Slate’s Emily Yoffe touched a nerve recently when she implored college women to 'stop getting drunk.' Amy Gutman agrees with the advice but rejects the rationale. (unclebumpy/flickr)

It’s been a month since Slate’s Emily Yoffe sparked an Internet firestorm with her essay “College Women: Stop Getting Drunk,” which urged female students to protect themselves from sexual assault by not getting wasted at parties. That’s an eon in cyber-time, but the furor has yet to die down — a testament to the strength of the passions Yoffe tapped into.

In the eyes of her critics (and they are legion) Yoffe’s warnings are dangerously regressive, placing the focus on female behavior when it should be on rapists and perhaps even offering rapists license to operate. “Warning women about heavy drinking places the burden of not being sexually assaulted squarely on the shoulders of the victims,” is how one writer put it.

I see it differently — perhaps because, 30 years ago, I was one of these young women.

My college years were awash in alcohol — as were my 20s and early 30s (not surprising, in light of the fact that drinking patterns are often established in these early years). Given how much I drank, far fewer bad things happened to me than might have been expected. I was never the victim of a major crime. I didn’t die in a drunken car crash or snowmobile accident or fall out of a window. I didn’t experience liver failure, or die of alcohol poisoning. (As for the increased risks of breast and other cancers associated with heavy drinking, I guess the verdict is still out.)  Warnings would have served me well. I never got them.

There is a world of difference between saying: ‘Don’t get drunk because men will look at you and see a vulnerable woman,’ as Yoffe repeatedly suggests, and ‘Don’t drink because it strips you of agency — the power to think and act on your own behalf.’

To some, Yoffe’s warnings smack of the same sort of paternalism that tells women not to wear short skirts lest they attract a rapist. But think about it. Short skirts do not make you do stupid things that you wouldn’t do in a million years if you weren’t wearing them. Short skirts do not have a measurable negative impact on adolescent brain development. They don’t increase your risk of cancer or fatal hemorrhagic stroke. (This last risk applies to heavy drinkers of both genders, but the odds are five times higher for women). You can wear short skirts until the cows come home, and they are never ever going to kill you.

This isn’t to say that I’m on board with everything Yoffe says. Indeed, I was struck by one significant way that the women-in-short skirts analogy does hold up — and that is in Yoffe’s deference to male perceptions. There is a world of difference between saying: “Don’t get drunk because men will look at you and see a vulnerable woman,” as Yoffe repeatedly suggests, and “Don’t drink because it strips you of agency — the power to think and act on your own behalf.” The former positions us as objects, to adopt the language of proto-feminist Simone de Beauvoir; the latter positions us as subjects. The latter is, at heart, a feminist stance. And it is where I stand.

Not everyone will stand with me. There is a strand of feminist discourse that celebrates hard partying as a hallmark of liberation. A New York magazine piece describes a salon-style party a few years back where two editors “got so visibly s*#!faced and the conversation so disturbing that some critics referred to it as ‘The Night Feminism Died.’ (When asked why she didn’t prosecute her date-rapist, one of the young women, woozily clutching her can of beer, answered, ‘Because it was a load of trouble and I had better things to do, like drinking more.’)” And here we will have to agree to disagree. Simply put, I am hard pressed to cheer on women who opt to deploy their personal agency by abnegating it.

In the end, what most troubles me about the debate over Yoffe’s piece are efforts to forcibly cordon off the topic of women’s drinking, placing it off limits for discussion. “This is not about people in the grip of addiction, this is about women being targeted for sexual violence,” wrote one Facebook friend who works in violence prevention and took me to task for “derailing the conversation” by continuing to talk about alcohol.

In fact, it’s about both. Women — human beings — are intensely multi-disciplinary projects, with many things going on in us at once and all the time. Race, class, family history, genetics, and social context — these are just a few of the complex variables woven throughout our lives. This is one of the major challenges of social epidemiology, the field that studies the pathways by which social conditions affect human health. It is hugely complicated, if not impossible, to isolate causes.

