Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The gray area of "got consent?"

by Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux

Most of the women on college campuses have seen the signs taped to the back of bathroom stalls, with their ominous statistic: 1 in 4. It’s the number of women who, according to the signs, will be victims of rape or attempted rape by the time they graduate. At Princeton, the signs take the form of a helpful “study guide for going out” with tips like “Take a cell phone” and “Check in with your friends.” The signs reflect a much larger part of college culture: the fear surrounding sex and alcohol. And, indeed, one of the first facts that the “1 in 4” signs anxiously let us know is that 70% of sexual assaults on college campuses are committed under the influence of alcohol.

In 1993, a doctoral student at Princeton named Katie Roiphe published an article about these signs (they’ve been around for longer than you thought!) in the New York Times Magazine, called “Date Rape’s Other Victim.” In it, she recalls her puzzlement over the idea that 25% of the women she saw walking around campus every day had been sexually assault, one which I think is shared by many people. “It didn't seem right,” Roiphe wrote. “If I was really standing in the middle of an "epidemic," a "crisis" -- if 25 percent of my women friends were really being raped -- wouldn't I know it?”

Roiphe’s article, which I read for my Politics of Gender and Sexuality class earlier this week, is a controversial, incisive, and still very relevant discussion of whether our preoccupation with sexual assault on campus, particularly assault in conjunction with alcohol, is healthy—or whether we are having the right conversation. She opens the article with a provocative statistic: in a 1985 survey undertaken by Ms. magazine and financed by the National Institute of Mental Health, 73 percent of the women categorized as rape victims did not initially define their experience as rape. It was the psychologist conducting the study who did. Roiphe goes on to pose the question: how responsible can a woman be held for her intake of alcohol and drugs? And are we stripping her of crucial agency by not holding her responsible? If a woman has sex and her judgment is “impaired,” whose “fault” is the sex? And should we even be talking about blame?

I was extremely intrigued by Roiphe’s article, which addresses the utter liminality of sex under the influence of alcohol—which, let’s face it, is the sex that most college students are having. When we’re warning the incoming freshmen about the dangers of date rape, are we also redefining sexual desire? Are we being forced into a damaging stereotype where men pressure women into sex and women resist? Roiphe points out that much of the language used to warn women about the dangers of sexual assault dates straight from the 1950s, when young women were still perceived as wide-eyed children, and their innocence was the most important component of their sexuality. I don’t think of myself as particularly fragile, but according to the “1 in 4” signs, every time I decide to drink and go out, I am in serious danger of becoming a victim.

But in the context of drunken sex, what does consent even mean? This is when the line becomes muddied, and when we need be having a different conversation. If a man and a woman get drunk, have sex, and wake up regretting it, the man will always be blamed for the night’s events, even if at the time he perceived them as mutual, and even if he regrets the decision equally. The assumption that men always want sex and women never do, and that women are not always equally or partially responsible for intoxicated sex, is old-fashioned and just not true. This is not to say that there are not instances of date rape and sexual assault while under the influence of alcohol. But here again, Roiphe makes an interesting assertion: “if we are going to maintain an idea of rape, then we need to reserve it for the instances of physical violence, or the threat of physical violence.”

In my politics class today, someone brought up a Charles Blow editorial from last December. In it, Blow bemoaned the “demise of dating”, saying, with apparent anguish, “Under the old model, you dated a few times and, if you really liked the person, you might consider having sex. Under the new model, you hook up a few times and, if you really like the person, you might consider going on a date.”

Or, in other words, those young people are doing what now?!?

If you ask me, there is no reason to go back to the days of “going steady.” College students have been having a lot of sex for a long time, and just because it’s only now entering the public eye does not mean that it’s a new phenomenon. And I agree with Roiphe that there is something disturbing and potentially damaging about the “1 in 4” culture—one which reinforces the idea of a fundamental communication barrier between men and women. If he was speaking "boyspeak" and she was speaking "girlspeak", then how are they supposed to know what means "no" and what means "yes"?

