Have conservatives forsaken rape victims? That's one of the more challenging questions posed following the furor over Education Secretary Betsy DeVos' announcement that her department will revise the Obama-era guidance on how sexual assault allegations are to be handled by universities. Because we live in an age of rage, the move sparked some overheated commentary ("making campuses safer for rapists"), along with several thoughtful essays on what it all means about our ailing culture. New York Times columnist Bret Stephens offered support for DeVos, but then devoted another column to a contrary view -- a letter from a young reader who had herself been raped.
Her experience -- all too common -- was terrible. She was traumatized, awoke in cold sweats, lost 30 pounds and considered suicide. She didn't file a police report because there were no witnesses, she had been drunk, and she didn't understand until later that incapacitated people cannot give consent. "I hate having to use my own life as an example," she wrote. "But honestly, so many of the conservative men in my life won't listen to me on this argument until I tell them my story."
She objects how "conservatives and mainstream liberals have abdicated concern about sexual assault to the far left." She has put her finger on something here. Many conservative commentators, understandably alarmed by the Obama administration's presumption of guilt and kangaroo courts, have overstressed this aspect of the campus rape problem. It's common, for example, to see the words "hysteria" and "myth" in conservative commentary. I've written about false rape allegations myself to rebut the leftist catechism that "women never lie." And it is important to refute wild statistics such as that "1 in 4" college women are raped.
But I've been careful to say that rape and sexual assault are genuine problems on college campuses (if less so than among the high school graduates of the same age). The question is why and what can be done about it.
My answer to Stephens' young correspondent is actually an entire chapter in my forthcoming book (title still under discussion at the publishing house), but it begins with an indictment of hookup culture. The young letter writer acknowledges that on the night she was assaulted, she had been so drunk that she blacked out. As Donna Freitas has documented in "The End of Sex," 90 percent of unwanted sex, including rape, happens during hookups, and in 76 percent of cases, excessive alcohol consumption is involved.
Drinking to the point of incapacitation has become routine on college campuses. About 50 percent of students admit to binge drinking, and many begin the "weekend" on Thursday nights. Men still drink more than women, but women have been rushing to catch up. "Between 1999 and 2008," reports the Wall Street Journal, "the number of young women who showed up in emergency rooms for being dangerously intoxicated rose by 52 percent. The rate for young men, though higher, rose just 9 percent."
Stephens's correspondent wonders if only those on the far left take rape seriously. In some respects, they don't take it seriously enough. Left-leaning feminists, for example, reject all efforts to warn women about the dangers of excessive drinking. When Emily Yoffe advised, in a piece for Slate, that "the campus culture of binge drinking is toxic," Feministing.com denounced what it called her "rape denialism manifesto." Feminists rebuff the idea that women should take precautions, be aware of their surroundings, and keep their wits about them. "We should teach men not to rape, period" they insist.
Feminists also find themselves in a bind because their ideological commitment to the idea of sameness is in conflict with their experience of victimization. Why should it be, if men and women are so alike in every way, including sexual behavior, that women comprise 95 percent of the victims of rape? If we were designing a red carpet for date rape, we could hardly do better than the booze-infused hookup culture.
Most men are not rapists or even jerks. Still, the truth is that women always will always be the more vulnerable sex. It isn't just that women are on average smaller and weaker than men. It's that men are more violent and more likely to link sex with aggression. Drinking disinhibits.
The first steps toward protecting women from the scourge of rape is realism about sex differences and old-fashioned feminine caution. That ought to be the feminist message.