The sexual assault of an unconscious woman at Stanford University has ignited a national debate, but not everyone is in agreement on the relationship between drinking and sexual assault. Although he was found guilty on three counts of felony sexual assault, even former Stanford University swimmer Brock Turner seems a bit confused as to what caused him to sexually assault an unconscious woman behind a dumpster on campus in January 2015. Turner blames alcohol. And he's not alone. His father blamed Stanford's "culture of alcohol consumption and partying" for his son's actions. But if you think drinking on college campuses is the real issue behind incidents of sexual assault, you're coming at the matter from the wrong angle.
Turner was convicted of the intent to commit rape of an unconscious or intoxicated person, penetration of an intoxicated person, and penetration of an unconscious person in March. Although he faced up to 14 years in prison, Turner was sentenced to just six months in jail by a California judge concerned with handing down a punishment that would have a "severe impact" on the student-athlete. While many have sought to use the case to raise awareness about incidents of sexual assault and society's sometimes problematic response to victims' stories, others have argued it is proof alcohol and colleges just don't mix.
It became clear there was some confusion as to who, or what, is accountable for incidents of rape and sexual assault after a letter Turner wrote to the judge presiding over his case was made public by The Guardian. Rather than take responsibility for his actions, Turner blamed the alcohol he had consumed. In his statement to the judge, Turner expressed regret — not for what he did to an unconscious woman behind a dumpster, but for picking up "a drink that night."
While both Turner and the woman he was convicted of sexually assaulting have said they were intoxicated on the night of the event, incidents of sexual assault like this can't be simply chalked up to the effects of alcohol. Drinking isn't the issue behind incidents of sexual assault on college campuses because alcohol doesn't rape people. People rape people.
The findings of studies examining the ties between alcohol consumption and sexual assault are often much more complicated than they are made out to be. One meta-analysis of these studies concluded that "the fact that alcohol consumption and sexual assault frequently co-occur does not demonstrate that alcohol causes sexual assault." The analysis also found "men who commit sexual assault when drinking alcohol are similar to men who commit sexual assault when sober in most aspects of their personality and attitudes."
Just because alcohol can be a factor in cases of sexual assault does not mean it removes the assailants' accountability. What makes the argument that drinking is the larger issue behind incidents of sexual assault especially troubling is that it often frames alcohol as a legitimate excuse for rape while arguing it serves as a sign of blame in victims: A drunk man who rapes is not at fault. A drunk woman who is raped is at fault.
But sexual assault is not, nor should it ever be, a punishment for choosing to indulge in an alcoholic drink, or two, or three, or four, or 10 for that matter. Millions of men refrain from raping women while drunk. They should not be considered the exception, they should be considered the norm.
Arguments framing alcohol as the underlying issue to cases of campus sexual assault not only wrongly paint the assailant as a victim, but attempt to reframe the issue as a means of shirking responsibility. Drinking is not the problem. The problem is accountability. The problem is feeling entitled to take something that doesn't belong to you. The problem is toxic sexual aggression. The problem is rape.