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Stephen Joel Trachtenberg

Stephen Joel Trachtenberg

Last week, my friend Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, president emeritus of George Washington University, appeared on NPR’s Diane Rehm Show focussed on the role of fraternities and sororities on college campuses.

Before the program was over, a national firestorm had erupted over remarks he made about women and drinking, and declaring that he was guilty of the kind of retrograde attitude that blames victims for what has been done to them.

I disagree completely. What Steve Trachtenberg is guilty of is nothing more or less than common sense, a commodity apparently all too uncommon these days.

At one point, in response to Dr. Trachtenberg’s enumeration of what these organizations do in terms of community service and instilling leadership, Ms. Rehm asked, “And you don’t see them participating in sexual misconduct?”

Trachtenberg acknowledged that there are good fraternities and bad fraternities, just as there are good and bad examples of everything. He mentioned the excessive drinking practiced by many college students.

And then came the statement that got so many people up in arms:

“Without making the victims responsible for what happens, one of the groups that have to be trained not to drink in excess are women. They need to be in a position to punch the guys in the nose if they misbehave. And so part of the problem is you have men who take advantage of women who drink too much and there are women who drink too much. And we need to educate our daughters and our children in that regard.”

For some reason, a large number of people interpreted this to mean that Trachtenberg was saying that drunk women are responsible if they are sexually assaulted. In fact, he said no such thing. The opening of his statement was: “Without making the victims responsible for what happens. . .” How difficult is that to interpret?

Trachtenberg is saying exactly what John Douglas and I have been saying for years. And it’s really simple:

No victim of sexual assault is ever responsible for the crime perpetrated against her (or him.)

That statement stands on its own without any qualifiers. And “No” means “No.” Period.

But we also say this:

Anyone who is going to be putting herself or himself  in a risky or dangerous situation should take precautions.

If you are planning to walk down a secluded alley at night, know that you are placing yourself in a risky situation and plan accordingly.

If you are going to attend a large fraternity party where there is bound to be a lot of drinking and “sexual adventure” that you do not want to be part of, don’t drink so much that you lose your wits.

Personally, I find the idea of a young woman punching a misbehaving young man in the nose empowering, but I do accept the idea that it is unlikely that a woman, on average, is going to be able to overpower a man, on average, who is threatening sexual assault. But how much less chance is there for a woman to be taken advantage of if she can react quickly and soberly?

This is what John Douglas taught both his daughters when they were teenagers. We would never tell our kids it’s okay to drink as much as you want and then get behind the wheel. So why would we tell them it’s okay to drink beyond your wits and then leave a party with a man with whom you don’t particularly want to spend the  night? Isn’t that just common sense?

The problem is that these things get all political, when what they’re really about is personal security and protection.

Let’s get this straight: Suggesting that people take precautions and anticipate potentially dangerous or vulnerable situations has nothing to do with blaming victims for what happens to them.

Steve Trachtenberg clearly understands the distinction, and I applaud him for speaking out honestly and coourageously on this important subject. And if, on the other hand, our sons and daughters are not intellectually sophisticated enough to understand the distinction, then they don’t belong in college in the first place, or anywhere else out in the world, for that matter.

8 Responses to Uncommon Sense

  1. Iworr says:

    Here’s a question I have thought of for awhile, years actually. And I hope nobody takes this as excusing sexual assault but how is it possible for a woman to be to drunk, or under the influence of anything else, to know what she was doing to be able to consent to sex, but a man can not use the same defense of being too drunk to know what he was doing?

  2. seesthru says:

    At first I was angry, then I calmed down a bit, and now I think I see the problem. The statement can be interpreted many ways. What the statement is, is a warning.

    Women ( and men) you can get raped any time any where. However the risk goes up in certain situations. Be vigilant. Be careful. Frat parties are a place you must be careful in, dark alleys are a place you must be vigilant in. In a perfect world no one would get raped, but since there are monsters out there, be careful. Predators exist. Anyone can be prey. Try not to fall into the trap a predator has set.

    You see, in a perfect world, men and women would not prey upon eachother, and no one would prey on kids. We teach our kids not to talk to strangers, and about stranger danger. They must listen and not get into that car, they need to run home, get help of they feel or see danger. Its’ the same for all of us. We must be aware of our surroundings even in fun places, because we increase the risk of being prey to a predator when we are not alert. That isn’t blame, it’s sound advice.

    In a perfect world there would be no predators and we would be safe even passed out at a frat party or alone in a dark alley. People would tend to us and be sure we were okay. It’s not a perfect world. Evil exists. Act accordingly.

    You can teach men ( and women) “Don’t rape” … Just like we teach “Thou shalt not kill” But, some still kill, some are still going to rape. Act accordingly no matter who you are or what gender you are.

  3. Cornerstone says:

    Personally, I’d be far more likely to punch a guy in the nose if I had been drinking too much. Colleges have ignored the problem far too long and would love to mitigate it by having the victim share responsibility, just like elementary school does with bullies and victims, because that gets them off the hook to do anything about it.

    I’ve already ranted on this subject on my personal blog and a news blog some years back when a local police chief made a similar admonishment to women. The controversy started on a newspaper blog. One guy on the newspaper blog said, “It can’t all be about the mind of the rapist, because then how could gang rapes happen?” He and most of the men on the blog were trying to justify “date rape” as if it’s in a category all by itself and is nothing more than a girl changing her mind.

