Sexual assault on campus is an epidemic. Estimates suggest that one in five young women will experience sexual assault while in college (and the statistics are worse for women of the same age who don’t attend college). Most of these crimes will go unreported for a variety of reasons: the victim is not “perfect,” there can be devastating social consequences to reporting that someone raped you, and on and on.
In response, the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights has clarified that universities have a responsibility to address sexual harassment and sexual assault as part of their obligations under Title IX, which bars sex discrimination in education. This development is strongly positive, although colleges and universities still tend to suck at implementing the requirements. (In the words of the youth-led activist group Know Your IX: “But aren’t colleges handling these reports terribly? Yup, they absolutely are. But so are the police.”)
Know Your IX is right; the best way forward is to require better enforcement so schools live up to their legal obligations. Public law enforcement involvement and response also carries wide room for improvement — although this is tricky, as bringing police in can make the situation worse for some victims, especially undocumented victims, victims of color, and those victims for whom their assailants bear continued control over their lives.
But legal strategy will only get us so far. We need cultural change as well. Some cultural change is directly traceable to activism: victims speaking out (brava!), students holding their institutions accountable (hooray!), and conversation-creators like the brave and creative Emma Sulkowicz, who commanded national attention for carrying a mattress throughout the Columbia University campus. Other cultural change will come with policy change.
One proposal increasingly floated to combat sexual assault on campus is to ban all the frats and shut them down. It makes perfect sense to close down fraternities that have been found to engage in overt racism or empower sexual assault. But shutting down every fraternity nationwide because we have proof that some are terrible is untenable. A better solution would be to defang fraternities as monarchies of rape culture. We need to take away the social gatekeeping power older men have over younger women on campus. We need to lower the drinking age.
College students are going to drink. We can get weird and moralistic about that, à la the disastrous reformers (including feminists) who brought us Prohibition, or we can accept that society as a whole benefits when unstoppable private behaviors and desires are permitted under the law.
The National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984 used the enticement of federal funding for state highway funds to drag states into raising the age for purchasing or publicly consuming alcohol to 21. Now many will recite for you the often-argued reasons why that’s offensive: 18 is the age of adulthood; you can vote at 18; you can enlist in the armed forces and fight and die for your country at 18, but you can’t have a drink at the bar at your homecoming party if you in fact survive. These reasons are right.
But less examined is the role that an arbitrary drinking age of 21 plays in creating destructive cultures on college campuses, particularly rape culture, and particularly for young women. Many college gatherings do involve alcohol. By granting less than half of a campus access to purchasing alcohol by virtue of their age, this situation empowers older men — including the small proportion of those older (and for that matter younger) men who are sexual predators — to control younger women’s access to social gatherings that include alcohol.
Fraternities have the power they do, by and large, because the many underage people, including underage women, who do drink must go to frat houses and other private settings to hang out. Now, one common objection raised by apologists for campus sexual assault (even if they see themselves in a very different light) is that young women should learn how to behave and be smarter about drinking. Until we are telling our young men with equal vigor that they must stop doing keg stands in order to be safe, I’m going to call that a sexist comment. Young women deserve to be human just as much as young men, without fear of getting raped. Even those young women who play drinking games before they turn 21.
If the drinking age were lowered to 18, all students would be able to go to the bar on a Friday night. This might take away some of the pressure some underage students feel to get really drunk (“pregame”) in their dorm rooms before going out for the evening. It would definitely take away this choice: Sit home and not go out and party, or go to a private house party controlled by older people you may not know who have bedrooms upstairs.
Rather than banning fraternities, this feminist argues that we should siphon away some of their power by lowering the drinking age.