By now, the narrative is so familiar as to be trite. She goes to a party. There’s plenty of free alcohol. She’s wearing a miniskirt. She gets drunk. He takes her up to his dorm room. She passes out; he rapes her. Or maybe she doesn’t even pass out; she’s just too drunk to consent, too drunk to say no, too scared to do anything but what he wants.
So she becomes the latest member of our family of survivors, the next rape victim. And when she does the so-called walk of shame home in the morning, when she rationalizes it to herself, when she tells her friends or even if she has the courage to tell campus authorities, the chorus will come: you were drunk. He was drunk. Alcohol is at fault here, not him.
But alcohol doesn’t cause sexual assault. Every drink is taken in a cultural milieu of toxic masculinity: the idea of male entitlement, that men are inherently better than women and can therefore take what they want when they want it, that women are toys that exist for their pleasure: think about everything Donald Trump says about women, from pussy-grabbing to calling them pieces of ass, and you’ve got the gist of it.
The well-known data-crunching site FiveThirtyEight.com says young men may get drunk before they commit rape, but they rape in a cultural context that tells them rape is something they’re entitled to. In other words, it’s not the alcohol, it’s the culture of toxic masculinity that has a “stronger causal connection” to sexual assault.
It’s important to note that half of all sexual assaults involve alcohol, according to the National Institute of Health. This is probably a low-ball number, since rape is one of the most underreported crimes (especially since literature focuses, as FiveThirtyeight points out, on heterosexual, male perpetrator rape), and a victim who’s consumed alcohol may internalize the assault as somehow their fault.
But what’s important to realize is this: while half of all rapes involve alcohol consumption, that still leaves about an equal number of them that don’t. So simple math tells us there’s something else out there driving sexual assaults in our country. That something is toxic masculinity.
Take studies that analyze the characteristics of men who have committed sexual assault. FiveThirtyEight reports that yes, 53% of them meet the diagnostic criteria for alcoholism, compared with only 25% of sexually active men who don’t assault women. However, anti-social behavior and strong negative attitudes about women — in other words, hallmarks of toxic masculinity — were much stronger predictors of sexual assault.
“You just sort of put alcohol on top of it,” said one researcher, which lowers inhibitions.
One study, which followed 700 men through four years of college, found that men who had increasing rates of sexual assault had a correlating “growing sense of peer support for forced sex, peer pressure, pornography use, and hostility toward women.” In other words, the closer they got to waving incel flags, the closer they came around to the idea that the stew of toxic masculinity surrounding them was not only okay, but socially acceptable.
So if personality traits — how we think, not how we drink — are the cause of sexual assaults, how do we stop them?
One thing researchers are focusing on is bystander intervention, which The New York Times describes succinctly: “If a drunk young man at a party is pawing a drunk young woman, then someone nearby (the bystander) needs to step in (intervene) and get one of them out of there.”
Any mood-killer is fair game, says Jane Stapleton, who runs bystander intervention programs at colleges across the country and in Europe. Spill a drink on them. Turn on the lights. Start a conga line. Loudly tell the girl, “Here’s the tampon you asked for.” Drag the guy onto the dance floor. Anything to get them away from him.
After several warnings, I once punched a guy in the face, which got him hauled out of the bar for harassing girls. While I don’t advocate resorting to violence, I’m not a pacifist either. That punch got the job done — and may have saved someone from sexual assault.
And bystander intervention is working. The New York Times reports that at the end of a bystander intervention training at the University of New Hampshire, 38% of participants reported intervening in a sexual assault, while only 12% of those who hadn’t taken the training reportedly did so. Just as promising, only 1.5% of those trained committed a sexual assault, while 6.7% of the control group admitted to one. Other studies found that men who underwent bystander intervention training had a 73% less chance of committing sexual assault.
But alcohol, studies suggests, may impair people’s ability to intervene. So we’re back to the alcohol-messes-everything-up scenario. But within that stew of toxic masculinity, everything collapses. Bystander intervention helps, but it doesn’t eradicate it. The only thing that will is to teach our sons to rise above: to empower them to resist the culture of toxic masculinity by being strong men, strong boys, with a strong moral compass and a respect for women and their power and autonomy. We can do that by being examples of strong women ourselves, by emphasizing bodily integrity and consent, and by combatting the stew of toxicity that seeps into our households.
Parents, we’ve only got so many years before our babies grow up to be college boys. We can’t save them when they’re alone in a dark room with a fifth of rum and a passed out girl. But we can give them the moral fiber, the backbone, and the strength to make the right decision. We can instill a bystander intervention strategy in our boys right now. It’s our job as parents.
We need to be there, not only for our sons, but for the women they encounter later in life. Because if we leave it up to the culture, they’ll only absorb its messages of toxic masculinity, from bra-snapping to cat-calling to shooting hookers in whatever iteration of Grand Theft Auto exists today. Our beloved boys will grow up to be the Brock Turners and Brett Kavanaghs of the world.
It’s up to us to stop it.
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