Blurred Lines: Amherst College Sends Mixed Messages on Alcohol and Sexual Assault

Never The Survivor's Fault

(Ethan Corey)– Ever since Angie Epifano published her courageous op-ed in The Student and students protested outside of a Trustees’ meeting in front of the Lord Jeffery Inn, there has been a general consensus that the College needs to dramatically change its approach to sexual misconduct. The old system failed to protect the needs and rights of survivors and far too often silenced or discouraged students from coming forward if they were assaulted. On top of that, many students, staff, and administrators held victim-blaming attitudes that contributed to a campus culture that tacitly and impliclitly normalized, excused, tolerated, and even condoned sexual assault. But, according to the College’s own website, things are different now; the College has taken action and solved the problem. Unfortunately, an alcohol education program recently sent out to the incoming Class of 2017 suggests that the College hasn’t made anywhere near as much progress as it would like to think.

San Diego State University’s Alcohol e-Checkup to Go (e-CHUG) program is a “personalized, evidence-based, online prevention intervention” designed to “motivate individuals to reduce their consumption using personalized information about their own drinking and risk factors,” which means in practice that it is a propagandistic, skewed device that pathologizes any and all forms of drinking, no matter how moderate they may be, and very strongly encourages you to stop drinking, especially if you’re underage. There are a lot of problems with the survey, from its patronizing tone to its specious claims that often lack any meaningful supporting evidence (apparently drinking underage is associated with suicide and murder?) to its generally limited efficacy in promoting safer drinking behavior. But the biggest, most egregious flaw with e-CHUG lies in its potentially triggering, victim-blaming treatment of the relationship between sexual assault and alcohol.

As the College’s administration and the authors of the program have been more than eager to inform me, there is a very strong association between alcohol consumption and sexual assault. An alcohol education program that didn’t discuss this issue would be failing to do its job. But e-CHUG doesn’t just inform participants of the relationship between drinking and sexual violence; it insinuates a causal link between them. In one part of the program discussing the “risk factors” of drinking, participants are informed that:

One area of risk taking that is especially relevant is sexual risk. When intoxicated, people are more likely to do things they would never do when sober, including not using condoms, having sex with someone they would not have otherwise chosen, or committing acquaintance rape or becoming a victim of sexual violence [my emphasis]. Alcohol is associated more closely with crimes of sexual violence than any other drug (CASA, 1999).

Read the parts in bold closely. The language pretty clearly suggests that “becoming a victim of sexual violence” is a “thing” that you are “more likely to do” when intoxicated, which of course implies that the victim is somehow complicit in her/his assault. Moreover, the claim that intoxicated persons are “more likely to do things they would never do when sober” suggests that those who commit acquaintance rape while drunk would never have raped anyone without the pernicious effects of alcohol on their judgment. While there may be a grain of truth to this, the implication that alcohol caused them to rape absolves rapists of responsibility for their actions and allows them to use intoxication as a cover for their sexually inappropriate behavior. Beyond that, placing “committing acquaintance rape” and “becoming a victim of sexual assault” directly adjacent to each other in the sentence seems to place both victim and perpetrator on the same level of responsibility, since it implies that both “committing acquaintance rape” and “becoming a victim of sexual assault” are consequences of drinking.

The above quote is far from the only mention of sexual assault in the program, however. In a section called “Frequency, Quantity, and ‘Not-So-Good Things’ About Alcohol,” participants answer a number of questions about their drinking habits and the negative consequences that may be resulting from them, including the following question:

How often during the last year have you had unwanted sexual experience(s) while under the influence of alcohol?

Now, “unwanted sexual experience(s)” does not necessarily mean sexual assault, but it certainly encompasses it (more on this point later). Thus, this question positions being sexually assaulted as a “not-so-good thing about alcohol” and forces any survivors of sexual assault who may be taking this program to confront memories of their assault, a potentially traumatic and triggering experience for many. What’s worse, however, is the feedback participants receive if they report any unwanted sexual experience(s) on the survey:

Do away with it

Yes, you read that correctly. e-CHUG is actually telling survivors of sexual assault that they could meet their relationship goals, whatever those may be, by decreasing or doing away with being raped. While I’m sure ending sexual assault would greatly improve the lives of rape victims, the program is pretty blatantly implying that victims have control over whether or not they are assaulted. That, ladies and gentleman, is what anybody with half a brain calls blaming the victim.

“Friends don’t let friends commit sexual assault.”

I spoke to Peggy Barrett, Director of Prevention and Innovation at the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center, about the language in the program, and she said that not only is the suggestion that alcohol causes sexual assault completely unsupported by the evidence, this misconception actually provides rapists with social cover to engage in sexually inappropriate behavior:

What you’ve quoted here are often very common ways that people think about [alcohol and sexual violence]; they think the way to stop people from assaulting other people who are intoxicated is to make sure people don’t drink, rather than to focus on stopping people from hurting people who have been drinking, and that’s what seems to be missing here. Most of the ways to end sexual violence are to stop the people who are doing it from doing it [my emphasis].

