From the January Issue Subscribe Illustration by Clay Rodery I walked across the University of Texas campus on a warm, breezy night in April, trying my best not to look too middle-aged. Now I made my way to the main mall, where a modest group of students was gathering for a Take Back the Night rally at the base of the Tower. Bodies still developing, pimply skin, round cheeks yet to hollow. Perhaps part of being forty is completely forgetting what nineteen looks like.
I found a seat among several rows of folding chairs. Did you have consent? What constitutes valid consent? I settled into my chair as three women huddled around a microphone at the bottom of the steps. Counselors on hand to talk. It was also a welcome reprieve from the Internet, where conversations about sexual assault often devolve into door slamming and plate throwing.
For the next ninety minutes, what I heard from the audience of sixty or so students was something the Internet too rarely offers: One by one, about a dozen young women and one young man stepped up to the microphone with nervous voices and fidgeting hands.
As I listened to their stories, I was struck by the direct hit of their sincerity. After a lifetime spent deflecting my own sadness with irony and punch lines, I felt genuinely moved by the raw ache of their tales. As they spoke, I was also struck by another realization.
They only knew the experience as a hollowness in their stomach, a panic that seized them in dark hours. The definitions of sexual violence have been shifting underneath our feet for years, and vary from state to state and campus to campus. This widening scope has allowed us to better prosecute traumatic incidents in a notoriously challenging area of the law, and for many of us it has also meant running the scanner back over our own pasts.
Was this what it felt like to be old and out of touch? Alcohol is also involved in a great number of campus sexual assault cases. In a June poll , two thirds of college women who said they were sexually assaulted also said they were intoxicated at the time.
However, alcohol is a primary reason people dismissed the gravity of campus sexual assault for so long. A typical online comment: I bet that girl just got wasted and then changed her mind the next morning.
Activists labored to shove those distracting issues out of the frame. What you drank, what you wore—irrelevant. They moved the spotlight onto larger cultural ills: Rape whistles and self-defense classes had gone the way of the VCR. The new philosophy was neatly summed up by Jessica Valenti in her book The Purity Myth, with a line that best-selling author Jon Krakauer liked so much he quoted it at the beginning of Missoula, his nonfiction book about campus sexual assault: Women get raped because someone raped them.
Of course, Prohibition was one of the great failed experiments in American history, proof that the complicated riddle of alcohol and violence required a craftier solution. Now, a century later, the pendulum has swung completely the other way, and we find ourselves in a landscape where the key talking points address everything but alcohol.
How we raise young boys. How victims are treated in the media, courts, and interrogation rooms. The problem of serial predators. In October , when Slate contributor Emily Yoffe wrote an essay suggesting that women would lower their chances of being sexually assaulted if they drank less, the blowback was massive. A new generation of feminists, given voice by the Internet, was unilateral in its rejection of her message.
Women were sick of being told they had to smile and act nice while bro-dudes blew chunks off the balcony. A month later, Southern Methodist University student Kirby Wiley received a similar lashing when she wrote an op-ed for the college paper saying that women put themselves at risk by drinking too much.
Wiley stood by her column, and over at Slate, Yoffe went on to write several hard-hitting pieces on campus sexual assault, but the no-fly zones had been set. High-profile assault cases keep unfolding in the media, many of them under a foggy haze of booze. Alcohol also smudges the lens when we try to get a clear portrait of the current problem. Given that one of these was a college rite of passage and one of these was sexual assault, details matter. At Take Back the Night, I agreed with the young women who opened the event.
The idea that these students had some say in what happened to them, at least in the future? Was this really a message we wanted to be giving to young people, or to anyone at all: It was after sundown when the rally ended. Those of us in the audience were handed small electric votives, which we placed on the steps of the Tower. The Tower is such a familiar sight in the Austin skyline that it can be easy to forget that it was also the location of a shocking mass murder, a sad memorial to the fact that no campus is ever truly safe.
The little votives made it feel that way, though. They flickered on the steps, sweet and random as starlight. A few of us took pictures with our smartphones, and then we headed past the barricades of the event and out into the night. As I walked back to my hotel, it was impossible not to reflect on my own troubled history with alcohol and consent. I had to be careful not to conflate my tale with the ones told that evening. At least half of them had nothing to do with booze.
But mine certainly had. Blackouts spilled across my drinking years, and in my case, the difference between incapacitated sex and intoxicated sex looked more like a giant question mark. But what happens if you drink your consent away? I imagined myself storming through campus, agitating for global change. I heard about a Take Back the Night rally during my sophomore year, and I even considered going. But I skipped the event, opting to agitate for other things in my crumbling off-campus apartment.
Did anyone nearby deliver tacos? Epidemiologist Richard Grucza has tied the rise of women drinking with the rise of women in college—across Western democracies, the more affluent and educated a female, the more likely she is to drink—and booze and higher learning were utterly entwined for me. Alcohol gave me access to a courage I rarely displayed in academic seminars, where I struggled to raise my hand.
At night, I matched the boys drink for drink, growing mouthier with every tallboy I downed, and it felt as though a long social exile had come to an end. Men loved women who drank. I loved to drink. Another phrase came into prominence during my college years: Five drinks in a two-hour sitting for men, four for women or as we liked to call it, getting started. All drinking was binge. Did I ever wonder if I had a problem?
I pretty much thought everyone had a problem. I stepped over passed-out bodies while I picked up empties from the gray carpet.
To be a college student was to toggle between nurse and wounded patient, between responsibility and its glorious lack.
How did we get home? Why is there an empty pizza box on the floor? A passed-out person is unmoving, spread-eagle on the couch, while a person in a blackout remains active and awake—cracking bad jokes, belting out George Michael covers, flashing her bra—with no memory of it afterward. The comedian Amy Schumer jokes about blackouts in her Comedy Central special: In a study of drinkers at Duke University, more than half had experienced a blackout, and a UT survey, which is distributed every year, showed that in the spring of more than 20 percent of first-year students had reported having a blackout in the previous twelve months.
One reason for their frequency on campuses is that the risk factors for a blackout are pretty much the description of youthful drinking: Blackouts have become something of a badge of honor, and college conversations are peppered with references to them. Dude, I was so blacked out last night. It signifies a romantic oblivion, a cannonball dive into the open mouth of the night. Meanwhile, blackouts grow like weeds in the media stories about sexual assault, creating two completely separate narrative tracks: For many years, I focused on the former track.
Alcohol was the center of my social life and a private balm for my sorrows. We think of young people as carefree—look at them, with their dewy skin and their powder-fresh credit ratings—but we often forget what a quivering mass of insecurities young adulthood can bring. Sex was a particular problem: How could I be casual about something that scared me so much? The striptease was on. As the nineties gave way to the aughts, the expectations of female sexuality went slightly off the rails.
Women younger than me had grown up with porn and AOL chat rooms and the giddy pudendum-waxing of Sex and the City, and I found myself feeling like a prude at parties where women touted their pole-dancing skills and casual threesomes. Alcohol allowed me to tap into my own bohemian spirit, and it helped me to downshift my romantic expectations around sex; it helped me to not care. Premium vodkas in a rainbow of flavors.
Cocktails sugared up like candy. Sexy, drunk, game for whatever—the vision of empowerment. And it was a sign of power that women could drink like men: We deserved riotous good times and blind-eyed buffoonery too. But the way alcohol can give a person power in the first half of the evening only to rob them of it in the second, that was the part no one mentioned.