Earlier this month, social media’s perpetual-outrage machine went into overdrive when the Miss USA pageant winner, Nevada’s Nia Sanchez, suggested that one answer to the problem of sexual assault on college campuses was for women to “learn to protect themselves.” A flurry of Twitter posts lambasted Sanchez, a black belt in Tae Kwon Do, for promoting “victim-blaming” and “rape culture.” Journalist Emily Yoffe encountered a similar backlash last year when she wrote that teaching young women (and men) to avoid excessive drinking should be part of preventing campus sexual assault. Indeed, the very fact that women are given rape-prevention advice is often cited as proof that our culture condones sexual violence: Otherwise, we would apparently “teach men not to rape.”
But this logic seems almost entirely at odds with how the real world operates with regard to all sorts of criminal acts. No one would ever suggest that companies selling home alarms are promoting a “burglary culture” or that public transit crime prevention tips urging vigilance against pickpockets promote a “theft culture.” No one would argue that, instead, we really should be teaching potential criminals not to pick pockets or break into homes. Nor would anyone claim that we are condoning pedophilia by educating kids about inappropriate touching instead of teaching people not to molest children. In most areas of life, urging caution among people who are at risk of being victimized is simply a matter of common sense.
Yet when it comes to stopping sexual assault on college campuses, such advice is the subject of heated controversy. This emotionally charged dispute has taken on new urgency as allegations of sex crimes on campus gain more visibility, and as both the Obama administration and Congress have stepped up pressure on schools to respond to the problem more aggressively.
Just four decades ago, “loose” women were often seen as undeserving victims, and vestiges of such beliefs may linger today. Citing those cultural attitudes, many women’s groups argue that anti-rape efforts should focus only on educating men. Still, the overwhelming majority of men need no teaching that rape is a repugnant crime. Yet some men still commit it — just as people steal, rob, and even kill despite strong legal and social prohibitions.
Research by Boston-area clinical psychologist David Lisak finds that a tiny minority of young men — about 4 percent — are serial predators who knowingly coerce unwilling women into sex, usually by taking advantage of their intoxication. These men are also very likely to commit other offenses, from battery to child sexual abuse. The message “don’t rape” is likely to be lost on them. (While violent offenders can sometimes be reformed through learning empathy, this process not only requires intensive intervention but has a fairly modest success rate.)
Much has been made of claims that a Canadian poster campaign reminding men that an unconscious woman cannot consent led to a 10 percent drop in reported sexual assaults. But correlation does not prove causation. In crime surveys in the United States, the rate of sexual assaults dropped by more than 50 percent from 1999 to 2005 with no targeted educational campaigns.
Today’s campus sexual assault prevention programs built around teaching men not to rape focus on telling male students to make extra-sure they have their partner’s consent, even if she seems willing. Such advice is likely to make many decent young men super-anxious or super-chivalrous — to the point of condescension — without having any impact on actual bad guys. It also perpetuates the idea, which Lisak has criticized, that acquaintance rape is a misunderstanding rather than a deliberate act of violence.
Meanwhile, what should we teach young women? In the bad old days, courts often required a rape victim to prove vigorous resistance. Feminists rightly argued that such standards were discriminatory: they were not applied, for instance, to victims of robbery. However, we should be able to hold the criminal accountable while also teaching people to avoid being victims. If you pass out at a party, that does not give anyone license to sexually assault you — or to rob you. But “don’t drink yourself into a stupor” is still excellent advice. Similarly, college women shouldn’t feel obliged to heed Nia Sanchez’s advice and learn self-defense techniques, but it certainly can’t hurt.