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Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, the loquacious president emeritus of George Washington University, is facing widespread criticism for his comments about how female students’ drinking might contribute to their becoming victims of sexual assault.

During a panel discussion Tuesday on the nationally syndicated Diane Rehm Show, Trachtenberg said that female students “have to be trained not to drink in excess.”

The remarks came in the context of a broader discussion about fraternities and sororities. Trachtenberg said, in part, “They go to the parties at the fraternities. So it's not as if the women aren't drinking. They are, in fact, without taking -- without making the victims are responsible for what happens. One of the groups that have to be trained not to drink in excess are women. They need to be in a position to punch the guys in the nose if they misbehave. And so part of the problem is you have men who take advantage of women who drink too much. And there are women who drink too much. And we need to educate our daughters and our children on that -- in that regard.”

After a break, his comments became a topic of conversation for others on the radio panel. Caitlin Flanagan, a writer for The Atlantic who spent a year investigating the unseemly side of fraternity life, said she took a “slight exception or maybe a real exception to what Dr. Trachtenberg is saying about how if young women are sober they have a better chance of protecting themselves from rape by being able to punch the guy in the nose. That's not a realistic strategy for protecting ourselves from rape.”

Trachtenberg said he was “astonished that somebody would attack me for suggesting sobriety” was a good formula for preventing sexual assaults.

Rehm, the host, said "a 120-pound woman is not in a position to deal with a group who may be gang raping."

Trachtenberg replied, "I didn't anticipate being taken quite so literally.”

In a telephone interview Thursday night, Trachtenberg said he would not back down from the notion that women ought to 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.”
"It turns out there’re magic words you have to say and I was insensitive to that,” he said, “so even when you're saying good things they are -- or can be -- interpreted as being harmful by people who are particularly committed or sensitive to the issue, because there's a formula. So if you say, 'I want to protect women from rapists and one of the ways I want to do it is by educating them about alcohol consumption, so they'll be less vulnerable' -- of course, sober women are less likely to be molested as drunk women -- you're perceived as being on the side of the disputation because you're thought to be trying to shift blame from the rapist, the perpetrator, to the victim.
"So even the apparent virtue of your proposal is understood by people as being unwelcome. And if you say that you want to train women in self-defense, which used to be a major staple of feminist argument, you're seen as, again, shifting blame, so that what I learned is there were these incantations that you have to use to be sure that you can be heard: So what you have to say is, ‘Rapists are rapists,’ and you cannot shift the blame and that women are victim.... You have to say they are never to be blamed, and I would be happy to say that because I believe that, but I just didn't know you're supposed to say it.”