Another President Blaming Women?

Leader of Eckerd angers students when he tells them to prevent sexual assault by drinking less and avoiding casual sex.

November 25, 2014

The president of Eckerd College has become the latest college leader whose statements about preventing rape and sexual assault have resulted in criticism that he is blaming women.

Donald R. Eastman III sent an email to students Sunday in which he encouraged them to drink less and to avoid casual sex. He immediately faced criticism on and off campus that he was failing to understand that students have the right to engage in casual sex and to drink, and that doing so does not give anyone the right to rape them. As one post on Twitter said: "To Donald Eastman of Eckerd College. Women have the right to become intoxicated and not be assaulted. It's a crime."

Eastman's email is circulating on social media and was published in full by the student newspaper, The Current.

The president offered two main pieces of advice to students on how they could prevent sexual assault:

  • "By limiting your own consumption of alcohol, and encouraging your friends to do the same. Socrates included wine at his Symposium, but he did not get drunk."
  • "You can be thoughtful about the dramatic and often negative psychological effects that sexual activity without commitment can have. Virtue in the area of sexuality is its own reward, and has been held in high esteem in Western Culture for millennia because those who are virtuous are happier as well as healthier.  No one’s culture or character or understanding is improved by casual sex, and the physical and psychological risks to both genders are profound."

Many students are angry at the suggestion that it is the responsibility of women to prevent assaults, rather than the responsibility of men to not assault women, regardless of whether the women drink or sometimes consent to sex.

The Tampa Bay Times interviewed students who were frustrated. Marlene Heyning said that "instead of teaching people that it's wrong to have casual sex and drink alcohol, how about teaching them that having sex with someone who says 'no' is not OK?" And Katie Wheeler said, "I don't think casual sex is in any way related to sexual assault; the problem is people breaking boundaries and not learning respect from a young age."

An alumnus has set up an online petition to urge Eastman to rethink his views. "I believe that laying the blame solely at the feet of the two issues you mentioned is an injustice to the victims, and will not solve the problem," says a letter explaining the petition. "Instead of laying the blame where you have, we should think more about the impact of objectification and disrespect, and the perpetuation of these attitudes in our 'Western Culture.' We have all been raised by a society that is dominated by male preference. Though not all rapists are men, the vast majority are, and the lack of respect toward other genders is a primary factor in sexual assault."

The letter also states that college students have the ability to make their own decisions about sex, without anyone implying that they are inviting sexual assault. "It is also important to note that sexual assault and rape are not about sex, but rather they are about power and control," the letter says.

In an interview with the Times, Eastman said that he was "trying to say that we would have a healthier and less dangerous campus if people drank less and took their sexual relations more seriously." The Times said that its reporter asked Eastman if he believes that "not taking sexual relations seriously enough leads to assaults," and that he replied "I think maybe that's right. I think that could be right."

The news about Eckerd's president broke the same day that Lincoln University announced the resignation of Robert Jennings as president weeks after video circulated of a talk he gave in which he suggested that women on his campus were falsely reporting sexual assaults to get even with boyfriends who cheated on them, and in which he urged women to dress more modestly to avoid being used by men. Women denounced his comments as victim-blaming while men on his campus said he was making them look like predators.

As colleges face increased scrutiny over their handling of sexual assault issues, many institutions and people have been criticized for saying things that suggest that women make themselves victims, rather than focusing on men who assault.

Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, president emeritus of George Washington University, faced widespread criticism for his comments on a radio show in August about how female students’ drinking might contribute to their becoming victims of sexual assault. During a panel discussion, Trachtenberg said that female students “have to be trained not to drink in excess.”

In an interview about the controversy, Trachtenberg defended the idea that women should be educated to make themselves less vulnerable, but he said it’s a “false choice” to take any suggestion that women ought to be educated to mean that men should not be. He said he also learned to be more careful in such discussions because “there are lot of sensitive people that parse your words with an almost talmudic hand.”

In October, the University of Wisconsin at Madison apologized for a list of safety tips from campus police that many women on campus said suggested that sexual assault was the responsibility of those who are attacked. "A victim looks like a victim," the advice originally read. "If you move from one destination to another, and the only thing you recall about the trip is the last text message you received, then there’s a problem. The military calls it 'keeping your head on a swivel' and it’s probably the most important thing you can do to ensure your safety. If you present yourself as easy prey, then expect to attract some wolves."


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