When Emily Yoffe—better known as “Dear Prudence”— of Slate published her controversial piece advising women to not get drunk to avoid rape, the Internet arose in an almighty storm to meet it. While I think much of the criticism levied on Yoffe is justly deserved, her piece is an old opinion, and the fight that ensued is perhaps even older. I have no interest in furthering a debate that is hardly likely to be resolved in the next few weeks. Instead, allow me to propose something else: If you think that drinking is the chief component of sexual assault on college campuses, stop telling people to simply not drink and instead lower the minimum drinking age.

Let me allow for full disclosure before I begin: I have never had a drop of alcohol in my life, nor do I ever plan to. But as a young person not that far out of college, the nights going to parties and watching my friends drink themselves into oblivion are still very fresh in my mind. Take it from someone who knows: Simply telling young people not to drink is not going to be effective. Allowing them to drink at a younger age, with the full knowledge and guidance of the adults in their lives, just might encourage better drinking habits. Teaching kids about alcohol and letting them find their limits in safe spaces would likely decrease, and thus fix many of the problems associated with heavy drinking— regardless as to whether those problems include sexual assault.

There has been quite a bit of research done on the possibility of lowering the drinking age, and most of it hasn’t been favorable. Over half of the studies done on legal 18-20 drinking show that when the drinking age was reduced to 18, alcohol-related fatalities (such as alcohol poisoning, car crashes, etc.) for the 18-20 age group increased. The ones that don’t show an increase show no change. The Amethyst Initiative’s suppositions that allowing adults to drink in a safe environment would encourage them to drink responsibly would appear to be unsupported.

To that, I say, “No shit, Sherlock.” Most if not all of the research centers around lowering the minimum drinking age to 18—I guess because lowering it to 16 or removing it alltogether is too “radical” of an idea. But this does not at all include the most powerful force for teaching children good habits: their parents. At 18, you still have people striking out to college, where there is booze freely available, without having had practical parental guidance on how to drink responsibly. Of course they are going to be binge drinking!

The novelty of being able to drink is what induces binging for new drinkers, and, without experienced drinkers to teach young people how to consume, the “newbs” go overboard. This fact becomes even more apparent when the same set of data that show that lowering the minimum drinking age increases binge drinking for 18-20-year-olds also show that under the 21+ drinking laws, people between the ages of 21 and 24 also see higher rates of binge drinking. While a minimum drinking age law of 21 may prevent people from 18-20 from drinking in the same amounts, it doesn’t do anything to teach people growing up what they need to know about responsible drinking habits. You’re just shifting the binge drinking phase back a few years.

Maybe I’m just naïve, but it seems pretty obvious to me what’s going on: New drinkers with no guidance are going to binge. This is not a function of age, but a function of experience. If you send adults out into the world where they can drink but don’t bother to educate beyond abstinence, or allow their parents to teach them to drink responsibly, when you unleash them onto the world, the more they will binge. And, according to Yoffe, the more they will get raped.

In contrast, it makes sense to me to say that the more people are comfortable with drinking, the more they choose responsibly for themselves and guide their peers when they are adults. We will see less of a culture of getting people trashed to prove their worth and more of a culture of responsibility.

We may also see less rape as a result of this, but I am skeptical of that. However, if those who make those arguments, like Yoffe, really believe that reducing binge drinking will reduce instances of sexual assault, they should spend less time “advising” people not to drink and more time advocating for laws (or lack thereof) which will enable young people to learn how to drink responsibly—before they get to college.

  • aenaithia

    I agree with everything you have to say in this piece, however, from the anecdotal data of “people I went to high school with,” there’s a significant religious aspect to this, too. Even if we lowered the drinking age, there are still far too many parents who think that never talking about the devil juice means their kids won’t drink it later, and that can lead them to binge as well. I think lowering the drinking age would be most effective paired with ad campaigns (not even necessarily gov’t ones) that promote responsibility.

    • Absolutely. I grew up in GA and absolutely knew people who had drunk the Jesus juice. But! And I didn’t say this in my piece, but I think that those folks can very easily be taught responsible drinking by their peers when they get to it. The idea here is to teach a lot of or a majority of kids good drinking habits and kill the culture.

    • Madeline Gootman

      My university actually used a model like this for alcohol education. They kind of ignore drinking laws in the presentation and say that they know students are adults who will make their own decisions. They then give information so students can make informed decisions about consumption. We also have a campus rule called the immunity rule that lets students get help if they or a friend is under the influence and would be scared to seek medical attention. As long as you seek the help yourself (and you’re not just found in need of help), no one is punished for their underage or “illegal” consumption.

  • 7thPillar

    As a dinosaur, I can affirm much of what is presented. The drinking age when I was in Jr. High changed from 21 to 18. What was the real result? Teens switched from illegal drugs to alcohol to get high. I was in college when the drinking age reverted to 21. What was the result? Those unable to access alcohol reverted to getting high on illegal drugs.

    While I admire your choice to forego alcohol, biology and history is against you. Throughout human history, and animal history, as soon as mind altering substances are discovered, they are used to alter the mind. For spiritual and religious reasons as well as having a good time.

    More to the point, society’s inability to accept this fact, for fact it is, has resulted in people either not held responsible for their own actions, or imprisoned for actions without a victim.

    • I’m not sure what you mean when you say ‘history is against me.” i’ve just made a personal choice to abstain. Not looking to impose that on other people.

  • Rowan

    Just on a side note:

    “While I think much of the criticism levied on Yoffe is justly deserved, her piece is an old opinion, and the fight that ensued is perhaps even older.”

    I totally agree, and I think that’s one aspect of Yoffe’s argument that I find most ridiculous: she pretends as though what she is saying is totally revolutionarily, as though college-age women have never heard someone make her argument before, when really people point to drinking as a reason to blame women for being raped all the time, so much so that it’s practically common “wisdom.”