The recent publication in The Post and Courier of articles, an editorial, columns and blogs about alcohol-involved rapes of young women has been constructive because it focuses attention on a major societal problem that also plagues our community. The U.S. has a big rape problem. According to the best research, 20 percent of adult women in the U.S. have been raped sometime during their lives; 11.5 percent of U.S. college women have already been raped; 1 million adult women and 500,000 college women in the U.S. are raped each year. Rape has a devastating impact on women’s lives, and many of these rapes involve alcohol or drug use by the perpetrator, the victim or both.
People Against Rape has been actively engaged in public awareness, rape prevention and victim support for nearly four decades, and we would like to make three points to advance this discussion about how to best reduce rapes in our colleges and communities.
First, although few of us condone men having sex with a vulnerable woman who is so impaired due to alcohol or drug use that she cannot give consent or defend herself, we suspect that many people do not know that having sex with a vulnerable woman who is too impaired to be capable of consenting due to alcohol or drug use is a major felony crime in South Carolina punishable by up to a 10-year prison sentence. This includes many men, who may not realize that they are committing the crime of rape when they engage in this behavior, and many women, who may not realize that it is rape when it happens to them because it is not a stereotypic forcible rape committed by a stranger. It is essential to communicate this message to everyone but particularly to men, some of whom may not know that engaging in this behavior is not just morally reprehensible, it is a criminal act.
Second, it is essential to make a distinction between reducing individual vulnerability to rape and true rape prevention. Focusing on reducing individual vulnerability sends a message, well-intentioned or not, that it is the woman’s responsibility to prevent rape by taking actions that make her less vulnerable to attack. This strategy is called “hardening the target” by criminologists, and the assumption is that a criminal will not attack a hardened target but moves on to a more vulnerable one. In the case of property crime, a criminal may skip your house if it is well-protected but break into your neighbor’s house because it is less well-protected. A woman who makes herself a harder target may well reduce her personal risk of being raped, which is an excellent thing for her. However, this isn’t true rape prevention if a sexual predator rapes a more vulnerable woman instead. All this approach does is change who gets raped by the sexual predator; it doesn’t really prevent rape. This approach also sends a not-so-subtle message to women that it is their fault if they do get raped because they are the ones who are responsible for preventing rape by taking adequate precautions.
Third, there are only two ways to prevent rape. The first way is to make sure that all rapes are reported to authorities so that rapists can be apprehended, prosecuted, and prevented from raping again. This requires encouraging victims to come forward and providing them with the supportive environment they need to engage in this courageous act. The second way is true rape prevention, which will require fundamental changes in how we approach the issue as a community.
True rape prevention must focus on getting men to change their behavior, not on getting women to change theirs. It must teach men that they take sexual advantage of vulnerable women at their own moral and legal peril. It must create a community in which men who have sex with vulnerable women who are too incapacitated to consent are treated with disdain and viewed as the losers they so clearly are. It must send a message that there is never a good excuse for sexually exploiting a vulnerable woman and that those who do so will not be tolerated in our community. True rape prevention does not involve male bashing but creates an environment in which men do not tolerate this behavior.
Does this mean that we should not inform women about the many perils of binge drinking which include increasing their vulnerability to sexual predators? No.
Does it mean that we shouldn’t address the epidemic problem of binge drinking on college campuses? No.
Does it mean that we shouldn’t do everything possible to help women reduce their individual vulnerability to being assaulted by sexual predators? No.
However, we shouldn’t mistake these efforts for true rape prevention. That will only occur when men take personal responsibility, learn to control themselves, and stop raping women.
PAR is committed to true rape prevention. We will not rest until every girl and woman in our colleges and community can live her life free from the fear of sexual assault, and we urge each of you to join our efforts.
Dean G. Kilpatrick, Ph.D., is chairperson of the Board of Directors for People Against Rape in Charleston.