He begins by assuming the problem, which is always a cool trick when you have no empirical basis of a problem in need of a solution, but have a solution you really, really, feel needs airing. Ross Douhat’s column opens:
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.
Whether, and how severe, a problem campus rape is remains a question in need of an answer. Even the White House’s task force report, which similarly announces the problem, simultaneously concedes they don’t actually have evidence of a problem and require study, Maybe Douhat only skimmed the report. He’s a busy guy, I’m sure.
As to his second “reasonably clear” thing, he’s being a bit disingenuous. There are no “pro-rape” activities, though the anti-rape activists play fast and loose with name-calling. There are, however, some who are deeply concerned with the word rape becoming untethered from any definition, with the coerced evisceration of due process on college campuses in the zeal to end this assumed epidemic, and with harm done the innocent in this moral panic.
Then again, when the query begins with a begged problem, to move on to solutions presents a sequences problem. How can there be agreement on how to solve a problem that may not exist, or can’t be pinned down because of the signal to noise ratio? Douhat decides that his New York Times soapbox is best used by adding to the noise.
Notwithstanding the absence of evidence of what’s gone so terribly wrong, Douhat has channeled Robert Preston from the Music Man, We got trouble with a capital T, and that rhymes with B, and that stands for booze.
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.
Not only do we have the problem in the absence of evidence, but we have the “deeper problem” because of Douhat’s magical ability to divine such things from the air? Even the women who are Douhat’s purported victims don’t know they have a problem. Thankfully, there are people around to tell women who “do not themselves use the word “rape” to describe what happened” that they’ve been raped. Now that rape is something a woman can ponder the next day, it’s also available for discussion amongst friends and Douhat, lest any victim not be aware of her status.
So the argument does that by eliminating the root of the vulnerability, drunkard women, the epidemic can be cured. Douhat offers three solutions to the drunken women problem:
First, our lawmakers could reduce the legal drinking age to 18 from 21. 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.
Oh my. Is he gonna catch it from the Mothers Against Drunk Driving. When one moral scold challenges another, war is unavoidable. But is the “key problem” really “blackout drinking”? If so, then there really isn’t a big definitional issue. Few reasonable people would argue that engaging in sex with a person who is unconscious, and thus clearly incapable of consent, isn’t rape. Done deal, Ross. But I suspect you’re going to find out that this isn’t the key problem. In fact, this is an outlier. Blackouts are rare; basic drunkenness of both sexes is not.
While I have no issue with returning the drinking age to 18, noting with some irony the proposal to cure one moral panic by ending the prohibition used to solve another, the change doesn’t really address the problem. It appears that Douhat’s solution involves bringing the “underground drinking culture” of 18 to 21-year-olds into the light, so that they can drink openly and won’t binge drink anymore.
My suspicions are that the introduction to any taboo substance tends to give rise to excesses merely because they’re taboo. Normalize it and young people learn to handle it better, more responsibly. Will a “counterintuitive” remedy like reduction of the drinking age to 18 end binge drinking, blackouts and rape? Beats me, but it can’t hurt. Of course, there was binge drinking a generation ago, two generations ago, and likely before my time, but then, rape had a definition back then, so we had no epidemic.
Douhat’s second solution is to end the “symbiotic relationship with the on-campus party scene,” which he blames on college athletics and raucous fraternity boys. Damn those Sigma Chis at Harvard. Douhat clearly doesn’t spend enough time on college campuses.
Finally, Douhat comes up with a fascinating third solution.
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.
Welcome back, 1950s. Missed you. If there is an epidemic of rape on college campuses, and we can all agree that rape is a horrible crime, then let’s make sure that one foot remains on the floor and no young woman of virtue is ever allowed out unchaperoned. We can stop this, even if the young woman of virtue happens to be a binge drinker inclined to imbibe demon liquor to the point of unconsciousness.
Yet, Douhat missed the obvious. As long as we’re traveling back in time to find a really effective, outside the box, solution to this epidemic of campus rape, why not go to a place where we can guarantee, with absolute certainty, that no nonconsensual insertion can possibly occur. That’s right, welcome to the middle ages and its greatest invention, the Chastity Belt. It worked for the Crusaders then. It will work for the crusaders now. Problem solved.