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Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Petula Dvorak Non-Sequiturs Rape, Sex, and Alcoholic Blackouts

Yes, I am using "non-sequitur" as a verb.  I think some situations call for it.

I'm as much against rape (in all of its ugly forms) as anybody, and I am disturbed to hear that the military court hearing the Naval Academy Rape Case allows lines of questioning of the alleged victim that would not be permitted in a civilian rape case.  That's one of Petula Dvorak's points in her column in today's Washington Post. But her main point comes through in her concluding words:

"It's about America still not understanding the difference between consensual sex and rape.
"The woman at the Naval Academy is not pretending to be a prude. She described for attorneys times in the past when she did want to have sex and consented to it. But the stuff those football players bragged about online — she didn’t even remember it. At that point, it’s rape.
"Consensual sex happens between two adults who both want it.
"Rape is about violence, domination and power.
"It shouldn’t be that hard."

Must be nice to get paid for writing those one-sentence paragraphs.  And must also be nice to get paid for spouting that kind of stupidity.  I bolded the problem, and put the rest there for context.  Just because she "didn't even remember it," it's rape????

That's the whole problem with alcoholic blackouts.  The person will seem perfectly normal and will be able to hold conversations, etc.  They will presumably also be able to say "yes" or "no" to sex.  But because of the alcohol, something is happening within the brain that is preventing long-term memories from forming.  The person wakes up the next morning and (e.g.) doesn't remember how they got home the previous evening.  A large percentage of people who drink have experienced that kind of blackout, usually back when they were in college.

Yes, a woman who is "in a blackout" (I hate that terminology, because one can only say there was a blackout the next day, when the person doesn't remember anything), may well seem drunk, since blackouts are linked to excessive drinking (although interestingly, the correlation is not perfect, according to a rather boring article on wikipedia about blackouts).  But Dvorak's conclusion -- essentially, because she was in a blackout, it's rape -- is just so wrong that it hurts.

Her view seems to be based on the notion that when someone is drunk, they can never have consensual sex, and no matter how willing they seem to be, sex with them is rape.  But that rule is completely unworkable, since (for one thing), it requires the man to make the judgment that the woman's "yes" is not really a "yes." And more importantly, it's not the law now, and probably never will be.

So not only has Dvorak misunderstood the science of alcoholic blackouts, but she's also misunderstood the law of rape.  Yes, rape is a horrible crime, but a false accusation of rape can have devastating consequences.  According to wikipedia, the average sentence for a rape conviction is over 11 years, and convicted rapists spend over 5 years in prison on average.  That's the reason it's not as "simple" as Dvorak seems to think it is -- society needs to be pretty darn sure ("beyond a reasonable doubt") it was rape before convicting someone.  The mere fact that the victim was in a blackout cannot be the basis for a conviction.

Update 080915:  Just saw the following piece on CNN about a book that may be worth reading if you're interested in alcoholic blackouts:  Sarah Hepola's "Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget."  The CNN piece contains the following line, which (if true, which I'm sure it is) refutes Petula Dvorak's faulty reasoning:
"The man Hepola was having sex with most likely had no idea she was in a blackout . . . ."
The article and presumably the book confirm what I've said above -- that people in blackouts can function perfectly well, and that people encountering them have no idea that they are not forming permanent memories (how could they tell, anyway?).  To suggest that anyone who has sex with someone who is later found to have been in a blackout is a rapist (as Dvorak does) is both stupid and dangerous.


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