Everybody knows that it’s not ok to talk about what a person was wearing when they were sexually assaulted, because that, my friends, is victim blaming. But, how do we talk about what a person was drinking?

A while back, I saw several comments on the blog in a row that lamented a survivor’s experience of harm, expressed beautiful words of support and then added something like, “This is why we have to get alcohol off of our college campuses! We wouldn’t be seeing so many people hurt by sexual violence if our young people weren’t drinking.”

I read those comments, crinkled up my nose, registered the tension I felt building in my body as I stared at the screen, and then went about my business. But, they stayed with me and prompted me to think about the role of alcohol in my own experiences of sexualized violence. Spoiler alert: it’s complicated.

IU Little 5 partyI went to Indiana University, a state school 40,000 strong whose student body is mightily proud of its party school reputation. Every spring, for the notorious Little 500 bike race, students throw a weeklong festival during which kegs are set up on lawns and the police literally walk through a sea of thousands of drunk students without checking a single ID, because the jails aren’t big enough to hold the number of minors drinking in public, and the police are, rightfully, more concerned about making sure that no one gets hurt. All of that is to say that I know what it means to be a part of a culture saturated by alcohol.

I also decided that while I was happy to go to parties, dance and have a good time with my friends, I wasn’t going to drink until I was 21. I didn’t want the stress of worrying that I’d get caught, and I was also terrified of the idea of not being fully in control of my mind and body. Alcohol did not sound fun. It sounded dangerous in pretty much the same way that those who left the above comments believe that it is. And so, I danced my little heart away, completely sober, which should mean that I was also completely in control of myself, right?

Ha! No.

One Friday night, like so many others, I tagged along with friends to a house party. We were there, talking and dancing, for about a half hour when some random dude grabbed my hand and led me away. I remember looking at my feet and wondering why I couldn’t make them halt. I did not want to be going with this man to wherever it was he was taking me. I wanted to go back to my friends. I remember looking at my hand and feeling like it was betraying me, because what I was thinking, “yank yourself out of his grip!,” was not translating into the slightest movement in my actual hand. He stopped at the back of the crowd and Hollywood-movie-style pushed me up against the wall and started kissing me aggressively. A broken record played across my mind: “I can’t move. Why can’t I move? I can’t move. Why can’t I move?”

Then, words from heaven: “HEY! GET AWAY FROM HER! NOW!”

My best friend, who knew – thank goodness – that there was no world in which I would have chosen or wanted to make out with this stranger, noticed that I was gone, found me, and then physically pried this guy off of me and ushered me toward the door.

“Why didn’t you tell him to stop?” she asked me.

“I don’t know,” I said, still pretty shaken. “I couldn’t.”

We got into the car and I drove us home. I was, after all, the sober one.

Another time, I went to a good friend’s house to celebrate his birthday. I knew everyone who was there. We were all close, but one friend had let me know the week before that he had feelings for me. I had politely let this friend know that I didn’t return his feelings and wasn’t interested in a romantic or sexual relationship. A couple hours after arriving, this guy motioned for me to follow him to another room in the apartment. At this point, I thought we were still good friends, so I did. He led me into a room and shut the door. He pushed me toward the bed and informed me that we were going to “have sex now.”  He told me that he “knew I wanted it,” that it didn’t concern him that I had a boyfriend who was 15 feet away in the next room over, and that he didn’t care that I had already told him I wasn’t interested. “This is happening,” he said with a self-satisfied, and entirely sober, grin.

And, what did I say?

Nothing. I said nothing.

I looked at the door and imagined myself opening it and walking back to the rest of my friends. It was unlocked. He was a little bigger than me but not much. I would have had a good chance if I struggled. I could certainly have yelled. But I said nothing, and I did nothing. I was your classic deer staring wide-eyed and frozen into headlights approaching fast and with deadly force.  He had my arm in his grip and started to get aggressive.

Because of the previous incident, both the friend who came to my defense the first time and the guy I was dating thought it suspicious that I had disappeared, and they got worried. Just as my almost-rapist started trying to remove my clothes, they opened the unlocked door, realized what was happening and raised hell. They pulled him away and rallied the rest of our friends to help throw him out of the apartment. About 2 minutes after he was gone, I got a text:

“GET READY. I WILL FUCK YOU WHETHER YOU LIKE IT OR NOT.”

