Campus Rape & A Lower Drinking Age

Probably no matter what intellectual circles you tend to inhabit you’ve read something recently about rape culture, campus rape, or California’s new “Yes Means Yes” law. Of all the commentary these topics have provoked, Robby Soave’s post for Reason on Wednesday this week titled “How to Solve the Campus Rape Crisis: Lower the Drinking Age” is some of the best. Rather than force you to read my attempts at paraphrasing, I’ll just quote the crucial part of Soave’s argument more or less in full:

What does the drinking age have to do with campus rape? Much. Most college undergraduates are under 21 and therefore unable to legally drink. And yet heavy alcohol consumption on the part of one or both students is a significant factor in nearly all sexual assault allegations. That’s because the current drinking age doesn’t actually stop teens from drinking. It merely changes where, and how much, they drink.

…underage students who want to drink must take their chances in less socially regulated environments, like a friend of a friend’s dorm room, the basement of an older student’s house, or a fraternity party. Fraternities, in particular, offer dangerous drinking scenes for the underaged. Since any amount of alcohol is illegal for underage students, they are averse to holding their drink without immediately downing it. Teens who never learned to drink leisurely—and have strong incentive to get drunk as quickly as possible—are throwing back shots and accepting red solo cups from strangers in dark fraternity basements and bedrooms. This environment fuels blackout binge drinking. And in the haze of alcohol-induced incapacitation, misinterpreted sexual cues, regret-filled couplings, and yes, outright rape, occur most frequently.

Obviously there are very good reasons not to take any one person’s account of something as anything close to definitive, but to the extent that my college experience can be at all instructive it bears out Soave’s supposition in full.

He states that the current drinking age only serves to alter, “where, and how much,” teens drink; in the first category pushing consumption into “less socially regulated” environments and in the second incentivizing as much consumption as quickly as possible. With the second Soave is indubitably correct, as the constant threat of discovery by P-Safe (or its equivalent elsewhere) made prolonged consumption risky unless you were of age. And then there was the temporal question – if you can only drink illicitly at time X in place Y, but you would like to be intoxicated enough to be socially functional (and let’s be honest, that’s why most college students imbibe) at time X+1hr in place not-Y (where you are not able to drink because you are underage), then you’re forced to somehow try and front-load your consumption. Have you ever tried to do just the right amount of boozing between 8pm and 10pm so that by the time you get to the party at 11pm you’re still buzzed enough to dance but sober enough to know what you’re doing? It’s…an inexact science, and you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to imagine how getting it wrong would make sexual assault a distressingly real possibility.*

When it comes to location, I think a slight amendment to Soave’s initial terminology offers a more accurate and useful characterization of where exactly all this underage consumption is taking place. His phrase is “less socially regulated” places, but at the risk of sounding a bit pedantic one could argue that some of the places he then cites (e.g. frat house basements) are in fact highly socially regulated, albeit in sub-optimal ways for preventing sexual assault. What I suspect is most important about these spaces is less the amount of social regulation and more who they allow to do it.

With the drinking age at 21, it wasn’t until our senior year that my friends and I could comfortably socialize with alcohol, in whatever ways we wanted to, in a space whose social norms we got to determine. Since we could all legally purchase and consume alcohol, we could decide what was available, when it was available, how much was available, and how it would be consumed. And since as legal consumers we (usually) didn’t have to fear getting busted by public safety, we could drink in our own space where the expectations of our existing friendships would continue to operate. Contrast this with the experience of a freshman, who is frequently dependent on the largesse of others for his or her access to alcohol, and as such can exercise little, if any, control over consumption. In the most predatory version of this scenario, you wind up with 18-year old girls consuming alcohol according to the norms of 22-year old frat boys.** Given the central role fraternities play in social life on many campuses, the result writ large is older males serving as gatekeepers for the rest of the student body’s access to alcohol, which seems…problematic. A drinking age of 18 would allow all students to socialize and keggerate on their own terms, in spaces perceived as safe according to mutually established (and then policed) norms of behavior.

Finally, and this is a departure from anything Soave mentions in his piece, reducing the drinking age to 18 would allow police or public safety personnel to be present at social events without putting them in the position of having to either arrest half of those in attendance for underage drinking or undermine their credibility entirely by looking the other way. Instead, they could be present and focused exclusively on instances of actual criminality like sexual assault. A couple beers in, it’s not like any students are going to even notice their presence unless they’re the ones getting hauled off in handcuffs.

*Whether it be a guy being too drunk to heed demands he stop, a girl being too drunk to consent, or some combination of the two
**For example: a freshman girl at State U. goes out to a frat party, drinks whatever mystery jungle juice is offered (it would require some pretty unrealistically large brass ones to, as a freshman, demand something else because you were concerned about the provenance of the drink that’s just been poured for you out of a trashcan), becomes intoxicated, and then allows a senior guy to dance on her in a way with which she is deeply uncomfortable, yet feels powerless to protest against given the circumstances (being younger, physically weaker, of lower social status, unfamiliar with norms of behavior [e.g. “maybe that’s just how they dance in college?”], perceiving oneself as a guest and therefore owing something). Regardless of whether or not you qualify that as sexual assault (it seems the “Yes Means Yes” standard would say it is, but I am not convinced that is a useful standard), it is an unquestionably bad outcome. And you don’t have to change much before that scenario does become sexual assault.