Do I think that the drunken hook-up is something that we should maintain, or encourage? Not really. I don’t think there’s anything necessarily empowering about this exercise of sexuality—but it does seem to be something that’s unique to college, a time when people are still figuring themselves out, making mistakes, and forming their sexual identity. I don’t think the drunken hookup is necessarily traumatic, and in many cases, both parties are too drunk to consent. And the way to lessen the culture of sexual pressure which permeates college campuses isn’t to turn women into victims and men into predators, and which basically denies women sexual agency. Consent is a lot more complicated than we’re making it. And at the bottom of all of this, isn’t there a lingering taste of the old days, when women knew they shouldn’t be having sex at all?


At February 26, 2009 at 11:37 AM , Anonymous Jessica said...

Hey Amelia,

This is Jessica from YWW. I don't know why I chose to first check out your blog today, but I really really agree with this. It has always bothered me in Women's Studies classes or college orientation that drunk men are accused of being rapists if the woman they had sex with was also drunk. It assumes that they are more in their "right mind" when intoxicated than women are. Women are not capable of giving consent or resisting advances (or their own urges), but men are expected to analyze whether the woman is fit to give consent, really wants sex, etc... It's unfair and unrealistic. There is a lot of assumption that men get women drunk or go out on weekends for the sole purpose of "preying" on them. The assumption that many women are not ok with this or do not want to hook up is just plain wrong.

I feel I personally have suffered a few times at the hands of hook-up culture, but I do not place the blame on the men. I was an active participant in what I now see as a terribly depressing social situation. To compare hooking up to rape is downright offensive to victims of violent rape.

At February 26, 2009 at 6:23 PM , Anonymous Chi '11 said...

I generally agree with this post, and I don't think that consent is always a black-and-white issue, but I take issue with Roiphe's assertion that "if we are going to maintain an idea of rape, then we need to reserve it for the instances of physical violence, or the threat of physical violence.” Really? Let's say that a woman passes out in a guy's living room after a night of drinking. While she's passed out, the guy forces himself on her. I think we would all agree that this is rape even though the guy in question technically didn't use violent force (or the threat of force) to commit the sexual assault.

I agree with Roiphe that not every drunken hookup should be considered rape. However, she almost seems to be veering into the other extreme end of this issue - the belief that rape is only rape if the victim is being cornered in a dark alley or something to that effect.

Overall, this is a very thought-provoking post. Keep up the good work!

At February 28, 2009 at 8:18 PM , Anonymous AC said...

Well, there is the small fact that the one-in-four statistic is completely false.

Here's a nice article summarizing the debate:

Here's a link (warning: PDF) to the DoJ report he mentions - the main portion is on page 18, companion study on pages 20-21:

The bottom line? One study came up with 1.7%; the other with 0.16%. Not even close to 25%

Keep in mind also that nearly 50% of rape claims turn out to be false (, and that saying that one was raped over a form/telephone survey is much less of a credibility strain than filing a report. Thus, we could expect some inflation of numbers, even in the DoJ report. Naturally, one must also deal with unreported cases, but the stats for that are much fuzzier.

At March 2, 2009 at 7:57 PM , Anonymous Tess said...

this whole "date rape" culture fosters the idea that women need to be taken care of, and it pisses me off. women need to take care of themselves just as men do-- it's a fact that people tend to get drunk horny, the two tend to go hand in hand. so if a girl is going out drinking, it's probably a good idea for her to be aware that she might make some decisions that will make her profoundly uncomfortable in the morning, since that is the NATURE of alcohol. its JOB is to impair judgment and lower inhibitions. i'm baffled by the fact that a drunken "yes" means nothing in some states.

[pause: duh those who take advantage of passed out/resisting persons are rapists.\resume]

AND men are not mind readers. if you've got a problem with what his hands or other appendages are doing, tell him! it's not rape if you make no moves towards hinting that you are uncomfortable and just think it to yourself real hard.

grrrr. take care of yourselves, women!

