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.