If you’re the “TL:DR” kind of reader, here’s a precis: rape cases use alcohol in two ways–first, either booze is used to blame the victim of the most heinous of crimes; or second, booze is used to absolve the defendant of wrongdoing because the alcohol made him do something that he normally wouldn’t. That is complete and utter nonsense, and I want “Brock Turner rape” searches in Google to link here first so that some important voices (none of them mine) will prevail in this discussion.
You have access to the Internet, so by now you have surely heard about the case of the rapist Brock Turner, the Stanford athlete that turned out to be just another awful privileged kid who skated through the justice system on a sexual assault charge because of some letters that his equally awful parents sent to the judge presiding over his case. [Side note, he was stopped by some Swedish students, and Sweden drinks about as much as we do–just something to consider.] I will not link to those letters out of a sense of decency and because I will not give that kind of idiocy and contempt for decency any more of an outlet than it already has.
I will admit that I am furious over the sentence, furious over the culture that results in this kind of crime and this kind of judicial leniency, furious over every detail of his behavior and his supposed “character” that resulted in such a light sentence. To put it bluntly, I’m a fucking ball of rage over every last little detail that has surfaced about this dumpster fire of a human-being called “Brock” and the judge that let him rape a woman (who happened to have been drunk, which coincidentally is not a crime) and not have to serve an appropriate sentence. However, I shall withhold my righteous indignation on details of the assault and will try to focus on how this case skews our national conversation on alcohol.
This article is a struggle for me for a few reasons: first, the rape happened outside of a fraternity house, and I am proud to be a founding father of a national fraternity chapter at my undergrad; second, I have never been the victim of sexual assault, so I am absolutely not qualified to speak to that side of the case; and third, there are more qualified, more involved, and more eloquent voices out there who can speak about this better than I ever could (one of whom is quoted and linked below, so read on). But I have to say something about the rapist Brock Turner and how his bullshit defense perpetuates the unspoken moral indictment of drinking as an excuse for inexcusable behavior. If you have not already, please read this letter, perhaps the most disturbing and most important letter you will ever read.
This is a horrifyingly common occurrence: the (now rightfully convicted) rapist blames alcohol and the “party culture” (read: drinking) as the motivating factors of his deplorable behavior:
Brock Turner, the former Stanford University student convicted of sexually assaulting an unconscious woman behind a Dumpster on campus, described his actions as the product of a culture of drinking, peer pressure and “sexual promiscuity,” according to his courtroom statement.
That quotation comes from this NYT article about the case, and it is tragic that we find ourselves here again. To see the way this bullshit argument has been used before you need only look back to instances like the Vanderbilt rape case (which sought to blame alcohol, technology, and bad influences), or the Maryville, MO, case from 2014, or this case from Stamford, CT, in 1996. This is not new, and it harkens back even further.
Bear with me here.
In rape cases, alcohol gets invoked about as much as the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. However, it gets invoked in two different ways: either it is used to blame the victim (as in “she was drunk, what did she expect?”) or it is used, as in dumpster fire Brock’s case, to absolve the perpetrator (as in “I’m not used to drinking” or “I was drunk and therefore not aware that what I was doing was wrong”). Both uses have been invoked in the Stanford rape case, and it is as horrifying as it is ludicrous. It is classic victim blaming, and if you need to be told why that is wrong, then you are beyond help. Also, here’s a fun note: while Brock argued that he was naive about the effects of alcohol, he was actually chased down by police and charged with underage drinking waaaaaay prior to the rape. Read that report, and then think about this statement from the same convicted rapist:
He repeatedly cited an environment of peer pressure, drinking and promiscuity, factors he said he would use his time on probation to advocate against.
“I want to demolish the assumption that drinking and partying are what make up a college lifestyle,” he wrote. “I made a mistake, I drank too much, and my decisions hurt someone.”
The fact that this expendable bit of human detritus has the gall to pass the blame for his inexcusable crimes onto the storied shoulders of Sweet Lady Alcohol is a weak move, and I hope that everyone holds that against him for the rest of his life. The fact that he thinks that he could repent for his crimes by campaigning against the very thing that made him feel empowered to act on his vile, entitled sense of being above-the-law and free from reproach by blaming the booze is abhorrent.
You and I have been drunk before. Perhaps you too know the feeling of not being able to recall a few hours, maybe a day or so, due to being on a proper jag. Perhaps you know what it’s like to ask friends and vague acquaintances alike what it was that you did during that time. Maybe you pissed in an antique grandfather-clock and had to apologize for that, or maybe you (like me) challenged a rugby team to a match only later to realize that you didn’t understand the rules of rugby (but still scored a try, somehow) and had to hear about it all later. Maybe you have experienced that one legitimate mea culpa of the drinking world: when you say something in anger or frustration that, later, you realize you shouldn’t have said. We’ve all been there, and that’s about the only time that the defense of “I was drunk, I shouldn’t have said that-I’m sorry” is acceptable.