According to Barrett, cultural attitudes around drinking, which often portray drinking by women as a sign of sexual availability and excuse aggression by intoxicated men, make alcohol the drug of choice for would-be rapists. Rapists drink because intoxication allows them to justify their transgressive behavior, and rapists target people who have been drinking because they’re easier prey. Alcohol doesn’t rape people; rapists do. Does that mean we shouldn’t talk about the link between alcohol and sexual assault? Hardly, say Barrett:

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with helping people understand that they’re at risk. If you have a child that you’re responsible for, you would teach them safety things like how to cross the street and so forth, but you would also assess the environment that they’re in, and if people were driving recklessly in order to hit children on the street, I don’t think we would put up with that for very long. That’s the situation we have with sexual assault; we have people out there looking for people with vulnerabilities in order to take advantage of them, and we’re allowing that to go on.

Instead of blaming alcohol for sexual assault and viewing efforts to decrease drinking as potential solutions for sexual violence, we should be focusing on stopping rapists from committing rape. Barrett used an analogy with drunk driving to make this point clear. When we try to stop drunk driving, we don’t just inform potential victims of the risks and ask them to take precautions for their safety; we focus on the perpetrators, placing harsh penalties on those caught driving drunk and encouraging people to be active bystanders with slogans like “friends don’t let friends drive drunk.” Maybe, suggests Barrett, we need to start spreading the message that “friends don’t let friends commit sexual assault.”

“Nothing changed in our thinking”

After I discovered this language in the program, I contacted several members of the administration as well as the authors of the program at San Diego State. Upon receiving my email, says Dr. Doug Van Sickle, one of the principal authors of the program, they changed much of the language I highlighted in order to (in his words) “strengthen some of the declarative statements that we make about alcohol and sexual abuse.” The first section that I highlighted now reads:

One area of risk taking that is especially relevant is sexual risk. When intoxicated, people are more likely to do things they would never do when sober, including not using condoms or having sex with someone they would not have otherwise chosen… Alcohol is also more closely associated with crimes of sexual violence than any other drug (CASA, 1999).  The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism estimates that, of all women who have experienced sexual assault,  “approximately one-half of those cases involve alcohol consumption by the perpetrator, victim, or both” (NIAAA, 2013).  It is important to note that alcohol use is never the cause or an excuse for sexual assault.  Sexual assault is a crime [his emphasis].

The question about “unwanted sexual experience(s)” now includes the clarification that “(Unwanted experiences might include not using condoms, having sex with someone you may not have otherwise chosen, etc.)” and the personalized feedback for the question now contains the same disclaimer as above that “alcohol use is never the cause or an excuse for sexual assault.”

This is, of course, a great improvement over the old language, but it still leaves a lot to be desired. The new language still portrays sexual assault as a risk associated with drinking, which still draws the focus away from the perpetrators, and offers no insight into why such an association may exist or what concerned individuals should do about it. A program like this isn’t the place necessarily to delve into all of these issues, but the new language is still just a cop-out at best. Moreover, the “clarification” of the meaning of “unwanted sexual experience(s)” is quite confusing. According to Dr. Van Sickle, the language was changed to reflect the fact that:

There may be students who have thought ‘I haven’t used a condom’ or ‘I’ve had sex with somebody who I might not have otherwise; yeah I had that unwanted sexual experience.’ Or there might be a student who has been sexually assaulted, so the first exposure to the concept in the program is unwanted sexual experiences; left purposefully vague, but polling for things at the lower end, not at the sexual assault end. Are there things you may have done that you wish you wouldn’t have done, short of sexual assault? And of course somebody who’s been sexually assaulted is going to say ‘unwanted sexual experiences? I was raped!’, so of course they’re going say yes to that.

So now the program lumps together a huge range of experiences, some of which may be sexual assault, some of which may not, but makes no attempt to distinguish between either.

More importantly, the question dances around issues of consent that are crucial when it comes to the relationship between drinking and sexual assault. If an individual is intoxicated, he or she cannot give consent. Someone having “unwanted sexual experience(s) while under the influence of alcohol” very likely cannot give consent. So if they have sex with a partner who isn’t wearing a condom or someone they “would not have otherwise chosen,” it is very likely still an instance of sexual misconduct or assault. Despite this, the program never addresses the issue of consent at all, even though navigating sexual consent while under the influence is one of the most important areas of concern when it comes to alcohol and sexual violence.