Sexual violence is a women’s issue, and so is alcohol, and in their Venn diagram overlap sit the critical topics of women’s health and personal agency.

It also bears noting that, while binge drinking is increasingly an equal opportunity sport on college campuses, the risks of heavy drinking are especially great for women — not only because drinking increases vulnerability but also because of female physiology. Women’s higher rates of body fat means there is less water to dilute alcohol, and a lower level of a key metabolizing enzyme compounds the problem. A huge proportion of what we drink quickly enters our bloodstreams. “I was really worried about date rape at the party,” said Angie Ammons, whose 19-year-old daughter died of alcohol poisoning after a spring break party during her freshman year of college, making her one of an estimated 1,825 students between the ages of 18 and 24 who die each year from unintentional alcohol-related injuries. “Never did I think she would drink so much in a short time that it would cost her her life.”

“Alcohol is not a women’s issue.” This jaw-dropping claim came from none other than feminist icon Gloria Steinem at the 40th birthday party for Ms. magazine, speaking to writer Ann Dowsett Johnston, who quotes the exchange in her new book “Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol.” The fact that Steinem could say something so wildly off base — even as research and news reports (like this and this and this) continue to document the fast-growing trend of problem drinking among women — points to the enormous challenges that we face in building constructive alliances across disciplines and interests.

Sexual violence is a women’s issue, and so is alcohol, and in their Venn diagram overlap sit the critical topics of women’s health and personal agency. This isn’t an either/or. We need to talk about both. And we need to find ways to talk about them in the same (feminist) conversation.

Tags: Gender, Women's Health

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  • Allegra Jordan

    What a fabulous article. Thank you for your savvy take, and thank you for the courage to share your own hard-won wisdom through your own authentic story. I am sharing this with many people, including a tony girls’ school in my area.

    • AmyGutman

      Thanks so much Allegra! Really appreciate it.

  • J__o__h__n

    Of course women shouldn’t be raped and the rapists are 100% culpable, but one needs to take responsibility for not making oneself vulnerable to predators by getting extremely drunk.

    • Annette Arabasz

      Ideally, someday we’ll live in a world where a man or woman can leave a party completely sloshed, pass out on the lawn stark naked if they wanted to and NOT get assaulted.

      • Anne

        That’s a rather depressing view… Yes, it will be great when we get to that day– but the end result will be death by hypothermia and likely ruined professional reputation. So is that a win?

        • Dijobuu

          That day will not come. As long as there are wars and trauma in the world these ideas will not pass. What society can do is take steps to punish those who violate community standards.

      • Daniel

        I hope not. Problems arise from thinking one is too safe to take precautions. Ever hear of a ship call the Titanic?

        • gfloyd

          Problems arise from men raping women. You are blaming victims of crimes mostly committed by your gender. You should be ashamed of yourself.

    • Jan R.

      Gee, no one ever thought of this before.


      • J__o__h__n

        I didn’t claim it was original. I think it is rather obvious and should settle the debate.

        • Jan R.

          It’s rather obvious and thus need not be mentioned. But it is. Many times. See why we shake our heads?

          • J__o__h__n

            If it is obvious, why the constant discussion?

          • Jan R.

            Thanks. My point exactly.

          • Daniel

            Actually, I think Annette let us know whether comments like the original still need to be made.

  • PassinThru

    The advice for women (and men) not to walk alone in crime-ridden parts of town late at night is never construed as given muggers free license or blaming the victim. It’s just prudent not to put yourself in dangerous situations. Why should this be any different? There are bad people out there. The wise will take precautions to avoid situations where they’ll have to deal with them.

    • Jan R.

      So how many columns have you seen lately reminding grown men to avoid or man up in high-crime areas?

      • PassinThru

        I have read articles on being safe in a city that do just that (well, minus the questionable “man up” advice). I think the real issue comes down to numbers: which risky behavior is more prevalent? I suspect that the number of people walk alone late at night is high-crime areas is dwarfed by the number of college-aged people who drink to excess.

        But I also suspect that if you asked about the relative risk of each behavior, many people wouldn’t associate getting drunk with danger of assault. Offense at an article pointing out that danger seems misplaced.

