This week, officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sparked controversy when they recommended that all sexually active women should abstain from consuming alcohol, unless they are taking birth control. On Wednesday, the CDC released an infographic about the dangers of alcohol to women, and, guys, it is a doozy. And by “doozy,” I mean, “An offensive, victim-blaming ‘educational’ poster that, at best, casts women as irresponsible idiots, and, at worst, perpetuates rape culture.”
The graphic is part of a federal health campaign aimed at preventing fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs) in babies. FASDs can occur in children whose mothers drank alcohol while pregnant, and they can lead to long-term behavioral, intellectual, and physical disabilities. FASDs are a serious business, and it’s important that people (women and men) be aware of the risks of drinking during pregnancy. Nevertheless, one could argue (and many have) that the CDC’s recommendation that all women of childbearing age — including those who have no intention of getting pregnant — shouldn’t drink alcohol unless they’re taking birth control — just in case — privileges the health of a completely hypothetical fetus over a woman’s choices about her actual life and casts all women as, first and foremost, “vessel[s] for human life.”
But, setting aside arguments about the CDC’s recommendation against drinking without birth control, let’s look at this graphic for a minute:
Notice anything funny? Most of these recommendations seem solid: Binge drinking is bad. Check. Drinking while pregnant can cause lots of serious problems. Check. Drinking, for ANY woman, can cause “injuries/violence,” “sexually transmitted diseases,” and “unintended pregnancy”… wait, what?
Who knew a tequila shot could give you chlamydia?
Last time I checked, getting an STD or becoming pregnant required two people, but the CDC seems to have forgotten that, taking men out of the equation entirely and instead making women solely responsible for sex and its consequences. And while one could argue that the “injuries/violence” phrase could refer to a situation in which a woman gets drunk and falls down, all on her own, it’s impossible to see those words in this context and not think of sexual assault or domestic abuse. The poster seems to suggest that if a woman drinks and becomes the object of violence, it was her fault for being irresponsible with alcohol — and not the fault of whoever was violent toward her. That dynamic is consistent with the way our society tends to approach violence towards women more broadly; we live in a culture that routinely puts the onus on women to prevent assault and abuse — Don’t get drunk, don’t wear those clothes, don’t say those things, don’t go out by yourself at night — and blames them when they can't, as if rape and violence were naturally occurring phenomena that women must simply try to avoid, like tornadoes or the flu, as opposed to acts that one person chooses to perpetrate against another.
Thus far, the CDC’s campaign to decrease the prevalence of FASDs seems to be focused entirely on women. Where is the poster telling men that drinking puts them at risk for STDs, violence, and fathering unwanted children? Where is the official recommendation that men in their fertile years should abstain from having unprotected sex with women who are drinking? Or — just to be safe — from having sex at all with women who are drinking? I’m asking.