At March 3, 2009 at 9:50 PM , Blogger Franklinster said...


I don't want to lend credence to the idea that our discussion of sexual assault can be defined entirely along statistical lines. However, you misquoted the statistics from the DoJ report.

The 1-in-4 statistic is that 1 in 4 women is the victim of rape or attempted rape by the end of college.

The surveys discussed in the DoJ report ask about incidents that occurred in the past academic year. As the report continues, a reasonable projection puts the number of women who are the victims of rape or attempted rape between 1 in 5 and 1 in 4. Even though this is a projection, it is grossly different from the 2.8% figure you quoted.

I am willing to concede that assessing the prevalence of sexual assault is problematic. But it is not productive to entirely misrepresent the evidence you've presented. I believe that sexual assault on college campuses is something that we ought to be concerned about whether its prevalence is 1 in 4 or 1 in 40. You may feel that the 1-in-4 statistic is difficult to believe, but it's unfair to call it "completely false" when the article that you cite actually gives evidence that confirms the statistic.

At March 3, 2009 at 11:56 PM , Anonymous AC said...

Er, no. "A recent survey funded by the Justice Department said about 1.7 percent of female college students per year are victims of rape -- "unwanted completed penetration by force or threat of force" -- and an additional 1.1 percent are victims of attempted rape. In a companion study, when a similar group of women were asked differently worded questions, the rate of completed rapes was 11 times lower, 0.16 percent."

Even if we assume a random distribution (which it almost certainly isn't, since there will be a number of women repeatedly drawn towards high-risk environments), the study gives 1.7% per year, which extrapolates to 6.8% total. And of course if the one-in-four number matters, for more than emotional value, then you must be consistent when the facts say otherwise. You cannot play advocate with the numbers, then when it turns out to be a fraud, say that well, it don't matter.

At March 4, 2009 at 12:53 AM , Blogger Franklinster said...


First of all, if you read my post, you'll notice that I said that "I believe that sexual assault on college campuses is something that we ought to be concerned about whether its prevalence is 1 in 4 or 1 in 40". By this I mean that I don't actually attach much importance to the 1-in-4 statistic. I think that if even one or two of my female friends were raped, it would be a tremendous tragedy. I accept that other people might not feel the same way, but it's not appropriate to devalue my concern for the people around me by creating a dispute about statistics and claiming that I base my beliefs in them.

Second, the 1-in-4 statistic refers to rape and attempted rape, so the relevant statistics from the report are 2.8% and .34% (not 1.7% and .16%). You may disagree with the inclusion of attempted rape, but if you aren't going to include it you shouldn't refer to what you're discussing as the 1-in-4 statistic.

Finally, there's the issue of the projection made in the report. Let me point out, that the report itself states: "Over the course of a college career--which now lasts an average of 5 years--the percentage of completed or attempted rape victimization among women in higher educational institutions might climb to between one-fifth and one-quarter."

As the report notes, this is speculative. However, the 2.8% figure refers to an academic year. In 5 academic years, this means 14% of women are the victims of rape and attempted rape. As the report suggests, however, this doesn't include victimization that occurs outside of the academic year. Thus, their prediction of 20-25% seems reasonable.

Even if you use the .34% statistic, you get 1.7%. Or we could use the figure that you end up with in your post, 6.8%. I know a hundred women, and it's disturbing to think that even one or two of them might be the victims of rape or attempted rape. Do you really think it matters whether the statistic is 6.8% or 20% or 25%? At a school the size of Princeton, 6.8% of students translates into over 150 women the victims of rape and attempted rape.

You're right that the exact prevalence of rape and attempted rape on campus might not be 25%. But to say that the statistic is "completely false" is grossly misleading.

At April 30, 2009 at 7:29 PM , Blogger homo sapien said...

I think that in a lot of these cases, it's pretty clearly rape. But, when both parties were too drunk to consent, do you charge both of them with rape? That doesn't seem to make sense either. It's best to just not drink at all. But, I'm kinda a prude. So what do I know?


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