        • Jan R.

          Really? Advice columnists give unsolicited advice to men about reducing their risks?

          • PassinThru

            Sure. I read a lot of health-related articles. Almost all of them give unsolicited advice specifically to men about reducing their risks. I choose whether I read the article, and whether I take the advice. I don’t recall ever responding to the author with outrage for suggesting there might be risks I was unaware of in my behavior.

          • Jan R.

            But slate is not a health-related venue.

          • PassinThru

            Slate reports on health and science, as do many other publications. But I acknowledge that the writer isn’t one of their usual health columnists. I don’t think that disqualifies her to write about an issue that’s important to her and her target audience

            The last line of the first paragraph of her article identifies that audience: young, inexperienced college girls. She’s focusing on a particular group, and a particular problem in that group. She hardly gives the predators she’s warning against a pass. She’s just saying the behavior described is risky.

      • fun bobby

        yes this does seem to neglect the fact that alcohol causes a lot of problems for young men as well

        • Dijoobuu

          A drunken male is just much as a fool as a drunken female.

          • gfloyd

            But sometimes he is a predator, which goes way beyond being just a fool.

          • Daniel

            …and sometimes a drunken female is a predator. They can both be either when sober, too.

      • Daniel

        There are articles about how to prevent yourself from crime regardless of gender. Men tend to already take it that their own protection is their issue, so there’s just not much discussion about it. This is equality taking down the female “privilege” of protection from others. Males aren’t the only ones who had “privileges” from gender roles.

    • gfloyd

      I think that it’s different b/c when women and girls are raped they are blamed in whole or in part for actions of another person who was the one who did the raping. People who are mugged are not blamed for the actions of them muggers, so the victims of rape should not be blamed for the actions of the rapists.

      • Daniel

        When men are believed about rape, they are not immune if they did something stupid that put them at risk. People who do stupid things that put them at risk of mugging, also receive some blame.

        The issue with rape is that sexual acts are often a good thing, while mugging is always a bad thing. Therefore, the honesty of the victim is more likely to be questioned. Men are questioned just as much if not more in this case, because society has trouble letting a man ever not want sex or fail to protect himself.

  • Tom Moore

    Some cultures prize drunkenness, some soberness. The sober ones tend to be the ones that win the Nobel prizes. Judaism is not anti-wine, nor anti-alcohol, but anti-drunk as the following song shows:

    Oy, shiker iz a goy, shiker iz a goy, shiker iz er, trinken muz er, vayl er iz a goy. Oy, nikhter iz a Yid, nikhter iz a Yid, nikhter iz er, davnen muz er, vayl er iz a Yid……

    • fun bobby

      Obama likes drinking

      • engineer

        I’m pretty sure half the reason Obama brews beer is because it is against Sharia law. And the other half is to position himself as “a guy you could have a beer with.”

      • gfloyd

        Obama is a Christian.

        • fun bobby

          what are you talking about?

    • Educator

      Last I checked not a lot of Muslims winning Nobel prizes.

  • Jan R.

    And I am baffled by you and others who claim we want it “off-limits for discussion.” Lazy, hypocritical and exploitive.

  • fun bobby

    wow 5 times as many killed in just that small age bracket than killed by rifles of all types yet there is no call to “doooo something”

    • Jeremy

      If in one weekend, every person in this age bracket went out and shot 6-20 bullets in a crowded bar, party, etc., do you think the “statistic” you just quoted would remain the same?

      • fun bobby

        why would they do that? that does not make any sense.

  • Green Tom

    I agree that both sexual violence and drinking at college are issues that need to be addressed. I am surprised that no one has mentioned the issue of college binge drinking leading to alcoholism later in life. An issue for both men and women.

  • engineer

    A bunch of my friends who generally all consider themselves feminists recently got into an argument about what to do as a bystander about people who go to a party with the intention of getting drunk and having sex with someone. The first part of this argument was between people (mostly men) who believed you should intervene and stop them and others (mostly women) who believed that would be a denial of their sexual agency.

