizing a gray area around such situations keeps us from having to do so.

In the case I mentioned earlier, the girl had previously been harassed by the guy. Both sober and drunk, she had been offended. She was not the first girl to find herself in this sort of situation with him. If we consider sexual assault a gray area, these facts may at most help us feel disgusted. If we do not fool ourselves, they instead make the matter rather clear. Moreover, the latter ought to serve as an example of how such a "gray area" serves to perpetuate sexual assault. I know more than a few people who use booze as an excuse to get pushy, but it need not be an explicit decision. When the line between right and wrong is gray, it's much harder to say when it's been crossed, so there's plenty of incentive to keep pushing.

What is needed is not to eliminate drunken sex from campus or to take the chase and excitement out of romance. It's to accept that alcohol does not render sex a morally gray area - so potential assailants don't have an excuse for sexual impositions, and so victims know they're not culpable. Brandon McGinley '10 recently argued that our hookup culture demands more responsibility. But drinking irresponsibly ought to have no correlation to risk for sexual assault, male or female.

Jordan Bubin is a politics major from Laughlintown, Pa. and a contributor to the Equal Writes blog. He can be reached at


At November 9, 2008 at 11:07 PM , Blogger PeterW said...

If a woman drinks, gets in a car, and hits a pedestrian, to claim that she was drunk doesn't absolve her of the responsibility of having chosen to drive. How is it then that when a woman drinks, has sex with a man, and regrets it afterward, she is given license to place the blame on the man? If a man is drunk and acts pushy, whatever moral condemnation his assertiveness merits is not diminished by his inebriation; it is likewise with the woman's consent.

It is curious that you use the word "assailant" when describing a consensual and (presumably) nonviolent act, as though you were already demarcating an evil aggressor (male) and innocent victim (female). And it is also telling that you reach your position of moral condemnation through emotional involvement rather than abstract thought.

At November 13, 2008 at 4:27 PM , Blogger Roscoe said...


While I completely share your distaste of these kinds of false accusations, I think that fundamentally people don't equate a regretful hook up with a chance to make a quick buck. If you really regret the hook up, you probably just won't talk about it. Maybe there will be a case when someone then goes to the extreme of crying rape if their social group gives them enough shit, no doubt, it's not implausible. However, it seems far more likely to me that when women are troubled about whether to speak up about a rape it's because it was a rape and a woman is just insecure about the attitude they will receive when they admit it. Which is not surprising when you see women in Islamic cultures being stoned to death because they were raped. All of this said, the point is that a court should focus their attention on the motive of a woman actually falsifying her rape, rather than whether or not she was intoxicated. It seems really stupid to me if there are even a significant amount of women on college campuses that are so strapped for cash that they would cry rape...


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home