Let's stop blaming the alcohol

Feb 10 2016 Published by under [Education&Careers]

As more and more cases of academic sexual harassment continue to come out into the light (and I believe this is barely the appetizer course), there's a lot of people navel gazing about what can be done. And rightfully so - this is a problem that has festered WAY too long, as the stories make clear. Pretty much every field has AT LEAST one dude who "people know" is a lecherous asshole, but there he/they is/are at every meeting. They still have labs and trainees and still get funding. They exist within the field, in spite of their crimes.

An obvious focus has been the use of alcohol at university functions, society meetings, social gatherings, etc. I get it, it's those nighttime functions where a lot of this stuff is initiated. Lower inhibitions, or in some likely criminal situations like the Richmond accusations, an inability to consent. Those in the power position of these situations are quick to blame the alcohol for something they would never do otherwise (until the rest of the stories spill out) or use it to victim blame. So, The People Say: BAN THE ALCOHOL!

But here's the thing. It was never the alcohol. The alcohol didn't let the lecherous predator out from the normally totally cool prof dude who is universally beloved. That's not how this works. If someone has a couple of drinks and goes into sexual harassment mode, chances are they do it sober, just not in front of *you*. If someone is a couple drinks away from endangering someone, especially someone they have some form of power over, it has nothing to do with the alcohol.

So rather than ban alcohol, I have a better solution. How about we actually punish people when these situations arise? And don't give me all the "well but" hypothetical solutions that come up all the time. I'm sorry, but if you find yourself aroused by someone you have career power over, then deal with the situation through proper channels while sober before advancing things. If you want to consensually knock boots someone at a similar career stage without a loaded power dynamic, I'm not talking about you. Will there be some gray areas? Yeah, but I'll take that if it means consequences for serial harassers.

It's well past time to address the culture that enables this behavior without pretending like the real problem here is adults acting like adults after a beer or two. It was never the alcohol.

17 responses so far

  • dr24hours says:

    I agree with just about everything here. Alcohol is not to blame, people are. Banning alcohol would not prevent harassment.

    I go even further: for some people, alcohol is a specifically aggravating factor. There is a class of people who want to harass people, play grab-ass, etc., but who normally refrain from it because they know it's wrong/will get them in trouble. Some of these people then drink alcohol because it lets them ignore the constraints they normally put on their behavior, and also gives them a convenient excuse when they're called out. ("I'd never do that sober.")

    So, on the big spectrum of inappropriate behaviors, there do exist people who only behave inappropriately when drunk. But that doesn't mean alcohol is the problem. They make the choice, while sober, to drink away their inhibition. And to employ a substance they believe mitigates their criminal behavior.

  • I agree with you and I'm all for cutting that shit off at the neck. If you're afraid drinking will make you sexually harass someone, you'll be a great Designated Driver.

  • dr24hours says:

    Yup. And for many in the scenario I describe, alcohol isn't the cause of the harassment; thus isn't "the problem". However, I would argue that most people who fit that category have a broken relationship with alcohol, and permanent abstinence may be the only solution for them.

  • neuromusic says:

    it's possible to give alcohol scrutiny without blaming the alcohol or the victim, especially as an institution seeks to mitigate & prevent risks.

    alcohol is a weapon used by sexual predators. e.g.
    http://taskandpurpose.com/alcohol-weapon-inside-militarys-new-tactic-combat-sexual-assault/

    an institution which supports (through $$ or culture) excessive consumption, puts a weapon into the hands of the perpetrator

    that said, focusing only on EtOH risks making it scapegoat. key is institutional consequences for perps, as proflike said

  • Zuska says:

    Imagine if, when women reported sexual harassment/assault, the default assumption was that they were telling the truth. Not "we may never know what happened" or "he says it was consensual [even if she was too drunk to remember it, and therefore, too drunk to consent, and also my subordinate]".
    Imagine if that were so.
    Imagine then how it would be the norm to be absolutely clear ahead of time that each partner was consenting, that hiding behind alcohol would not be considered a valid excuse, that groping and raping your subordinates would not be considered a perk of the position.
    Because people would believe women when they said they were assaulted.
    "But what about the poor men falsely accused!"
    Oh well. It's just better to keep disbelieving women and letting powerful men enjoy their perks.