    This article is makes a good point: If you get drunk, you chose to give up your agency, so bystanders should feel free to err on the side of policing your sexuality in the interest of keeping you from getting raped.

    • Daniel

      Actually, I think that would mean to let them crash and burn and learn from it, unless it is someone who placed trust in you and you in them while sober. Agency requires feedback from the environment, or it isn’t agency. They choose to get drunk in whatever environment, and be subject to its hazards. This is why I only get drunk around friends I know and trust. This is one thing I think many college students get wrong. The thing is knowing the environment in which one gets drunk and loses agency is a part of agency while sober.

      • gfloyd

        Why do you drink to excess?

  • Lindsey

    Why the hell isn’t anyone telling GUYS not to get drunk and assault women? #justsayin

    • Dijoobuu

      Your comment makes no sense. If a man has in mind of assaulting a woman, do you think they care about an article telling them not to? Their going to do it anyway. We need to treat evil as evil. There are evil people out there who only want and care for their self-gratifications. I haven’t heard too many stories of ‘decent’ men or women at bars. Mostly hot-heads and drunks fluzies and phoonies.

      The rapisit could care less about talks of gender-equality.

      • Lenoxus

        The same man can become a rapist or not based on the trajectory of his life, incentives, and social expectations; it’s not some in-built destiny.

        Our ancestors include slave-drivers, people who treated women as chattel, people who spat on the Little Rock Nine. They weren’t aberrations of pure evil, they were extensions of an evil culture. Would you argue that telling people not to be racist bigots is pointless because why would a racist listen to someone else?

        Yet, while racism is prevalent today, it was at one point a cornerstone of the entire American entertainment industry. Somehow, that changed. Likewise, we need a greater cultural shift away from the world where rape is still, at some level, perceived as just “they way things are”, or even as humourous (see for example: prison rape jokes).

        Your own comment, where rapists are just evil people and that’s all there is to it, reflects this problem in our culture, treating it as some inevitable thing like the rain, and hence all we can do is tell people to carry their umbrellas.

      • gfloyd

        Lindsey’s comment makes absolute sense. The problem is that often times the evil rapist is not always treated as such or not fully treated as such b/c the female victims are in some way blamed.

        What do you mean by self-gratifications? Rape is about control not gratifying one’s self unless you mean that the rapist somehow feels gratification is committing rape.

        You’re taking some kind of moral high road here, and it’s unfounded. Not all males are hotheads when they drink and not all women are “fluzies and phoonies” (whatever that is).

    • gfloyd

      EXCELLENT question!

    • Daniel

      You mean why the hell doesn’t include telling men not to get drunk and be more likely to be a victim of crime or taken advantage of? That would be analogous.

      The analogous situation to the one you describe would be telling women to not get drunk and assault others.

    • PatrickPatrick2

      “There is a world of difference between saying: ‘Don’t get drunk because men will look at you and see a vulnerable woman,’ as Yoffe repeatedly suggests, and ‘Don’t drink because it strips you of agency — the power to think and act on your own behalf.'”

      That is the most important sentence in this piece. Any question regarding the acceptability of binge drinking shouldn’t have a different answer depending on whether someone is male or female. To get drunk is to surrender personal agency, and therefore it is bad, regardless of your gender.

    • dozr

      This is why feminists are seen as idiots.

  • oliviaanddana

    The author claims that drinking is bad for women for two reasons: 1. it strips them of decision-making abilities and 2. it negatively affects their health. She says we need to address the intersection of these two items (by which she means WOMEN who “drink too much” need to stop doing so).

    This “stop because it’s bad for you” paternalistic attitude toward female behavior is so OLD and UNFEMINIST that I’m sorry I even have to address it.

    In case it wasn’t already clear: it’s illegal to have sex with a drunk person. Know why? Because they can’t consent. Boom. Done. Case closed.

    Instead of dressing up victim blaming with some half-cocked feminist argument, why don’t we talk about how some men in our society view a drunk female as prey?

