When I was a senior in high school I had a sex-ed class taught by a priest. There are so many possible jokes in response to this and so much room to express bewilderment that I'm just going to forgo all of it and let you ponder the implications for yourself. Suffice it to say, the seemingly counterintuitive idea of letting a guy who'd sworn off sex teach a class on sex was, in fact, very intuitive and very much by design: the goal wasn't to teach us about sex but rather to preach to us the need to grab tightly onto the garden hoses wildly spurting hormones through our bodies and kink those suckers right up, lest our souls be damned for all eternity. It was a fool's errand, of course, but really so is most of Catholicism.
One day our priest/sex advisor and the class were having a freeform discussion on the subject of making free condoms available for teenagers in public schools. It was the mid-80s and therefore the height of the AIDS crisis and it seemed to me to make perfect sense to do whatever was necessary to keep people safe, especially those groups inclined to experiment with sex. Like teenagers. The priest was having none of this kind of thinking and quickly made it clear that, in keeping with the usual Vatican strictures, teenagers should at no point need condoms for the simple reason that teenagers should at no point be having sex -- the church said so. In his view, handing out condoms was an admission of defeat in the war for abstinence and a tacit endorsement of his charges' libidinous urges. I thought this was crap.
I argued the obvious with him: that no matter how much you tried to teach them to do otherwise, some kids were always going to have sex. You may get through to a few, but you'd never get through to all of them, and it was therefore important to not just hope for the best, but to make sure the ones who ignored all the lessons were kept safe and wouldn't wind up in a position to hurt somebody else later. Basic logic. A simple acceptance of the reality of the situation and a concession in the name of the greater good, put in teenage terms. All of these points, of course, made by me and others in the class, bounced off the adamantium hull of his absolute adherence to his faith, in all its irrational glory. After several minutes of this, I finally hit upon an analogy that might help it all make sense for him. I asked him to run down the various item on his personal keyring, which was sitting on top of his desk. After counting off a couple of keys, he got around to the one thing I'd been waiting for: the remote for a car alarm. As soon as he rattled this off, I asked, "Why do you have a car alarm? People shouldn't steal cars." Point made.
Last Tuesday, writer Emily Yoffe published an opinion column over at Slate with the admittedly designed-to-troll headline "College Women: Stop Getting Drunk." The piece was pegged partially off of the recent story out of Maryville, Missouri in which a teenage girl -- in this case nowhere near college age -- was given something she thought was alcohol at a party and wound up allegedly being raped and discarded in the cold by a couple of truly monstrous local boys. Much to her credit, now 16-year-old Daisy Coleman has fought back valiantly not only against her attackers but against the entire culture that spawned them and allowed them to initially get away with it. But of course her story isn't the only one. Every year, every month, every night there are new stories of young women being sexually assaulted, often under circumstances similar to Coleman's, and Yoffe's point wasn't to absolve the attackers or mitigate their behavior by saying that voluntarily intoxicated victims played a role in their own rape, but merely to suggest that there's nothing wrong with warning women that there are sexual predators out there and that by drinking to excess in situations where those predators might be a direct threat, they're incapacitating themselves and making it easier to become victims.
It wasn't a legal question Yoffe was debating, since a rapist is always, without question, unequivocally to blame for his crime -- full stop. She also wasn't saying that educating women about the dangers they may sometimes face should take the place of educating men to, you know, stop raping women, which should of course always be the primary focus within our culture. She was simply saying that there's a grim reality in our society that must be acknowledged and that it's ludicrous to pretend that it doesn't exist and that women should take no preventative action to guard against it. It's common knowledge that columnists often don't write their own headlines, and so it's no surprise that the declarative statement topping Yoffe's piece was a little draconian and way off base: she wasn't saying young women should stop drinking altogether, only that binge drinking in certain environments is commonly associated with sexual assault. It's completely unfair, to be sure, but that, unfortunately, is the reality.
I probably don't have to tell you that in the week since Yoffe's piece was published, she's been raked over the coals by some of the heaviest hitters within the feminist media. Salon, of course, published not one but two separate columns accusing her of making tired arguments in which he blames the victim and essentially offers apologias for rapists. Jezebel posted a direct response called "How To Write About Rape Prevention Without Sounding Like An Asshole" -- some of which was very good, some of which, like suggesting that columns on preventing yourself from becoming a victim of rape shouldn't be written at all, was just mind-bogglingly off-base -- and Feministing called it a "rape-denialism manifesto."
Certainly, as someone who writes a column called "Dear Prudence," Emily Yoffe may have her work cut out for her when it comes to being taken seriously as someone trying to have a conversation rather than just trying to scold or otherwise lecture women. Many of the articles piling onto her make mention of the fact that she doesn't put enough emphasis on stopping rapists from raping (which is true, but that wasn't really what the piece was about and it shouldn't be necessary to have to cover every single base in one piece or, worse, to speak the right shibboleths to ensure that you're not misinterpreted as someone who somehow condones rape). Yoffe's critics also seem to be saying that any deflection of blame contributes to "rape culture," the kind of thing that not only perpetuates the faulty notion that the act of rape is no big deal but also leads asshole men to keep saying stupid shit like, "I'm not saying she deserved to be raped, but..." and not think they deserve to be punched in the mouth for it.
But while Emily Yoffe may not be the best messenger, and I have no doubt some would say that I'm not either, the basic message isn't necessarily a bad one. At no point did Yoffe say that women should be the ones to bear the sole burden of having to change their behavior in order to stop rape from happening. She only said that if you know there are threats, putting yourself in a truly vulnerable position probably isn't a good idea; that while it's never a woman's fault if she's raped, there are steps she can take in certain situations -- not all of course, since rape is by no means relegated to bars, parties, and frat houses -- that can help to keep her safe. Suggesting that women, or anyone else, alter their behavior at times isn't the least bit controversial. Our lives are one big exercise in adjusting our behavior to keep us safe from the things we can't control. We wear seat belts. We lock our cars. We avoid walking in isolated areas late at night. If we're the victims of crime, it's never our fault, but that doesn't mean we can't take action to help prevent it from ever happening. Despite education, positive influence, even the threat of law enforcement, there will still always be people who don't listen and who do horrible things. If you're prone to doing something which, at a certain place in a certain time, puts you in a position where you can't defend against those people, it shouldn't make someone a pariah for maybe saying you should do otherwise.
Late last week Emily Yoffe published a follow-up to her original piece only this one was aimed squarely at her critics. She admitted that, in her view, she maybe should've hit a little harder on the subject of educating men that sexual contact without a woman's approval is never okay. But she also dug in her heels and stuck to her original assertion: that responsible drinking, being aware of your environment and not leaving yourself in a position where you can't fight back if you need to, knowing that a certain kind of predator exists -- one who preys on inebriated women -- all of it can help to keep you safe. She's right, whether you love her personality, her past work, or the general tone of her writing or hate it. We can and should shout from every direction that it's a man's responsibility to know that rape is wrong, no matter the situation, no matter the time and place, no matter the person or her condition. There's nothing wrong, though, with making it clear to women that unfortunately not everyone will listen to those shouts so it's good to take action to keep yourself safe. It's somewhat unfair, yes, but so is any kind of behavior adjusted for the things in life we can't completely control.
Arguing from the point-of-view of what should be is noble, but not at the expense of acknowledging current reality. It's good to fight for the world as it's supposed to be, but until then you have to prepare for the world as it is.