Clarifying alcohol myths

As a student affairs fellow I work both on alcohol harms reduction and sexual misconduct prevention for Yale College, and have studied the robust body of research literature on alcohol, sexual assault and the relationship between the two. I appreciated the impulse behind the column “Men, don’t black out” (March 30) — we would all like to see fewer instances of sexual assault — but I write to respond to certain factual inaccuracies in the piece.

To start with, our prevention efforts do not rest on the presumption that we need to teach men not to rape women. This isn’t just a political or ethical stance, but one grounded in research on the dynamics of sexual assault. “The Myth of Miscommunication” workshop cited by the author shares these basic findings: We can all recognize signs of agreement and refusal, verbal or otherwise, even when we are intoxicated. Acts of misconduct result not from confusion or ignorance, but from disregarding someone’s signals of ambivalence or refusal.

Second, while it’s true that alcohol is present in many situations in which campus sexual assaults occur, this doesn’t mean that there is a causal relationship between alcohol and sexual misconduct. Most campus sexual assaults happen within sexualized social contexts. Sexualized social contexts on college campuses tend to involve alcohol. Correlation is not the same as causation.

Third, contrary to many cultural myths, alcohol does not “lower inhibitions to the point that [men] no longer care [that rape is bad].” Alcohol does not change who a person is, nor does it incite behaviors that do not already exist within an individual. In fact, research tells us that many perpetrators drink to excuse their sexually aggressive behavior. One 2009 study found that consuming alcohol increases acceptance of sexual aggression in men assessed for predispositions such as “need for sexual dominance,” “acceptance of interpersonal violence” and “alcohol expectation.” Put simply, those who are able to hide their aggression when sober are less able to do so when they drink.

Fourth, binge drinking isn’t the same as blacking out.  Blacking out is defined as partial or complete memory loss for an episode of drinking and results from a rapid increase in blood alcohol content (BAC). Individuals who are blackout have the same cognitive and motor capacity that they would at whatever BAC, blackout or not—and are making decisions in the same fashion.  Blacking out is still a problem, of course, even if it doesn’t cause rape.  It’s the result of the brain’s adverse reaction to too much alcohol too quickly.  Individuals who are blackout are also more likely to get alcohol poisoning.

Fifth, I’d like to address the criticism of the “Think About It” program. Some colleges do attempt to address sexual assault in prematriculation online courses, but Yale has chosen to reserve that complex topic for in-depth conversation after students arrive. And yes, we could warn students that alcohol is correlated with sexual assault — but the research on “alcohol expectancies” (people’s beliefs about the power of alcohol) tells us that warnings about risk often become self-fulfilling prophecies. The author suggests that “scaring some freshmen” is a reasonable price to pay for safety. That might be true if the equation worked — but there is a solid body of research linking fear to heightened risk.

Finally, I’d like to end on a more hopeful note. Our most recent data on blacking out suggests that Yale students have significantly reduced their blackout rates over the past few years. It may be the introduction of “Think About It,” the new training of freshman counselors and other campus leaders or some other cause. This is good in and of itself, and reminds us that campus culture can change for the better — that’s something we all need to work towards.

David Lindsey is a student affairs fellow and Old Campus fellow. He graduated from Yale College in 2012. Contact him at david.lindsey@yale.edu .

Pluralism lost

In “Reggae artist combines Judaism, pop music” Ayla Besemer reported on Saturday evening’s concert by formerly Orthodox, Jewish reggae artist, Matisyahu. Given Matisyahu’s Orthodox Jewish backround, the concert is billed as “a way to showcase the diversity of the Jewish faith.” Although Matisyahu’s music may serve as Jewish inspiration for a large variety of people, it would be a mischaracterization to call the concert an exercise in pluralism.

If the event was intended to showcase the pluralism of Yale’s Jewish community, the venue choice was a strange one. Although Jews of various stripes may entertain a multiplicity of views regarding entering non-Jewish religious spaces, mainstream Orthodox Judaism forbids it in cases such as this. The fact that the concert took place in a church therefore eschewed the very pluralism that the article claims it promoted. A number of Orthodox and observant students refrained from attending the concert because of their discomfort with the venue. To emphasize Matisyahu’s (lapsed) Orthodoxy, and to focus on “bringing people together,” is to ignore the marginalizing choice of venue and appropriation of Orthodox Judaism that the event symbolized for many students.

Joey Adler is a sophomore in Timothy Dwight College. Contact him at joseph.adler@yale.edu .