Drinking and Sexual Assault: The Third Rail of Health Education

(Editor: Today’s post is from Points contributing editor Michelle McClellan.)

It’s back-to-school time, and that means talking to college students about the dangers of binge drinking and the risks of sexual assault. And while parents, health care providers and social science researchers might think those topics go together, health education experts and university administrators call the combination a “third rail” of discourse, to be avoided at all costs. According to a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, many universities rely on Department of Justice funding for sexual-assault prevention. But that grant program considers alcohol and substance use “out of scope.” This split might seem like a straightforward bureaucratic division, perhaps to avoid duplication or redundancy. But historians know that such patterns do not come out of nowhere—this disjuncture has a history, and it is a complicated one for feminists.

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During the temperance era of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many Americans argued that alcohol had the potential to unleash men’s aggression toward women, including what we now call intimate partner violence and sexual assault. Indeed, this danger motivated many women to join the temperance crusade, while women’s avoidance of alcohol simultaneously demonstrated their sexual purity. On the other hand, any woman who visited saloons could be dismissed as a prostitute or at least a “charity girl,” one who willingly traded sexual favors for the pleasures of commercial recreation. While some commentators criticized this latter group harshly, social workers and other reformers emphasized a “seduction” narrative in which naïve and powerless young women were too often exploited and abused by unsavory men.

TemperancePropaganda (Temperance propaganda from the late 19th century depicts “brutal violence” as a consequence of “too frequent use of the bottle”)



Of course, ideas about female sexuality as well as drinking customs changed substantially during the twentieth century. In understanding how these transformations set the stage for the current “third rail” problem, Laura Schmidt and Constance Weisner offer a useful model of “dry” and “wet” feminism. “Dry” feminists focus on health, risk, and moderation. In contrast, “wet” feminists see women’s access to alcohol, drugs and other forms of public recreation and pleasure as progressive and emancipatory. “Wet” feminism informs current claims that young women have the “right” to match men drink for drink, and that any hint that they should curtail their drinking lest they become vulnerable is discriminatory, sexist, and blames the victim when violence does occur.

While Schmidt and Weisner are addressing the last third of the twentieth century, the concept can also be applied, I think, to temperance advocates of the nineteenth century as well as the social workers of the Progressive Era.   It’s also worth noting that those earlier activists had no qualms about asserting fundamental differences between women and men.

I would not wish to go back to the older seduction narrative, which treated women as either totally ignorant and weak, or as wily and corrupt. There are good reasons to be cautious about prevention strategies that might seem to censure women—or any victims of violence—as if their actions caused the attack. And in the case of sexual assault in particular, there is a long history of blaming women for what they wore, where they walked, what they said, or what they consumed, rather than focusing on the aggressor. Fear has constrained women’s behavior for far too long, and it continues to do so today in too many settings.

Yet that older narrative acknowledged issues of power and the body in ways that could still be useful. Temperance rhetoric depicted drunken men assaulting sober women. Today, men who attack women on campus may or may not be intoxicated themselves (and men’s drinking deserves more explicit analysis rather than acceptance as a given against which women’s consumption is measured), but the chance that the woman has been drinking is much higher than it was in previous eras. In one chilling phrase, researchers argue that young men have learned to “weaponize” alcohol, deploying the substance itself rather than overt violence in sexually assaulting women. This term does not mean slipping drugs into women’s drinks; although that does happen, it is less common than we might think, according to researchers. Instead, predatory young men can simply capitalize on the drinking culture on many campuses, which already incapacitates too many young women.

In these circumstances, it is worth remembering that alcohol is not just a symbol, whether of liberation or anything else. It is also a drug that affects the body and alters the mind. The failure to acknowledge that—and worse, the current prohibition against even talking about it in the context of preventing sexual violence—is troubling. We seem unable to come up with a vocabulary that recognizes the particular risks that women face in an alcohol-saturated context without attributing blame. It is also difficult to address the risks of intoxication without triggering a full-fledged addiction discourse—and that may be an unintended consequence of the extent to which alcoholism has been medicalized.

