Stanford banned hard alcohol at parties. Too bad that won't stop sexual assault.


Five months after former Stanford University student Brock Turner was convicted of sexually assaulting a young woman on campus, Stanford has issued a ban on hard alcohol at undergraduate parties. 

Part of the school's stated effort to "meaningfully change the campus culture around alcohol," the guidelines Stanford introduced on Monday prohibit high-volume distilled alcohol containers at many events in order to make liquor less available.

Though school officials have denied that there's any link between the Turner case and the liquor ban, the new policy has been criticized as a half-baked response to calls for the university to take more proactive measures to combat campus sexual assault. Which makes sense, considering that simply banning alcohol likely won't reduce the incidence of rape on campus. 

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Stanford's policy, which was first proposed last year, was initially met with widespread opposition from students, 91% of who voted against it in a campus-wide referendum last school year. 

The college hasn't explicitly touted the new policy as a potential solution to the campus rape epidemic, but it has been interpreted as such by journalists like Fusion's Marisa Kabas, who wrote that "some students and faculty can't help but wonder: Are these updates really the university's way of avoiding another Turner-like tragedy on campus?"

Of course, the idea that alcohol consumption is to blame for sexual violence isn't original. Linking alcohol consumption to campus sexual assault is one iteration of a broader cultural view that blames rape survivors for being attacked. (In fact, it's a point of view that was espoused by Turner himself, who famously attributed his crime to Stanford's "party culture and risk-taking behavior."). 

As writer Emily Yoffe put it in a widely debated piece for Slate, campus sexual assault might not happen if society taught college-age women that "when you lose the ability to be responsible for yourself, you drastically increase the chances that you will attract the kinds of people who, shall we say, don't have your best interest at heart." 

Yoffe and others maintain that such a line of thinking is "not blaming the victim," but rather "trying to prevent more victims." However, experts assert that focusing on alcohol as a cause of sexual assault doesn't just burden victims with responsibility for their own attacks, it also overlooks the true cause of rape: rapists themselves.

"While schools should be teaching responsible drinking habits, banning certain types of alcohol will not stop sexual assault," Annie Clark, executive director of the group End Rape On Campus, said in an email. "Alcohol doesn't cause sexual assault. Alcohol is a weapon used by predators, and rapists are the only cause of rape."

Stanford students seem to have a better grasp of this point than the school's administration does, with more than 2,000 signing a petition asking the university not to adopt the hard alcohol ban. Although it would certainly be easy to ascribe student opposition to undergrads' desire to keep handles of Jack Daniels readily available for pregaming, there's good reason to be skeptical of policies like Stanford's: They don't work. 

As student Chris Koenig told the Stanford Daily in April, prohibitions won't stop students from drinking. 

"The main sentiment [in response to the proposed alcohol ban] was that if they were to restrict the drinking policy, it would probably just make things worse because then people would find ways to drink anyways, and ways that are unsafe," Koenig said. 

Indeed, although alcohol bans can reduce the rate of binge drinking on college campuses, research has shown such prohibitions do not eradicate high-risk alcohol consumption entirely. 

Dartmouth College, which introduced a hard liquor ban in hopes of "eliminating high-risk behavior" in 2015, provides a perfect recent example. Within a year of enforcing the policy, a survey of more than 1,700 Dartmouth students found that 80% believed it had not been successful at lowering high-risk drinking on campus. Additionally, 85% of respondents in the Dartmouth survey admitted to consuming hard alcohol on campus since the ban's implementation.

"Survivors who are under the influence of alcohol are already less likely to report in understandable fear of being thrown out of school themselves."

That's precisely what critics of Stanford's ban fear will happen as the new policy takes effect. If Stanford students continue to consume lots of alcohol behind closed doors — as they're extremely likely to do — it could make the issue of campus sexual assault even worse.

For starters, Stanford's new policy could lead those who are drunk when they are sexually assaulted to opt against reporting the incident for fear of repercussions for breaking the school's hard alcohol ban. 

"Survivors who are under the influence of alcohol are already less likely to report in understandable fear of being thrown out of school themselves, and [Stanford's policy] would likely make things worse — for bystanders too," said Mahroh Jahangiri, executive director of the advocacy organization Know Your IX. Jahangiri noted the hard alcohol ban "is also likely to just push parties off-campus — an attempt by Stanford to wash its hands of addressing the issue." 

Many colleges and universities across the United States do have amnesty policies for victims who are sexually assaulted while under the influence of alcohol, even if the fact that they were drinking violates school laws. But many students don't know about these policies, or worse, they aren't enforced; as a result, survivors might be too scared to report a rape to their school. 

"I think that this unfortunately looks like the whole of the university response to the Brock Turner case, and if that's true, this is a really wrongheaded approach," Stanford Law professor Michele Landis Dauber said in an interview with Fusion. "It reflects the university's misunderstanding of the role of alcohol in sexual assault and a misunderstanding of how students use alcohol."

Whether Stanford does have plans to introduce additional policies to combat sexual assault on campus remains unclear. What is clear, however, is that there is still plenty more the school and other institutions of higher education can do to prevent future Brock Turners from committing acts of violence — and advocating for more-moderate alcohol consumption is but a tiny part of the solution.  

"Like Stanford, institutions of higher education should be doing more, but we must talk about these issues earlier," Clark said. "Prevention should start much before college, and should be focused on teaching consent, healthy relationships, respect and bodily autonomy."