    • gfloyd

      Why is it paternalistic attitude to advise women not to drink too much because it affects their “decision-making abilities and negatively affects their health”?

      • oliviaanddana

        With a title like “Why feminists don’t get drunk” she’s taking the power out of the hands of women *and men* who like to get drunk.

        She’s not just presenting well-established data on the subject of alcohol’s negative affects on women’s health (because women could find that on their own if they wanted); she presents her *opinion* on the intersection of alcohol and rape.

        Her entire argument reads like “I’ve told you why you shouldn’t do it, so if you do you only have yourself to blame when you’re raped”.

        Not to mention the author’s brutal insensitivity to a rape victim. Her use of an out-of-context comment made by a Jezebel editor exemplifies my point, that is, it’s hard to distinguish if the author is blaming the drink or the girl for her rape (and unsurprisingly we don’t hear a peep about the perpetrators).

        Again, it’s sad that it even needs to be said: victims of sexual violence all respond differently after an assault. The editor’s words sound, to me, like a cry for compassion and empathy. The author of this article failed as an advocate for women’s health by perpetuating the myth that women who don’t respond to their own victimization in an “accpeted” manner aren’t hurting. Shame on her.

        • Daniel

          Don’t drive with your eyes closed. You may find it fun and exhilarating, but you can hurt yourself and others. I won’t take away your licence or clear the road of others because you have agency and I trust you to pick wisely.

          It does sound paternalistic, and normally wouldn’t have to be said, except that people like you keep trying to say you shouldn’t have to deal with the consequences of a bad decision.

    • Daniel

      Actually, it’s getting right back to the original, forgotten role of feminism. Giving women agency. Stop asking men/society to change to fix your problems.

      The drunk thing is also not that simple, and you have to already know that. What if both people are a little bit drunk? What if both are a lot drunk, but still both capable of sex? What if one is a bit drunk, and already have a healthy sexual history? I’m pretty sure the “can’t consent when drunk/drugged” has more to do with when a person is more or less passed out.

      It’s funny to hear modern feminists cry misogyny when being treated the same as men. Makes you wonder about how society has treated men all along, doesn’t it?

      • KH

        “Stop asking men to change to fix your problems?” What? Forgive me for asking and expecting men not to rape. Rapists look for the easiest target. If no one is around who is drunk, they’ll look for someone not paying attention. If every woman is paying attention, they’ll look for the smallest or weakest woman. Is that her fault too? Should all women become body builders? Men rape opportunistically. They won’t stop because the easiest path is removed. They’ll just go to the next easiest path.

        • gfloyd

          Excellent post! The original poster does nothing, but blame the victim.

      • gfloyd

        How are men being treated like women – are men being raped by other men, too?

  • Ivy

    Amy- Thank you for writing this. It’s wonderful to see thoughtful writing about the gray areas where most of life actually happens. I think that to improve our society we need to focus on and talk about the things no one wants to acknowledge or talk about.

    • AmyGutman

      Thank you so much, Ivy! Sometimes that gray area is pretty freighted, but it’s also very rich terrain and where I tend to end up.

  • dijoobuu

    Unless someone likes being taken advantage of don’t drink to toxication in public places. If your drunk you cannot think, your brain is rendered to mush and are an easy target. Those who drink themselves to drunkenness are putting themselves at risk. Those who think by drinking and relying on the so called “chilvarly” of men or even now other woman have their heads in the clouds.

    This comes from a false sense of security. Realize that the world at times is not a happy and fun place. There are real dangers out there, and by excessively drinking they are indeed opening the doors to vulnerabilities, life-threatening, or even death situations. I do not understand those who drink themselves to such a stupor. It is like a neo-red sign of delight to the fly-wall who is watching, and waiting for morons as such to show up, especially that secluded lady that walked in or the lady with so-called friends who aren’t even paying attention or looking out for the other. These type of people do exist in the bars. What is not being discussed in colleges and should, be, is the type of DANGEROUS personalities that woman should look out for in a bar setting. Besides that, not the best of society go into bars.