  • Well, we all know the fame and fortune that becomes women who accuse men of sexual harassment! Of course there's false accusations! It does such wonders for one's career!

  • variegated says:

    Alcohol is indeed used as a weapon by predators. It's not the predators getting drunk that is the problem, but rather, all-out departmental parties provide a covert but easy way for predators to drug students (with EtOH) and take advantage of them. You might say a rapist can try to drug and rape students anytime anywhere, but the dangerous ones aren't as blatantly obvious, because they know they could risk being caught. So instead they operate at parties like these where they can frame their predatory behaviors as just having fun with students because they're like, super cool guys.

    One could say, out of principle, that female students are entitled to drink as much as they want in the company of anybody and not fear being raped. That what needs to be done is to get rid of any potential rapists. Or at least get potential rapists to not rape anybody. I agree with this in principle. But to simply take a principled stand against practical measures that can deny a predator his weapons or his arena, is in effect the same as sitting by doing nothing.

    It's very similar to the debates around gun control. Sure, guns aren't a cause or a perpetrator, but they're a weapon. Ideally you find ways to address the cause in the long run, but if the immediate goal is to prevent firearm deaths, ban the weapons, lock up the perpetrators. Not one or the other. Both.

  • I am not saying that alcohol isn't a factor in many cases, I am saying that the fact that there are virtually no consequences for this shit is the REAL problem. We've created a culture that enables the predatory behavior and banning alcohol at events won't fix that. We need to break the current culture and then maybe we don't have to worry about whether adults can have a few beers together without tragic consequences.

  • variegated says:

    "We need to break the current culture and then maybe we don't have to worry about whether adults can have a few beers together without tragic consequences."

    I agree that we need to universally enforce strict punitive measures (fire harassers, strip them of PI status on grants) and promote an equitable culture, but I'm not as optimistic as you are, thinking we can ever be free of this threat.

  • I get that. It's hard to imagine such a drastically different reality.

  • DJMH says:

    There's a lot of complaining about NSF not making an effort to "enforce" their policy against sexual harassment etc, but it's not clear to me how they can do it. If NSF or NIH states something like, "PIs who are found to have sexually assaulted/harassed their students will immediately lose their grant money," then the obvious result is that universities will be DE-motivated to find sexual harassment....because that comes with immediate loss of money.

    But at the same time, it would be good if NSF/NIH could somehow punish universities that are found to be ignoring sexual harassment to keep the $$ flowing. Not sure how to reconcile these issues.

    Taking the alcohol away from retreats isn't going to solve a lot. People will avoid the retreats altogether, and the parties with alcohol will be more clandestine. That's usually a bad recipe.

  • David says:

    @DJMH
    I wonder if someone (NSF, NIH, Dept of Education?) can do what the NCAA does to athletic departments that lack institutional control. Now the NCAA is opaque, greedy, and uneven, but at least they realize that you need to target the top on down if you want to attempt to control behavior. If you are not familiar with what the NCAA does, they basically expect schools to self police and if the NCAA finds out something occurred that the school hid, then major punishment is handed down. Not a great solution, but better than hiding your head in sand.

  • […] posts here and here) Bernie Has Emily Ratajkowski and Killer Mike. Hillary Has the Delegates. Let’s stop blaming the alcohol “Trust Me,” Said the 401(k), “A Sucker Is Born Every Day.” (made this point a few times […]

  • Juan Lopz says:

    " Pretty much every field has AT LEAST one dude who "people know" is a lecherous asshole "

    ""But what about the poor men falsely accused!"
    Oh well. It's just better to keep disbelieving women and letting powerful men enjoy their perks."

    Nice, lynch mob mentality. Has that ever not worked? Why would we need evidence? Let's just hang them and let God sort them out.

    You may not care, but I am glad the world has moved past that approach.

    Chances are this comment will be edited out, lest someone not participate in the lynching.

  • No, I let people expose themselves as misogynistic d-bags.

  • Juan Lopez says:

    Anybody who doesn't agree with a lynch mob is a misogynistic d-bag?

  • Donnie Berkholz says:

    So if both parties are drunk, things happen, and they stop the instant one says no, were any laws broken? If so, weren't they broken equally on both sides?

    That's notwithstanding the obvious issues between supervisor and supervisee.

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