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Dear Prudence: A Response to Emily Yoffe

Emily Yoffe, dear Prudence, college women stop getting drunk

So maybe by now you’ve read about Emily Yoffe’s article in Slate, “College Women: Stop Getting Drunk”. The “Dear Prudence” advice columnist counsels college women to avoid being the victims of rape by staying sober. Her advice wants to sound like its warning against the perils of binge drinking; instead she’s just blaming women for being victims of rape. MsFit’s own Lynne Marie Wanamaker had this to say.

As a self-defense instructor, I feel obliged to respond to the blow-up on the blogosphere regarding Emily Yoffe’s (also known as Dear Prudence) article at Slate.com, “College Women: Stop Getting Drunk.”

As I’ve written elsewhere:

…there is a self-defense argument against getting falling down drunk. A big piece of self-defense is being the worst potential victim possible. I live in a world where one in six [current statistics are closer to one in five] women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime. Since that’s the world I have to move in, I don’t feel safe being sleepy, pukey, distracted and uncoordinated. I’d prefer to stay sober and be alert, strong, aware, and prepared.

Emily Yoffe, dear Prudence, college women stop getting drunk

This does not mean I’m on board with Yoffe’s formulation of the issue, however. When I teach self-defense from a feminist empowerment perspective, I reject the either/or formulation that she (and her critics) often fall into. Our choice is not to take personal action to reduce our risk of victimization OR to take action to hold perpetrators accountable. In fact, the central tenet of my teaching is a both/and proposition that I call the Self Defense Paradox. It goes like this: Interpersonal violence is always–without exception–the fault of the person who perpetrates it. There is nothing that anyone of us could do or be that makes us deserve to be assaulted. And: In a dangerous world, there are steps we can take to increase our own safety. In this paradigm, planning ahead for the possibility of violence against me is a sane, responsible, self-loving, evidence-based, risk-reducing action predicated by being female in a world where sexual violence–overwhelmingly perpetrated by men upon women–is epidemic.

Although she often seems to be saying that dealing with perpetrators is just too much trouble–harder and more complicated than women simply cutting back on the inebriation–Yoffe does attempt to speak to the both/and approach. “Of course, perpetrators should be caught and punished,” she writes, but it’s an essentially an aside to her litany of the dangers of binge drinking for women.

Herein lies my biggest problem with Yoffe’s presentation of the issue: sexual assault–unlike loss of bladder control, coordination, or judgment; nausea, organ damage, alcohol poisoning, addiction or even death–is not a natural consequence of alcohol ingestion. Sexual assault, no matter the circumstance, is distinguished by being a predatory act perpetrated by another individual.

Emily Yoffe, dear Prudence, college women stop getting drunkAs a self-defense instructor, I am all about risk reduction: in the context of a thorough revelation of where that risk is coming from. Allow me to throw a metaphor at you. Being pro-active in one’s personal self-defense–let’s say, choosing drink minimally or not at all at a college party–is not akin to building a storm cellar against the possibility of tornadoes. This is not a situation where one might reason, “Sometimes, by an act of god or meteorology, by no one’s fault, something terribly dangerous happens. I’m going to plan ahead and build myself an underground shelter.”

Self-defense is not a storm cellar–it’s a bomb shelter. Sure, it looks the same: You and I are still going down into a hole in the ground to get away from danger. But building a bomb shelter is necessarily accompanied by the articulate recognition that someone is actively trying to hurt you. Call me crazy, but this is the conversation that young women and the people who love them need to be having.

I’m going to change up the metaphor now. Let’s pretend that Vice President Joe Biden released a report that one in five college men was likely to have the crap beaten of him with a baseball bat during his time as an undergraduate. Let’s say the evidence indicated that the bat-wielding assailant would probably be an older male student who would attack during the victim’s freshman year, and the research led us to understand that the assault was most likely to happen when the intended victim was distracted and vulnerable, most likely during his morning shower.

Emily Yoffe, dear Prudence, college women stop getting drunkWould we be having a conversation about the risk of showering for undergraduate men? Would moms and dads be sitting down with their college-bound sons to recommend taking a buddy into the stall? Would we have iPhone apps designed to help a fellow call for backup from the bath? In short, would we spend a fraction of the column inches, bandwidth, radio waves, water cooler conversations, parental worry and general handwringing we currently devote to figuring out how to alter women’s behavior so they will be less likely victims to doing the same for our sudsy young men?

Or would we collectively holler, “What about the assholes with the baseball bats?”

Language matters. How we frame and talk about an issue directly affects how we imagine the solutions to it. As a self-defense instructor, I absolutely believe that women must practice risk-reduction. I’ve devoted the past twenty five years of my life to the proposition. The CDC says not only will one in five women be raped, but one in two will experience a sexual assault that falls outside the legalistic definition of rape. That’s half of us. The bombs are falling fast and furious. So sure, let’s caution young women to take decisive action on behalf of their own safety. Let’s do that in full revelation of the fact that they are being targeted for assault–not because of their drinking, but first and foremost because of their gender. Let’s ask ourselves why that fact goes down so easily for so many of us. Let’s not accept the convoluted syntax and confused causality that gives us sentences like this: “…when women lose the capacity to be responsible for their actions, sexual predators target them for attack.”

Let’s say it like this instead: On college campuses, male rapists assault female students at an astonishing rate. Let’s do everything in our power–individually and collectively–to shut the assholes down.

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About the author

Lynne Marie Wanamaker

Lynne Marie Wanamaker

The last kid picked in gym class, anti-violence expert and certified personal trainer Lynne Marie Wanamaker claimed her athletic destiny when she fell in with a scrappy bunch of feminist karatekas in Brooklyn in 1988. Since then she’s amassed a collection of martial arts black-belts, sweaty tee-shirts and political rants. She is committed to making fitness and personal safety skills accessible to everyone.

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