It can be instructive to compare this debate with the issue of drinking during pregnancy. Today, warning labels, social sanction, and even the plots of television shows and movies all communicate that any drinking during pregnancy poses an unacceptable risk to the fetus. This absolutist stance, while likely overstating scientific and clinical findings, has a certain logic and is easy to understand: just say no. As a public health strategy, abstinence during pregnancy is also about changing women’s behavior to prevent harm from happening to innocent others—their children. It is disturbing that we find it so difficult to confront alcohol-related risks to women themselves when it comes to sexual assault.


Recent articles in the popular media, along with lengthy and heated comment sections, suggest that these issues are far from settled. Disputes about women’s alcohol use and sexual behavior have been ongoing for decades and will no doubt continue. Perhaps there is need of a “damp” feminism that encourages women’s pleasure but can accommodate notions of risk and vulnerability in gender-specific terms. These debates are emblematic of the continuing challenges that feminists face—if we acknowledge that men and women are not identical, how do we get to equality?

4 thoughts on “Drinking and Sexual Assault: The Third Rail of Health Education”

  1. Great post. I especially appreciated your point about the potential for “damp feminism” — that there is a gray area between women’s pleasure in using alcohol and a personal and cultural understanding of risks. Too often, when psychoactive substances are involved, they become the focus of the story. And if alcohol is “weaponized” (wow, what a term), then that may be one relevant aspect of addressing campus assaults. But truly it’s the assault behavior and the context that allows for such behavior that is at issue. I’d love to know if you do more with this; will use it in a class I teach this spring.

    • I want to chime in with Ingrid about this: I loved this post and the idea of damp feminism in all it’s many implied meanings. It is wise to keep feminism’s historical involvement with issues involving alcohol since, in many cases, alcohol functions at least in part as a proxy for men abusing women.

      I must confess, however, that this current “discovery” of the existence of rape on college campuses makes me want to pitch a fit. Yet again, there is all this talk about variables such as substances, brain chemistry, party culture, #not all men, men can be raped too, etc etc etc, but I wonder why we cannot have an honest conversation about the most significant variable of all: the insidious nature of sexism and misogyny. That’s the damp towel I’d like to throw on a lot of this: we still live in a culture where it is socially acceptable for men to injure women.

      On another note, I’m reminded of Marsha Rosembaum’s excellent work on the “career” of the female drug addict. She found that it was an inversion of the male drug addict’s career in that the woman gained a sort of agency over her body and a sort of outlaw identity, but that as her addiction progressed, she lost more due to the nature of sexual inequality.

      The thought this all leads me to: maybe feminism’s role in discourse about drug use is to act as a model for what it looks like when people try to tell the truth about “unspeakable truths,” try to form coalitions across difference, and get stuck explaining the same basic stuff over and over. I think the ways that feminism has evolved might help guide those of us who think about drug use and addiction along paths we don’t always have to invent on our own.

      • Wow, thanks for all this. Lots to think about, which I will try to articulate in a future post. For now though — I completely agree on your points about misogyny and violence as a kind of bedrock level that we too often just take as a given. The recent NFL cases illuminate that as well, I think.
        As for the role of feminism here, it’s something I have been grappling with for quite a while and I couldn’t agree more on the need to make vocabulary and concepts clearer…? more widely disseminated…? Something, so that we don’t, as you say, get stuck having to explain the same things over and over and invent new paths on our own, but instead build a cumulative conversation that can move us forward both rhetorically and in terms of policy etc. Thanks!

  2. Reblogged this on DailyHistory.org and commented:
    The Points blog has a post from Michelle McClellan on the historic link between on campus sexual assault and substance abuse. McClellan’s post hits a number of different issues and it is well worth reading.

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