Douthat: One way to reduce campus rape is to lower drinking age

The New York TimesJuly 3, 2014 

In the debate over sexual violence on college campuses, two things are reasonably clear. First, campus rape is a grave, persistent problem, shadowing rowdy state schools and cozy liberal-arts campuses alike.

Second, nobody – neither anti-rape activists, nor their critics, nor the administrators caught in between – seems to have a clear and compelling idea of what to do about it.

The immediate difficulty is that what many activists want from colleges – a disciplinary process that leads to many more expulsions for sexual assault – is something schools are ill-equipped to offer. As Michelle Goldberg acknowledges in a judicious article for The Nation, dealing with serious crimes in a setting that normally handles minor infractions risks a worst-of-both-worlds scenario: a process whose lack of professionalism leaves victims more “devastated than vindicated,” even as its limited protections for the accused lead to endless lawsuits claiming kangaroo-court treatment.

The deeper problem, which applies for courts of law as well, is that even with a near-perfect justice system, sexual assault on campus often happens in a context that by its nature defies easy adjudication. Most campus assaults involve incapacitation, usually involving alcohol, rather than brute force; most involve friends and acquaintances and partners and exes; and most women assaulted while under the influence do not themselves use the word “rape” to describe what happened. As long as these patterns persist, it is difficult to see any disciplinary or legal change that would inspire substantially more formal accusations, let alone clear and airtight verdicts.

But this does not mean our society is helpless against sexual violence on campus. Rather, we’re searching ineffectively for better after-the-fact responses because we aren’t willing to deal with some of the root causes, or upset the underlying legal and cultural status quo.


Here are three shifts I suspect would, in combination, do more to reduce the rate of sexual assault than any disciplinary change being contemplated. The first would require action by legislators; the other two, by administrators. Probably none of them will happen; all of them, in theory, could.

• First, our lawmakers could reduce the legal drinking age from 21 to 18. The key problem in college sexual culture right now isn’t drinking per se; it’s blackout drinking, which follows from binge drinking, which is more likely to happen when a drinking culture is driven underground.

Undoing the Reagan-era imposition of a higher drinking age is probably too counterintuitive for lawmakers to contemplate. And obviously it wouldn’t eliminate the lure of the keg stand or tame the recklessness of youth. But it would create an opportunity for a healthier approach to alcohol consumption – more social and relaxed, less frantic and performative – to take root in collegiate culture once again.

• Second, college administrators could try to break their schools’ symbiotic relationship with the on-campus party scene. This is not an easy task, mostly for financial reasons: The promise of Blutarskian excess often attracts the kind of well-heeled kids whose parents pay full freight, and the “party pathway” through academe involves two intertwined phenomena – big-time sports and wild Greek life – that basically define college for many deep-pocketed alums.

But what Murray Sperber has dubbed the “beer and circus” atmosphere around college athletics, combined with what Caitlin Flanagan’s recent Atlantic article terms “the dark power” of (some) fraternities, are the deep forces shaping the vulnerable trajectory of many campus nights. Weaken those forces, rein in their often-misogynistic excesses, and what’s lost in alumni dollars would probably be gained in lower rates of sexual violence and a safer campus over all.

• Finally, colleges could embrace a more limited version of the old “parietal” system, in which they separated the sexes and supervised social life. This could involve, for instance, establishing more single-sex dorms and writing late-night rules that apply identically to men and women. Bringing a visitor to your room after 10 p.m. or midnight might require signing in with an adult adviser, who would have the right to intervene when inebriation seemed to call consent and safety into question.

This need not represent a return to any kind of chastity-based ethic. The point would be to create hurdles for predators, clearer decision points for both sexes and – in the event that someone sneaked an intended partner in, and the encounter ended badly – a reason short of a rape conviction to discipline or expel.

Colleges have gestured in this direction with programs encouraging bystanders to step in if a pairing-off seems to be turning sour or violent. But taking on a formal, chaperone-like role themselves would cut against the ideological spirit of the modern university, and no doubt would be widely denounced as puritanical, heteronormative, reactionary.

Embracing such a role, though, would probably make the typical campus a place of greater safety than it is today.

So as this debate continues, it’s an alternative worth pondering. There are ways, apart from ineffective tribunals, to reduce sexual violence on campus. We just aren’t ready to embrace them.

The New York Times

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