    There has been as many shootings and killings done in bars in addition to rape. Pull your head out the clouds America. Honestly if we want to talk about the realism of rape, then also too talk about the FLY WALLS.

  • Ray D

    I think the Venn diagram statement is apt, and the fact that alcohol impacts subgroups differently is reason enough to call it a women’s issue, but our society has difficulty broaching addiction, or even acknowledging that problem drinking is a form of addiction.

  • Ramblin’ Rose

    Are we seriously debating anything that keeps a human being safe from harm? I think that it’s a good idea for everyone to keep their wits sharp (particularly when away from home) regardless of gender, and have raised my son to do the same. The data may not be in yet, but I’m thinking that quite a few victims of the ‘Sex Slave’ and ‘Organ harvesting’ industries will join our legions of Rape and Robbery victims (male and female) in recounting a common story that ties their victimization to some sort of chemical -ETOH included- that undermined or outright nullified their ability to think clearly and avoid the hell that came hard upon its’ ingestion, voluntary or otherwise. As a woman who travels extensively for a living I consider ‘keeping sharp’ an act of Self Care that assures me of a greater chance of doing-and being- my best, and returning intact from every trip with a sense of Fulfillment and accomplishment. This only strengthens my sense of Power and Autonomy as an ass-kicking role model for the next generation who happens to be a woman, this time around.

  • gfloyd

    Niether alcohol nor violence against women are women issues – they are societal issues. Acts of violence towards women and raping women because they are vulnerable because of alcohol is just as much a male issue as it is a female issue. Men/boys need to be accountable for abuse of women/girls. Victims are not at fault.

    • Daniel

      Stop acting like crime is a sex-based issue. That is unless you think men and women shouldn’t be treated equally. If that’s the case, I hope you are doing something about all of these quotas.

  • urbpan

    It seems anti-feminist to tell women they aren’t allowed to do something that men are allowed to do.

    • Daniel

      Men aren’t the ones complaining when their bad decision doesn’t work out well for them.

  • mserreze

    The advice has nothing to do with being a “feminist.” It’s just plain common sense to keep your wits about you while out at night. Good article, by the way.

    • Daniel

      It does relate to the original feminism. To get gender out of those aspects of society that don’t need to have it, so common sense for men and women can be mostly the same pool of knowledge. The title seems to be calling out modern feminists that can’t see that, so I kind of like it.

      • gfloyd

        Your post is non-sensical.

  • Austentatious

    The message of improving personal safety by not binge drinking is applicable for both genders, and focusing on rape and what *happens* to women in discussions about drinking makes this a controversial topic – not the message of personal safety.

    Not binge drinking is not going to stop rape, just like only walking through “good” parts of town doesn’t mean you won’t get mugged. While a good general practice, the advice of “don’t get drunk in case someone rapes you” seems like a very meager stop-gap “fix” that actually has harmful long-term consequences.

    While the advice seeks to help keep women safe now, it’s shifting of blame from perpetrator to victim doesn’t advance any conversations that actually hope to fix the greater rape culture for the future.

    • J__o__h__n

      You can never make anything 100% safe. Best to protect yourself. Taking steps to not becoming a victim is not saying that victims who didn’t should be blamed for the actions of the criminal. Predators choose easier targets.

  • Laura

    Thanks for this article – I think this is such an important topic. I was assaulted in college one night after drinking, and while I lay the blame on my attacker, I have always wondered whether I could have prevented it from happening if I had been sober and more able to get help. I think we can look at the use of alcohol as one more factor involved in keeping yourself safe (knowing where you are, going home with a friend, always having cab money, etc). That said, we need to be careful not to vilify women who do experience trouble after drinking. As it is, our society tends to blame and censure the woman in this situation, and that HAS to change.

  • Pam Rubin

    except that its not useful advice – the evidence on correlations between alcohol consumption and sexual victimization are positive for perpetrators’ use of disinhibiting alcohol not to victims where there is little or no association.

  • Sal D’Agostino

    They won’t see just a woman who’s vulnerable; they’ll see a woman who’s drunk and wants it. Why else would someone wear short skirts? To impress women?