Stop Telling Women To Stay Sober

How the reactions to Brock Turner and Nate Parker reinforce rape culture

In June, Stanford University student and rapist Brock Turner received a six-month prison sentence for assaulting an unconscious woman in January 2015, a punishment so light it got the world’s attention. The next day, BuzzFeed published the lengthy letter his victim had read to his face in court prior to the sentencing. In it, only one paragraph is devoted to the subject of alcohol.

Before his conviction, Turner had claimed that intoxication — his own, and his victim’s — factored into what happened that night. The subject of Turner’s criminal attentions wasn’t having it; “Alcohol is not an excuse,” she wrote. “Is it a factor? Yes. But alcohol was not the one who stripped me, fingered me, had my head dragging against the ground, with me almost fully naked.” She added that Turner’s expressed regret for drinking that night didn’t amount to regret for committing rape. “We were both drunk, the difference is I did not take off your pants and underwear, touch you inappropriately, and run away. That’s the difference.”

It seems so simple, yet it does not appear that Stanford University fully understands that difference. Still dealing with the furor over Turner’s light sentence, the school announced on Tuesday a ban of hard liquor at undergraduate parties. On the surface, such a ban is likely unenforceable — images of adult chaperones huddled around a fraternity punch bowl come to mind — but Stanford is hardly the first school to make such a move. (Dartmouth College, which is among the schools with the highest number of reported rapes in the nation, at least paired its ban with a mandatory sexual violence prevention program.)

Stanford officials claim their ban is unrelated to the Turner assault, but they can’t be that naïve. Their first major policy change since the sentencing sends a clear message to students that the onus to prevent rape is on those who suffer its horrors, not on the perpetrators. If Rape Culture 101 was a class, blaming drunk victims would be taught in August.

“While schools should be teaching responsible drinking habits, banning certain types of alcohol will not stop sexual assault,” said Annie Clark, executive director and cofounder of the advocacy group End Rape on Campus, in a statement provided to MTV News. “Alcohol doesn’t cause sexual assault. Alcohol is a weapon used by predators, and rapists are the only cause of rape.” She also noted that college is too late to be starting this conversation. “Like Stanford, institutions of higher education should be doing more, but we must talk about these issues earlier,” she said. “Prevention should start much before college, and should be focused on teaching consent, healthy relationships, respect, and bodily autonomy.”

That’s what makes Stanford’s new policy so insidiously misogynistic. It plays into a common logic employed by those who blame sexual assault victims for their own trauma: To prevent rape, we must take away the tools that can land these foolish innocents in potentially dangerous situations with animalistic sexual beasts incapable of restraining themselves. This notion was reinforced (until the university removed it Wednesday) on the Stanford website with a “Female Bodies and Alcohol” page containing antiquated, pseudoscientific ideas about male and female intoxication.

Stanford’s hard liquor ban feeds into sexist myths and does nothing to prevent the next Brock Turner from feeling empowered to commit such a crime. I couldn’t help thinking of this when reading about Nate Parker these past few weeks. The actor and filmmaker behind the forthcoming and highly anticipated film about Nat Turner’s slave rebellion, The Birth of a Nation, has been dogged by questions surrounding allegations that he and a friend, Jean Celestin, raped a drunk woman together 17 years ago during their undergraduate years at Penn State. (Celestin saw his conviction overturned four years after the criminal trial; Parker was acquitted.) Parker hasn’t handled those questions well, initially centering his own pain stemming from the event and citing his family and career success as evidence that he’s moved beyond it. While it’s unclear whether either man was under the influence at the time, Parker later stated that the act was “unambiguously consensual,” which is impossible if the woman was drunk. (His alleged victim committed suicide in 2012.)

A source told Variety that Parker is “in a low place,” dismayed at his own underestimation of the public’s interest in the allegations, and wondering whether it’s “a Hollywood conspiracy against him or just bad luck” that the allegations have resurfaced. Parker has his share of prominent backers, including Reverend Al Sharpton and legendary activist and entertainer Harry Belafonte, many of whom are feeding conspiracy theories. But this is less about Hollywood racism than it is about toxic masculinity, and the extreme lengths many go to preserve it. The defenses of Parker recall the solipsistic reaction to the Brock Turner sentencing, when many sought to insulate him from the public criticism. Turner’s defenders castigated “political correctness” and other imaginary villains for condemning a young collegiate swimmer for “20 minutes of action,” as Turner’s father put it.

There will always be people, it seems, who are ready to defend a rapist. And the more that half-assed measures and unearned support help guys like Turner and Parker get away with dismissing their attacks as mere cases of unfortunate judgment, the further we get from a solution. The effort to institutionalize healthy standards of sexual consent is sabotaged when victims are judged more harshly than assailants.

Parker, to his credit, finally seems to comprehend this. “The fact we are making moves and taking action to protect women on campuses and off campuses, and educating men and persecuting them when things come up … I want women to stand up, to speak out when they feel violated, in every degree,” he told Deadline. But Parker noted that he’s about to send his daughter to college. I wonder if he grasps that the very same structures that are now seeking to guard him, his film, and his fame from public castigation are the same that would put his daughter at greater risk of not being believed should she be sexually assaulted.

Especially in an era when sexual violence on campus is such a prominent issue, it’s inexcusable that yet another university fails to understand it. A hard-liquor ban not only does nothing to prevent rape; it encourages survivors to take the blame in advance.