Stop getting drunk to stay safe

Emily Yoffe's recent Slate article, "College Women: Stop Getting Drunk," suggesting that parents warning to their young daughters that drinking to incapacity leaves them vulnerable to many dangers — including sexual assault — touched off a firestorm.

Some feminist bloggers accused Ms. Yoffe of contributing to "rape denialism," "blaming the victim" and of joining the "Don't drink and vagina" campaign, while others argued that Ms. Yoffe's common-sense advice ought to be "required reading for every college student, male and female."

Many parents may puzzle over why women activists and writers would argue so fiercely over advising young women not to binge drink. The answer has to do with the nature of the crime and an ongoing dilemma in women's history.

Rape is not like other crimes. In no other crime is the victim responsible for proving that she did not deserve to be attacked, except possibly domestic violence. Feminists understandably resist any suggestion that the victim's behavior justifies the crime.

However, the angry reactions are also indicative of a dilemma that women have grappled with throughout history: namely, that over time, many women have made short-term tactical decisions that benefit them but seem to damage the long-term goal of all women receiving fair and equal treatment. Not remembering the complicated history of the trade-offs that women have sometimes made in their immediate interest perhaps explains why some feminists have reacted so viscerally to Ms. Yoffe's argument, despite her efforts to be sensitive to rape's contentious history.

Gender historians are well aware of the complex ways in which women have navigated within social and political structures designed to disadvantage them while protecting the interests of elite men.

British women who fought for divorce reform in the nineteenth century, and especially, reform of child custody laws (which granted custody to the father under all circumstances) willingly made use of maternalist rhetoric that stressed that primary bond between mother and child. Their efforts mitigated a legal system in which abusive men automatically retained custody over their children, but at the expense of reinforcing an essentialist view of women as mothers above all.

When birth control and abortion were illegal prior to Griswold v. Connecticut and Roe v. Wade, many elite women could still protect their reproductive choices through private relationships with their doctors. And it was possible in some states for women to obtain "therapeutic abortions" if they were willing to act unhinged before an all-male hospital medical board, testifying that bearing a child threatened their emotional or physical health. These options solved the immediate problem for these women, but did nothing to promote the larger argument that all women have the right to control their sexual and reproductive health.

Even in these more progressive times for women's prospects the dilemma remains. Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer's decision to return to work so quickly after giving birth worked for her, presumably, but, some feminists argued, it undercut the fight for humane maternity leave policies for less privileged women.

In the same way, many feminists fear that telling young women to protect themselves by saying no to binge drinking will undercut current efforts to place the responsibility for rape squarely where it belongs—on the rapist. This is not a false danger, because many judges and juries do, in fact, expect a perfect victim.

This situation is unlikely to change immediately, and, in the meantime, many parents will and should caution their daughters (and sons) that drinking too much is a stupid idea. It does feminists no good to tear apart commentators like Ms. Yoffe, who are our allies.

Still, we should not dismiss the real concerns that feminists raise, because history suggests that they are right to be cautious.

Only by understanding the power of gendered thinking today -- in the real world -- can we successfully navigate the desire to protect ourselves and our daughters right now without signing away future claims to fairness.

Christine Adams is a professor of history at St. Mary's College of Maryland. Email her at cmadams@smcm.edu.