This brings me to the image at the head of this article. That’s a propaganda poster that circulated in These United States around the time of the first World War and the run-up to Prohibition. I included it as an example of the power of false antipathy–the power of conflating two things so as to demonize one and laud the other without good reason or argument. We all hate rape, but we as a society are weirdly fine with it when we are galvanized against some other perceived enemy like “the party culture.” We want to support our perceived heroes when they are besieged by darker forces that we are ready to deride. However, we need to be on guard against false narratives and be able to tell the good-guys from the bad-guys on our own. We need to know that when a bad thing happens, that’s because it was done by a bad person.
Among others, I have written before (and shockingly recently) about our national drinking habits, and not a one of us posits the booze as an excuse for that kind of behavior.
We all (I hope) know why rape is wrong, but we all need to take another look at how we talk about alcohol. Long has it been Modern Drunkard Magazine’s motto to “stand up for your right to get falling-down drunk,” and it is unfortunately these kinds of cases that bring that motto into focus. First, please read this statement from the woman who lived through the detestable acts of that pile of human garbage, and then read this article from Hammer-at-Heart Eileen O’Connor about this case. Her article needs to be read, needs to be shared, and needs to be understood by every last one of us. It is a clarion call for all of us: being drunk is not a crime, and it absolutely does not give anyone permission to inflict crimes upon us when we are.
We need to stand up together and de-stigmatize the choice to get drunk. We all do it, eventually. Never NEVER is it acceptable to use someone’s choice to get good and loaded as an excuse to satisfy your darker impulses at the expense of their humanity. Alcohol is the great equalizer–it brings us together, it is a small shared pleasure in a world that seems to care nothing for us, it is an equalizer that we ought to be able to rejoice in without fear for our safety or our dignity or our humanity. But still we have the double-standard that is pushed on us through advertising (seriously, the double-standard in advertising is ridiculous), or through the courts, or through common conversation around the water cooler at work (unless that conversation is with Janice from accounting).
And this brings me to the writer whom I think best expresses both the spirit of the Brutal Hammer and the basic rights of every adult reading this, the great Eileen O’Connor*:
Some people don’t like to talk about getting drunk. Some people think it’s poor manners. Some people get embarrassed when they get drunk. Some people like to pretend they don’t get drunk.
I’m not that person. It happens. People get drunk. A lot. I get drunk. A lot. And that’s just fine. Just because I get drunk doesn’t mean someone has the right to rape me.
No. Matter. What.
She is a voice that our country needs. She is the embodiment of what it means to have and enjoy our shared freedoms with a clear and focused eye on the dividing line between right and wrong. She says what we Hammers have been saying this whole time: that drinking is a personal choice and not an excuse for those who would do harm to us.
If anyone can help kill the defense that “I was drunk, so I can’t be held accountable for my actions,” it’s us. It’s you, dear reader.
If anyone can help kill the argument that “she was drunk–what did she expect?” it’s us. It’s you, dear reader.
What do any of us expect when we get drunk? A hangover? Maybe a sick-day off work? Have any of us expected something so terrible as being raped?
It is not acceptable to blame the victim, and it is not acceptable to blame alcohol for your shitty behavior. Alcohol does not give anyone a new idea to act on–it only reveals who we are underneath the social firewalls we build. In the case of the rapist Brock Turner, it revealed a pattern of predatory behavior. And yet I fear that alcohol will continue to be used as an excuse for a paucity of moral character.
We need to be clear here: it is only ourselves that we have to blame or credit for our actions, good or bad. Our ideas, our impulses, our predilections–those are ours and ours alone. If we act on them, there is no one to blame but ourselves. We need to start having a more reasonable national conversation about drinking, and we can look to the ludicrous failings of cases like this as a way to correct ourselves as we move forward.
That was heavy material, and I’ve been listening to the greatest pirate-metal band of all time, Alestorm, just to get this written. However, I want to leave you with something that embodies the spirit of this article in the best of all fashions: a sketch-comedy musical bit. I tip my hat to the glorious soul that brought this to my attention, and I hope you enjoy it too. After this article you deserve something as perfect as this.
*Her quoted words and the article from which they come have both been borrowed with permission. You really ought to read her work–she’s a damn good writer and you’ll be doing yourself a favor.