Most people are familiar with celebrity personal trainer Jillian Michaels’. Like most A-listers these days she’s investing in everything including a podcast where she doles out pop-culture-style advice about how to live in a healthy body. You know, the kind that really tries to be armchair psychology more than anything else. In a recent episode titled Girls and Booz she responds with moral fervor to the Emily Yoffe Slate article College Women: Stop Getting Drunk which discusses the relationship between rising rates of college binge drinking, particularly among young women, and female sexual assault. Yoffe’s main point is that rising rates of sexual assault on college campuses might be a reflection of our failure as family, friends, teachers (presumably more experienced folk) to tell young women that when they ‘render themselves defenseless [by getting wasted to point of incapacitation] terrible things can be done to them’ [sexual assault]. Michaels’, in agreement with Yoffe, adds that young women who choose to dress sexy in situations where heavy drinking is likely to happen are ultimately ‘playing with fire’ or ‘putting themselves directly in harms way’.
Both women suggest that, as a society, we’ve become reluctant to make girls and women responsible for their reckless behavior because it might resemble blame should something awful happen. All of this urgently calls for major changes in how we educate young people (but really girls) about self respect and bodily responsibility. Michaels, a parent to a son and a daughter, says that this should start in the home. I don’t disagree. Education is an integral part of any sort of prevention and of course family life is a fundamental part of how we come to know ourselves and the world. What we’re taught in the home can unwittingly be as much a part of the problem as it is the solution though. Michaels’ claims that she’s wants her daughter to know that she doesn’t have to cheapen herself [with compromising behavior like provocative dress and binge drinking] to get attention and she wants her son to know that true male power and prowess ‘…is being able to sleep with a girl because she wants to’. Hmm.
Heavy drinking can cause both men and women to behave in ways that are potentially detrimental but men are almost expected to get to that dangerous state of drunkenness where doing something inappropriate to another or themselves becomes even more likely. In the last few months a social media drinking ‘game’ has surfaced in Ireland and the U.K., claiming the lives of several young men. The idea behind ‘neknomination’, as it’s called, is to accept the dare to ‘neck’ or down a pint of alcohol while being recorded so that it can be uploaded online. Dares, which become increasingly dangerous as a way to one-up the next, are passed back and forth on a given night resulting in the consumption of very high volumes of alcohol over a relatively short period of time. There’s even a Facebook page dedicated to it. Judging by the spate of online videos and images it’s something that appeals more to men than women, but women are still participating. This sort of thing is an example of what Yoffe is referencing when she argues in her article that matching men drink for drink has been turned into an expression of feminism among young women. Unfortunately, both she and Michaels take a position that is all too familiar in that it heavy-handedly makes the reality of drink-related risk a burden that women must disproportionately manage or mitigate. More to the point, they fall into the paradigmatic trap that ‘boys will be boys’ and therefore it’s girls that must change.
What it means to be a ‘real man’ or put another way, boys just being boys, is in everything. This gets into our language and informs our practice by adapting itself to a number of moral arguments (like this one). Unfortunately it’s less the social exception and more the rule to the extent that it can infiltrate our perspective without us even seeing it. For example, Michaels’ wants her son to grow up to be a man who respects women but at the same time she believes there’s a fine line between being a good man and being emasculated. Her son’s ability to understand this concerns her because of his familial environment. He has two mommies, a female nanny, an older sister and a very involved grandmother. What she’s saying without actually saying it is that being surrounded by mostly women might result in him being more feminine and by direct consequence, less good (i.e. manly). This historical idea that what is good is masculine and what is truly masculine is good is at the heart of the bigger gender disparity issue at-play that permeates Western culture from above and below. It’s tired and frustrating and although it’s a root in a decaying tree that’s losing the stability to sustain itself, its remaining strength is reinforced by Michaels’ and many others who so badly want to be part of the solution but just end up being more of the same and by default, part of the problem.
Bachman, R. and Peralta, R. (2002) The relationship between drinking and violence in an adolescent population: does gender matter?, Deviant Behavior, 23(1) pp. 1-19
Cowley, A. D. (2013) “Let’s Get Drunk and Have Sex”: The Complex Relationship of Alcohol, Gender, and Sexual Victimization, Journal of interpersonal violence, 0886260513506289
Herman-Kinney, N. J. and Kinney, D. A. (2013) Sober as Deviant The Stigma of Sobriety and How Some College Students “Stay Dry” on a “Wet” Campus, Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 42(1) pp. 64-103
Messman-Moore, T. L., Ward, R. M. and DeNardi, K. A. (2013) The Impact of Sexual Enhancement Alcohol Expectancies and Risky Behavior on Alcohol-Involved Rape Among College Women, Violence against women, 19(4) pp. 449-464
Miller, K. E., Melnick, M. J., Farrell, M. P., Sabo, D. F. and Barnes, G. M. (2006) Jocks, gender, binge drinking, and adolescent violence, Journal of interpersonal violence, 21(1) pp. 105-120