    The general response by the women included comments like this:
    “Hey, why don’t you tell the MEN not to go out drinking and not to be alone with a woman?” ” Why don’t you suggest to the MEN that maybe if they’re not sure whether a woman has had too much to drink to be thinking straight, that they get her home safely and wait until she’s AWAKE before having sex with her?” “Why don’t you counsel MEN in clubs not to start moving in like pack animals when they see a woman start to teeter and then compete with each other to see who can guide her out the door into their car first?”

    My comment was even less charitable: “Seriously, if you’re waiting for a woman to pass out before you can have sex with her, if you’re thinking “I’ll wait until she’s asleep and she will hardly notice if I just slip it in,” Freud had words for you, and those words are “inadequate” and/or “necrophiliac.” So if that is really how you think sex is supposed to be, get yourself into therapy before some trusting but feisty girl wakes up with you raping her and you discover that maybe she’s not so far gone she can’t make it to the kitchen and back with the frying pan.”

    So I agree it would be nice to injure the rapist but the truth is, most women will not try it, more because they are outmatched than because they’re drunk.

    • Maybe I’m missing something here, Cornerstone, because your comments represent a large cohort. But telling men not to drink so they won’t attack women is not quite the same admonition in that in sexual assaults, men are generally the offenders, not women. So of course we want men to moderate their drinking, but it is not an analogous situation – men are more likely to hurt others while women are more likely to be hurt. Clearly, this is a passionately controversial issue and thanks for weighing in with another of your valuable contributions.

      • Cornerstone says:

        “But telling men not to drink so they won’t attack women is not quite the same admonition in that in sexual assaults, men are generally the offenders, not women. ”

        The point is it’s not the women who need to be admonished. And again, that was in response to our local police chief’s statement, which held no admonishment for the male rapists. It was more or less his public service announcement to “fix” the rise in rapes over that year after that was announced. I haven’t read Trachtenberg’s entire statement, so if 90 percent of it was indicting male rapists and 10 percent was a word of caution to women, then it’s a bit more acceptable — except that telling women something that obvious is an insult in itself. Not ever getting drunk certainly doesn’t assure you never get raped. Getting drunk doesn’t assure you are completely oblivious. Being drunk or sober doesn’t put a red flag on top of a rapist’s head at the bar or party. And nothing you can do, including ordering a soda, can keep the bartender at the bar or party from loading your drink.

        I’m glad the subject is being aired, but there are too many young men out there wanting to believe date rape is a nonissue to give them any ammo whatever that it could be the woman’s fault.

  4. Rainsong says:

    Isn’t that a bit like saying, “I’m not prejudiced, but… .”

    Back in the 80s, long before I ever heard of Roofies or GBH, someone slipped something into my one and only beer, a beer I never even finished. A friend and I were on a long weekend trip to Massachusetts. We stopped at a diner/bar in Brewster, N.Y. for a bite to eat. As the designated driver in an unfamiliar area, I limited myself to one beer. The next thing I knew, I was stretched out on a vinyl upholstered bench with my jeans around my ankles. I was aware of what was happening but had no control over it or my body. As soon as it was over, the “gentleman” escorted me back to my friend–I grabbed her arm and we high-tailed it out of there.

    Why I thought I could drive is beyond me. Needless to say, my car and I both suffered that night but at least we both made it back to Maryland even if not in the same shape as when we left.

    According to Trachtenberg’s statement, a woman who drinks too much (exactly what is “too much” ) is responsible because she has put herself in a vulnerable position. I call that “bull.”

    A woman–or a man–should be safe from rape regardless of the situation. The problem isn’t men with raging hormones, but men who are full of self-doubt and those who feel entitled.

    Was it here someone posted a poll given to teenagers about when rape was acceptable? I can’t remember if it was, but I do recall being astonished at the number of both teenage boys [I]and[/I] girls who thought rape was acceptable under some circumstances.

    We need to teach our kids far more than not drinking “too much.” We need to teach them rape is never acceptable under any circumstance.

    I admire you both so much and am so disappointed in this viewpoint. Because, if you really stop and think about it, a woman is vulnerable all the time. When she goes to the grocery store, on her way to work, in her own home, on a mini-vacation with a friend. Sure, she might be able to react faster, but then, we can’t say what kind of rapist she might be dealing with, can we? And because we don’t know what type of rapist he might be, we can’t say what the appropriate reaction might be, either.

    Maybe it just takes a woman to see iTrachtenberg’s comment as victim blaming.

    • I’m very appreciative of your viewpoint and your heartfelt narrative. But I see no incompatibility between saying victims are never responsible for the crimes against them and saying it is prudent to take precautions whenever possible. You were incapacitated in your sexual assault. How could that possibly be your fault? But If I had a daughter, I would certainly warn her not to get drunk in any situation in which she could be taken advantage of. And I would say the same for a son, though the dynamics are usually different. Thank you so much for writing.

      • Rainsong says:

        Does it really make a difference whether or not a woman is incapacitated due her own actions or the actions of another? So, you would tell your daughters not to get drunk in certain situations. Would you also tell them not to dress a certain way? Dance a certain way? How about when she’s sixty? Or ten?

        Females are vulnerable all the time–if there is a rape-oriented male nearby.

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