On campus, women must protect one another

Last week in Washington, a Department of Education panel continued negotiations over new campus sexual assault regulations.

Among the topics was how to define "consent." The definition requires review because of a prolific component of most sexual assaults on campus: alcohol.

A January report by the White House Council on Women and Girls recounted a shocking statistic that one in five women was sexually assaulted while in college.

The report further acknowledges that "the dynamics of college life" — read: the unfettered availability of alcohol and the propensity for its irresponsible consumption — "appear to fuel the problem" of sexual assault.

Many young people — both men and women — engage in sexual behavior while intoxicated, high or incapacitated. And in such circumstances, it is easy, particularly for a man, to take advantage of a woman who is incapable of saying "no." But not every case of assault is so cut-and-dry.

In a sharply criticized column, Wall Street Journal writer James Taranto argued that in sexual encounters where both men and women are intoxicated, the parties bear equal blame. Yet his commentary is not wholly deserving of the consternation it has generated.

It would be naive — even dangerous — to ignore what writer Cathy Young calls the "very real phenomenon of alcohol-facilitated rapes by serial predators." Such men operate with impunity in campus environments where drinking is part of almost every social activity.

But as Young also explains, "it is equally true that, in today's climate, many cases labeled as sexual assault involve two young people who are drunk and reckless." Young points to the underlying data from the report the White House cites that find "70 percent of the incidents classified as sexual assaults were based on women's self-reports of sexual contact while 'unable to provide consent or stop what was happening' due to being 'passed out, drugged, drunk, incapacitated or asleep.' Yet only a quarter of these women — 37 percent when penetration was involved — believed they had been raped . . . Two-thirds didn't regard the incident as serious enough to report."

It should be clearly stated that sexual assault in any form is wrong. Period. But there is a difference between assault and alcohol-fueled, regretful sexual behavior. While both are damaging to women, they should not be conflated.

Unfortunately, this sentiment is often unwelcome among the communities of women who seem to embrace female sexual freedom but shun its requisite responsibility.

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