What’s most mind-boggling to me about this program is the fact that the authors, who are all clinical psychologists with years of experience working with college students could fail to see the problems with the language in the survey until I, a college student, pointed it out. Even more disturbingly, they don’t seem to have learned their lesson. In fact, when I spoke with Dr. Van Sickle, I asked how their thinking had changed on the issue of alcohol and sexual violence. He told me:

Nothing changed in our thinking…we’re psychologists who work with college students, so we’re very well aware of alcohol issues and sexual assault issues…. There are unwanted sexual experiences and there are sexual assaults that are a crime; how can we present that information to a student in a way that is least likely to lead to blaming the victim, to including that kind of relationship between alcohol and sexual assault?

If that’s the case, then why was the victim-blaming language in the survey in the first place? Dr. Van Sickle’s response was revealing:

There is an undeniable link between alcohol and sexual assault. It’s there, it’s sort of an elephant in the room; it would be inappropriate not to allow a student to endorse that, if that’s happened to them, and they’re looking at negative consequences [my emphasis] with respect to alcohol. It would be remiss of the program not to allow somebody to share that experience.

Great. So he still thinks that sexual assault is a “negative consequence” of drinking, i.e. that there is a causal link between drinking and sexual assault. I’m so glad that the College is using an alcohol program developed by someone who openly claims that sexual assault is caused by drinking. In fairness, he denied believing in a causal link between sexual assault and alcohol several times during our conversation, but the original language of the survey and his statement above cast serious doubt on his comprehension of the issue. Besides, even if he has had a change of heart, e-CHUG has not notified any of the over 600 colleges and universities around the world that use this program about the changes or the original language.

“We’ve been so impressed by the company and their response”

Last week, I spoke with Interim Dean of Student Conduct Susie Mitton Shannon and new Dean of Students Jim Larimore about the e-CHUG program and the College’s approach to alcohol and sexual assault. Dean Larimore said that the goal of the program was to “introduce the topic [of drinking] and establish sort of a baseline of information, and in effect try to set the stage for personal conversations once students are on campus.”

Of course, one may wonder how useful a program containing victim-blaming and triggering language is for establishing “a baseline of information” and sparking productive conversations about alcohol use at the College, but the deans seemed to think that despite the language, the program still offered (in Dean Mitton Shannon’s words) “a foundation upon which to dialogue…about how we want to address respect.”

In fact, Dean Mitton Shannon downplayed my criticism by arguing that the language isn’t victim-blaming at all:

After receiving your email, I went back to two people I know that are survivors…and said to them, ‘did you see this as victim-blaming?’ and their response was no. They said ‘no, because I am a survivor, there is a heavy correlation between alcohol use and risky choices, right, and risky behavior, and so I did not see it as victim-blaming.’

Using two nameless survivors to legitimate blaming the victim is both incredibly exploitative and fallacious; it’s like saying that you’re not racist because you have a friend who’s black. Besides that, her characterization of becoming a victim of sexual assault as the product of “risky choices” and “risky behavior” is little more than a barely veiled attempt to blame the victim—assault is the absence of choice or autonomy. You don’t get to use survivors of sexual assault as magic talismans to absolve you of responsibility for your incorrect and reactionary views about the relationship between alcohol and sexual violence. You don’t get to say you’re not blaming the victim when you literally blame sexual assault on “alcohol use and risky choices” in the exact same sentence.

Dean Mitton Shannon also denied even knowing that the language was in the survey in the first place, claiming that, “the survey…takes you on a different path based on your answers. And so, I am not a survivor of sexual assault; I’ll just put that out there. I took it legitimately.”

First of all, her claim that she could not have seen the language I highlighted because she’s not a survivor of sexual assault is just not true. I took the survey dozens of times, because I have too much time on my hands out of journalistic duty to the College community, and no matter what you enter you still see the language I quoted above. Additionally, I find it hard to believe that the College would not have vetted the program more closely than just a quick run-through by Dean Mitton Shannon, especially on a topic as sensitive as alcohol and sexual assault. Failing to catch this language before it was sent out the Class of 2017 is just negligent.

Ultimately, I have no reason to doubt the good intentions of the deans or the authors of the survey. Talking about the relationship between alcohol and sexual assault is unavoidable, especially at a school like Amherst College, and I’m glad that the issue is being brought up before Orientation. My younger sister, who will be a senior in high school this fall, recently took a state-mandated health education course for high schoolers in one of the largest school districts in the country (Baltimore County Public Schools), and, according to her, neither sexual assault nor the meaning of consent were mentioned even once. I can only assume that many if not most new students arriving at the College will have had a similar (lack of) exposure to the subject, so I really do think it’s important that the topic gets addressed starting from day one.

Nevertheless, the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and e-CHUG fails to give new students the right messages about alcohol, sexual assault, and consent. The changes to the program’s language don’t really make a difference, since most first-years have already taken the program, and the College did not feel it was necessary to notify them about the changes. Indeed, Dean Mitton Shannon seemed absolutely copacetic about the program, saying that she has “been so impressed by the company and their response; it’s really been a great experience.” In the climate of Amherst College, this is simply unacceptable.