by Hannah Groch-Begley at Media Matters
Wall Street Journal editor James Taranto claimed that cases of “‘sexual assault’ on campus” that involve alcohol are really victimless crimes in which both parties are equally guilty.
In his February 10 WSJ column, Taranto baselessly argued that men are often unfairly accused in sexual assault cases on college campuses, particularly when both men and women involved in the case were drinking (emphasis added):
What is called the problem of “sexual assault” on campus is in large part a problem of reckless alcohol consumption, by men and women alike.
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. His diminished capacity owing to alcohol is not a mitigating factor, but her diminished capacity is an aggravating factor for him.
As the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education notes, at some campuses the accuser’s having had one drink is sufficient to establish the defendant’s guilt … In theory that means, as FIRE notes, that “if both parties are intoxicated during sex, they are both technically guilty of sexually assaulting each other.” In practice it means that women, but not men, are absolved of responsibility by virtue of having consumed alcohol.
While it is true that reckless alcohol consumption can play a role in encouraging damaging behavior, and that male and female college students (particularly underage students) could probably benefit from learning to moderate their drinking for a variety of reasons, Taranto’s accusation that women who drink — and then are forced to have sex against their will — are not only equally at fault for their assault but are guilty of an equivalent crime takes victim blaming to a new and dangerous low.
Taranto’s victim-blaming approach furthers his attempts to disingenuously redefine the problem of sexual assault as a problem of alcohol. The problem of sexual assault on college campuses, as elsewhere, is entirely a problem of sexual assault, in which a victim does not consent to sexual relations with the aggressor. Studieshave shown that alcohol consumption doesn’t cause sexual assault, nor does it serve as a defense. According to a literature review from the National Institutes of Health:
The fact that alcohol consumption and sexual assault frequently co-occur does not demonstrate that alcohol causes sexual assault.
[M]en are legally and morally responsible for acts of sexual assault they commit, regardless of whether or not they were intoxicated or felt that the woman had led them on previously. The fact that a woman’s alcohol consumption may increase their likelihood of experiencing sexual assault does not make them responsible for the man’s behavior, although such information may empower women when used in prevention programs.
Other studies similarly found that some college men who acknowledge committing sexual assault — which included 25 percent of male students surveyed — may have used alcohol to “have an excuse for their behavior.” Other variables, like peer pressure, “may lead some men both to drink heavily and to commit sexual assault,” but the researchers found no evidence to place the blame solely on the presence of alcohol.
Moreover, just because both women and men are drinking in a particular situation does not necessarily place them on equal footing. As Ann Friedman has noted, “The biological reality is that women do not metabolize alcohol the same way as men do, and that means drink for drink women will get drunker faster.” The idea that women who get drunk and then are forced into nonconsensual sexual experiences are equally at fault in the situation misses the reality of assault, particularly as it involves physical force of some kind in a majority of cases.
If Taranto is concerned about the treatment of men in such cases, he could have written about male sexual assault victims, who are a smaller but nevertheless important portion of victims. But when men are sexually assaulted the perpetrator is usually also male; in fact, 98 percent of all perpetrators are male. The “double standard” Taranto is worried about, in which men are more often the accused, isn’t a double standard at all — it’s just reality.
The insistence that victims are equally responsible for their assault contributes to a dangerous stigmatizationwhich keeps many victims from reporting these crimes — particularly because victims who do report canbecome the targets of vicious attacks. Previously, Taranto’s victim-blaming has included insisting that efforts to address the growing problem of sexual assault are attacks on men and male sexuality.
But no matter how many times he uses the WSJ to blame victims and push sexist attacks, his concern that women take advantage of using alcohol to falsely accuse men of assault just doesn’t match the facts. According to the FBI, people falsely report sexual assault at the same low rate as other comparable crimes: only 3 percent of the time.