Columns

Andrea Matthews ’11: Safer sex on a Saturday night

By
Opinions Columnist
Thursday, March 4, 2010

A disturbing opinions column ran in the Daily Princetonian on Feb. 22 (“The real ‘Sex on a Saturday Night’ ” by Iulia Neagu). The thesis was that a girl becoming significantly intoxicated is “equivalent to agreeing to anything that might happen to her while in this state,” and that a serious injustice is done to men by women who — Neagu alleges — falsely cry rape when both parties had sex while intoxicated.

What is most troubling is the idea that men or women who choose to drink implicitly accept whatever may happen to them while they are under the influence. Does an intoxicated individual implicitly consent to being robbed? Punched? Stabbed? Of course not. But there lurks in Neagu’s opinion a more interesting, and less clean-cut, question.

But before we get there, let’s just be crystal clear.  Men and women can consume alcohol, meet each other at parties, engage in sexual activity that does not include intercourse … and still not intend to have sex. For that matter, no series of interaction is capable of obtaining implicit consent for any “next step” in physical intimacy. The only way to truly and completely ascertain consent is verbally, and even then, only without coercion. There is no such thing as “asking for it,” without literally and honestly asking for it.

It seems that a good number of the respondents to the column on the Daily Princetonian online and IvyGate have some friend or friend-of-a-friend who was falsely accused of rape and narrowly escaped libelous scandal. But research on campus sexual assault tells a different story. A Department of Justice report issued in 2000, titled “The Sexual Victimization of College Women” and available from the National Institute of Justice at www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/182369.pdf, found that 95.2 percent of women sampled who had been raped in college did not report their assaults. Of those, 46.9 percent did not report because they did not want other people to know.

Anecdotes about friends-of-friends falsely accused of rape are powerful, and when blown out of proportion, they can have the pronounced and detrimental effect of disempowering men and women who have been sexually assaulted, who may fear judgment and disbelief encouraged by these very stories.

False rape accusations have the power to ruin the reputations and college careers of the accused (even more, if prosecution continues off campus), and cast doubt on the legitimacy of true accusations. But the serious consequences of false accusations should move us toward ensuring that the system for investigating and prosecuting rape on college campuses is fair, rather than discrediting all allegations of sexual assault.

One of the most contentious issues is what constitutes consent in the first place. If two (or, I suppose, more) students are both intoxicated — significantly intoxicated — can either of them legitimately consent to having intercourse? Legally speaking, no.

But is this legal definition workable in an environment in which alcohol and sexual activity often go hand in hand? We cannot walk around with breathalyzers and monitor the BACs of all potential sexual partners. Here are some things that we can do:

1. Be more aware and considerate of the level of intoxication of our sexual partners. Is it too hard to ask that both men and women on this campus simply refrain from having sex with partners who are significantly intoxicated? I cannot make some bright line distinction as to what state is “too intoxicated” to have sex. But we should be able to respect ourselves and each other enough to choose partners who can lucidly consent — not only in order to respect their bodily autonomy, but to respect our own value as sexual partners.

2. Speak with our partners before, during and after intercourse. Not only should verbal consent be necessary (but not necessarily sufficient) before sex, but partners should communicate their boundaries clearly at all times during the process.

3. Refrain from consuming significant amounts of alcohol if we ourselves plan on being sexually active. Though I earnestly hope it does not happen often, I must acknowledge that both men and women on this campus at times consume alcohol with the intention of garnering the courage they feel they need to find a sexual partner. A good rule of thumb: If you need to be drunk to do it, you shouldn’t be doing it at all.

The above suggestions are not designed to be a silver bullet against instances of sexual assault. They are merely a plea for all parties involved in sexual intercourse to be more responsible for themselves and more respectful of each other.

Too often in considering these situations, we gravitate toward hypotheticals that lend themselves to relatively simple ethical judgments. The truth is, sexual assault on college campuses is not a black-and-white issue. The more responsibly all of us act, the better we can protect ourselves from any involvement in sexual assault.

Andrea Matthews ’11 realizes she is about to become significantly less popular at parties.

  • Adam L

    I find this a great and mostly balanced & thought-out opinion. As a male I also happen to agree – popular, or not!