Those of us who weren’t too hungover to miss continental breakfast two Saturdays ago were met with a glaring red trigger in our dining hall foyers entitled: “Dear Freshmen: Welcome to Hell.”
This blatant satirization of the gendered version of “first year” merely prefaced the Rumpus’s guide through Yale’s own sexualized and drunk version of Dante’s Inferno. But those who woke up to the Purgatorio that is Yale brunch missed out on the trip. The issue was quickly redacted after Rumpus staff members decided that two jokes dangerously made light of sexual assault — first with the inclusion of “Freshman’s First Blackout” as the “Free” square in “Hook-up Bingo,” a sexual challenge outlined at the back of every tabloid, and second with a horribly crude joke in the editor’s note about a first year blacking out and having sex in a fraternity basement.
Some students, horrified at the Rumpus’s mistake, were glad at the retraction; others, meanwhile, were quick to label it censorship and proof that Yalies can’t understand sarcasm. Yet both of these views miss out on the crucial point behind the theatrics: University-enforced silence continues to mask any productive work on understanding the relationship between alcohol and sexual assault on our campus.
The staffers who responded negatively to the jokes were right in following their common sense — the Rumpus editors were wrong to use the vulnerability of first years as a way to joke about regrettable sexual encounters. But in the vein of irony, they also accidentally drew much-needed attention to the phenomenon of over-drinking that is incentivized by Yale’s flippant alcohol and drug policies. These policies — such as treating drug and alcohol abuse as a health concern and not an academic one — are usually lauded by students and professors alike as a crucial way of protecting the safety of young people who will inevitably experiment with their newfound freedom in college.
But the freedom Yale affords us must come with conversations about the responsibilities it entails; namely, understanding exactly how alcohol affects our attitude towards others, whether in casual or sexual encounters. Countless administrative sexual misconduct workshops — often run by the CCEs — emphasize individual choice as the most important element of navigating the campus sexual climate, but rarely, if ever, do they offer discussions on the subtle ways that alcohol can affect our ability to communicate. Bystander intervention training or first-year orientation meetings, for example, only emphasize literal incapacity as the moment when consent is no longer a choice. In the case of the Rumpus, the “blacked out freshmen,” naturally, and correctly, raised a red flag. But as for the alcohol-induced behaviors (before blacking out) most pertinent to addressing sexual assault — overconfidence, aggressiveness, and uninhibitedness — these require much more thorough conversations.
Unfortunately, real discussion about alcohol and sexual assault has been all but silenced through every administrative channel Yale maintains in order to steer students away from notions about sexual assault that, as the CCE website puts it, “often end up fueling victim-blaming or perpetrator-excusing myths.” If a student suggests in a workshop that drinking might contribute to sexual assault or compromise our understanding of consent, CCEs are trained to warn that alcohol itself does not cause victims to be sexually assaulted — only the perpetrator enacts the assault — and we cannot say that alcohol relieves the perpetrator of blame. More clumsily phrased statements boil down to the dangerously false claim that “alcohol has nothing to do with sexual assault.”
So, by including jokes about the ease with which first years will find themselves in dangerous situations involving alcohol and sex, the Rumpus did in fact conduct a form of victim blaming. It’s the “freshmen” who got themselves trapped in the depths of Yale hell that are to blame for being the “free” square in Hook-up Bingo, not the ones who take advantage of them.
But maddeningly, for that first year or sophomore that does find themselves stuck in a tricky situation, or faced with the choice of entering a dangerous one, they really don’t have any authority other than their common sense and Yale to turn to for help. And Yale has only told us that our common sense is mostly wrong.
It should be obvious, then, that neither the Rumpus’s misguided reference to the general problem of sexual assault nor Yale’s meaningless institutionalization of a strict anti-victim blaming mentality is a substitute for what should instead be a sensitive discussion on the stakes of drinking at parties and the abuse of alcohol as a form of manipulation (including the fine line between “loosening up” and “taking advantage”). As students who are hyper-privileged to live under the guise of a consequence-free alcohol and drug abuse policy, we cannot afford to censor ourselves on the one issue that most endangers Yale.
To hell with it, I say. Let’s break the silence.
Leland Stange is a senior in Ezra Stiles College. His column runs on alternate Fridays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .