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Steubenville, rape culture, and the physiology of alcohol impairment

On the March 16 Melissa Harris-Perry show on MSNBC, Joy Reid kicked off the show by diving in to the ins and outs of the Stebenville rape case. If you’ve missed that story, Jezebel has a whole section devoted to the unfolding story and on-going trial. What stands out to me (aside from the repulsiveness of how this exemplifies the American rape culture) has to do with the biology of alcohol abuse among young people, as someone who works daily with underage drinkers. Recent education efforts by the NIAAA and SAMHSA have started to unpack and disseminate information on the impact of binge drinking for young people, specific to the frontal lobes and brain development. A brief summary of the SAMHSA research is available online.

My thoughts tie in to the victim blaming that is unfolding in the way the defense is shaping the case. The victim, they argue, was drinking willingly and accompanying her alleged attackers. While this may be true, there is an issue of consent that between her extreme intoxication and the (possible) intoxication levels of her alleged assaulters. Rightly, the prosecution is making the case that the victim was intoxicated to the point that she had memory loss from the evening (blackouts typically occur with BACs above .15) and thus she was so impaired that it was impossible for her to give consent. This appears to be corroborated by testimony/social media updates from other witnesses that she was unconscious at points throughout the night.

Related to the alcohol use, what is not well-known is how significant the impact on actual decision making one-time binge drinking episodes can be for young people. We know that the frequency of heavy drinking among adolescents can lead to long term changes in the “wiring” of decision-making neural pathways, among other physiological consequences. What is unclear is if the impairment of decision making in a moment is even more impaired than if the victim had had more “secure” neural pathways in her frontal lobes. It is entirely possible that the extreme intoxication of the victim further impaired her ability to give consent. By arguing that she was drinking, it is reasonable that she was even less capable of giving consent, even at lower BACs earlier in the evening.

At the same time, the extreme intoxication of the bystanders and her alleged attackers, many of whom were also adolescents, may also mean they were significantly impaired beyond what we would see with adults with similar BACs. This reinforces a significant need for both bystander intervention and responsible alcohol use education at all ages, and especially for hypermasculine groups such as athletes and fraternities. By moderating alcohol use we can prevent the more significant impairment of decision making where boys and men cross the threshold from friends to sexual assaulters. By developing strong bystander intervention programs, we can help create a culture that doesn’t endorse rape but instead stands against violence, sexual assault, victimizing others, and other actions or behaviors that dehumanize women or the LGBT community, or further restrict men to the “man box.” Learning one’s limits with alcohol shouldn’t be a process of trial-and-error. From the earliest age, we should be modeling and encouraging moderate alcohol use, even before young people are given alcohol. Combined with strong efforts to mentor boys and young men to view women as people, who have humanity, and who are not just objects, and programs to foster bystander intervention strategies, attitudes, and actions, we can start to steer our cultural ship away from a rape culture towards one of equity and safety for all people.

Of course, we still have to confront the sexism in the media that is marketed to young men and boys, and put public and economic pressure on corporations that contribute to the dehumanization of women. I guess I shouldn’t renew my subscription to Time magazine (part of the CNN/SI/Time news empire).

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