I looked at the group of people who helped to protect me. Many had been drinking and/or smoking all night, and I was completely sober. Reading my (sober!) almost-rapist’s threat again, I thought, “Yeah, if you can figure out how to get to me when my friends aren’t around, you probably will.”

Both of these experiences qualify as sexualized violence in themselves, and they are also experiences in which the escalation of violence was stopped short of its potential. That’s not the way it has always happened in my life. Rape, sexual and verbal abuse are each a part of my story. Some of those experiences involved alcohol and others didn’t.

I will not challenge for a second the idea that alcohol is used by perpetrators of abuse and assault as one tool among many for accomplishing and getting away with heinous violence. Without a doubt, it is. But, I get twitchy when alcohol is believed to be the source of such violence, as if eliminating alcohol from the equation would eliminate the problem entirely.

First, it’s a slippery slope from believing that alcohol is the reason for sexualized violence to blaming victims for being raped because they were inebriated when it happened. We’re back to the short skirt thing. “Look at what she was wearing! She was tempting fate!” “Did you hear how much she drank? What did she think was going to happen?!”

Get my drift?

And one need not make such an explicitly victim-blamey statement to communicate the same message. Any time we insinuate to a survivor of sexualized violence that her harm could have been prevented if she had just stayed away from alcohol, we send the message that it was a decision she made that brought on her harm, rather than the decision the perpetrator made to hurt her.

Seeing alcohol as the source of sexualized violence suggests that there is no inclination in a perpetrator himself toward violence and that such a person poses no threat when sober. It would be nice if this were true, but as my second snippet shows, it’s not. And, persisting in the belief that a rapist wouldn’t have done it if s/he were sober lets both the perpetrator and their community of accountability off the hook, because if we believe the problem is in the drink and not the person we free ourselves from the need to do the hard work of seeing and addressing the person.

Believing that sexualized violence will be cleared up when people stop drinking assumes also that being sober is the same thing as having the resources and ability to assert and protect one’s psychological and physical boundaries at all times. Not so. In the two snippets of my experience that I shared here, it was inebriated people who proved able to recognize and intervene in situations of sexualized violence and a sober person – me – who wasn’t. My frozen reaction to circumstances of danger doesn’t mean that there was something wrong with me or that I was weak. It is representative of the fact that human beings are not automatically equipped with the knowledge and ability needed to best protect ourselves when threatened by serious and imminent danger. Think of the deer.

deer

In a culture where femininity is defined by sexual availability and girls grow up learning that their worth is tied to the degree to which they submit to the sexual whims of boys and men, the skills (practical and psychological) of self-love, advocacy, and protection must be explicitly taught.

In my case, as I’ve learned in the years since, my former tendency to freeze when threatened with a sexual advance I didn’t want was probably formed when I was a little kid. A child who is abused by an adult won’t gain anything for themselves by trying to run away or fight back. The adult always wins. Freezing and waiting for it to be over can be a child’s safest option. And, it’s a pretty common thing for adult survivors of childhood abuse to unconsciously revert to childhood coping mechanisms for similarly traumatic circumstances that present themselves in adulthood.

During my young adult years, when childhood trauma that I was yet unaware of crippled my capacity to protect myself from people who wanted to hurt me, it wasn’t alcohol that made the difference. It was people who cared about me and were paying attention. It was the presence of people who were willing to see sexualized violence for what it is, own the reality that it happens all the time in every community, and take responsibility for doing what one reasonably can to prevent it, that successfully stopped perpetrators of that violence in their tracks.

Alcohol is not the problem.

There are both delightful and problematic ways to drink.

People are the problem.

The decision a person makes to act out violently and the whole complex variety of variables that leads to that decision are the problem.

Swearing off alcohol is not the solution.

Sober people get raped by other sober people.

People are the solution.

Those who are committed to being the solution are the solution.

To my friends who were the solution in my life more than a couple times, you know who you are.

Thank you.