The first time I got drunk, I was 17 and at my cousin’s house in London. I’d had alcohol before, but never enough to feel that hazy lightness I’d heard so much about. I woke up the next morning with my first hangover. The party the night before felt like some distant and glamorous dream.
I wouldn’t be drunk again until college, which fostered a culture entirely foreign to one in which I was just drinking sangria with German exchange students. I noticed a fierceness in the way that people approached alcohol, like drinking was some kind of extreme sport. I started getting used to hearing people tell battle stories about their weekends, bashfully recounting how wasted they’d been and how they’d been pushed to the point of throwing up when these seemed to secretly be points of pride. On a couple of occasions, I became that person myself.
But, it wasn’t until the summer after my freshman year that my relationship with alcohol got out of hand. I entirely lost control and ended up getting blackout drunk with a group of strangers at a music festival. When I found myself in an ambulance later, I was told that my blood alcohol level was twice the legal limit and that I’d been found wandering around naked. I will never know what happened that night, but I felt vulnerable and scared in a way that I had never been before. I felt dirty, powerless, and small. I swore to myself I would never get into that situation again. So far, I’ve been successful, though there have been a few low points when I got close.
The decision to drink alcohol will always be personal, a consideration of the risks in comparison to the reward: that uninhibited feeling of invincibility, deceptive as it is. I alone am responsible for the extremes of drunkenness I have reached. I alone can monitor myself. But that does not in any way make me culpable for what someone did to me while I was drunk. Laying the burden of responsibility at the door of a sexual assault victim not only heightens psychological damage in the aftermath, but also shifts our focus to the wrong area.
Educating people about alcohol and encouraging responsible drinking as prevention for situations of sexual assault are only common sense, since incapacitated people make the most natural targets. I have no issue with being told to drink responsibly, but what I do resent is the implication that my drinking habits constitute the only variable. The attitude that the behavior of sexual attackers is somehow a constant unable to be budged only serves to substantiate cultural inertia and reinforce the stigma of being a sexual assault victim.
Every rape case in the national spotlight seems to involve a girl who drank too much and the boys who took advantage of her condition. Those circumstances, sadly though, are hardly newsworthy. The reason we hear about cases like that of Daisy Coleman or the girl in Steubenville, Ohio, lies in the ways in which those communities foster a rape culture that encourages victim ostracism and perpetrator protection.
The kind of society that attacks a rape victim over social networking and forces her family to leave town constitutes a problem far greater than any alcohol education program can possibly prevent. This is a culture in which rape is a non-issue, while a girl having non-consensual sex and making a fuss about it is a crime worthy of censure.
On a smaller level, Daisy Coleman’s agreement to have a drink five shots tall might have been prevented by the knowledge of what it would do to her, but women also tend to be people pleasers. Saying no might seem uncool or antisocial. Moreover, breaking rules is fun and drinking is glamorous. I went through AlcoholEdu along with the rest of my classmates, but that doesn’t mean I don’t still sometimes overestimate my capabilities. Telling only one gender to moderate drinking is a short-sighted tactic because it overlooks the reality of social situations and the ways in which alcohol-related sexual assault also affects men, both as victims and attackers with a dim memory of the night before.
As long as a culture in which heavy drinking is promoted and rape does not carry severe consequences persists, the two will go hand in hand. Tackling both elements of a toxic environment requires major systemic change that cannot possibly happen overnight, but altering attitudes tends to be both the most difficult and most fundamental solution. Unfortunately, there is no class for that.