In a Wall Street Journal column published on Monday, conservative commentator James Taranto argued that a “balanced” approach to the college sexual assault crisis involves placing equal blame on rapists and their victims, if both of them were drinking alcohol. The fact that intoxicated rape victims aren’t held responsible for their assault is “self-evidently unjust,” according to Taranto.
“If two drunk drivers are in a collision, one doesn’t determine fault on the basis of demographic details such as each driver’s sex. But when two drunken college students ‘collide,’ the male one is almost always presumed to be at fault,” Taranto writes. He goes on to conclude that efforts to address sexual violence on college campuses are creating a culture in which “women, but not men, are absolved of responsibility by virtue of having consumed alcohol.”
Taranto has a long history of approaching sexual assault from this perspective. The Wall Street Journal columnist has previously argued that combating sexual assault in the military amounts to an “an effort to criminalize male sexuality” and a “war on men.” In his most recent column, he reprises his concerns that men are often falsely accused of misconduct by women who have not actually been raped.
This attitude toward rape victims has implications that extend far beyond Taranto himself. The pervasive notion that it’s women’s responsibility to avoid rape — and that they can effectively avoid becoming victimized if they dress differently, or drink less alcohol — has a huge impact on the way that survivors are treated if they decide to come forward about a sexual assault. Rather than receiving compassion and support, rape victims are typically greeted with suspicion and shame. They’re either told that the crime was their own fault because they should have been smarter, or they’re assumed to be lying.
Arguments like Taranto’s aren’t unusual, partly because they continue to be espoused by people with access to media platforms. But they ultimately betray an ignorance about the reality of sexual assault.
Rape isn’t a mistake that college students accidentally make because they’re too drunk; in fact, research into college rapists reveals that sexual assault is premeditated and victims are carefully chosen. Alcohol is a tool that rapists often use, but it’s simply one tool among many. And although “men’s rights” supporters like Taranto argue that it’s too easy for women to lie about being raped in order to ruin a man’s life, false reports are actually incredibly rare — generous estimates put the rate around 2.2 percent — and the criminal justice system isn’t exactly quick to prosecute these type of sexual crimes in the first place.
Nonetheless, the conversation about rape prevention on college campuses tends to get stuck on the issue of alcohol rather than the issue of consent. In another column published on Monday, Slate contributor Emily Yoffe bemoaned the fact that President Obama’s recent announcement about a new task force to combat campus sexual assault didn’t include “some remarks about the dangers to both sexes of getting blind drunk.”