If there’s a phrase I could ban from every orientation talk, every summer conversation between parent and child this summer, it would be this:
Don’t drink the punch.
Every time I hear it, it comes with a snicker, a smile, like it’s a joke.
And that’s what it is, but it’s a joke at the expense of women, one at the expense of sexual assault victims and survivors, and at the expense of every innocent college party.
When I hear that phrase, what I hear is “don’t be vulnerable. Don’t ever let your hypervigilant state down.”
It’s exhausting and scary and a reminder that I am physically weaker than most men, that not all people have good intentions towards me, and that people will find reasons to blame me for the actions of others. The worst part is that there is nothing I can do to make myself totally and permanently safe. Whether I wear a niqab or become a religious sister or never make male friends and avoid being around men alone, I will still never be totally permanently safe.
Even if I don’t drink the punch, my chances of being sexually assaulted don’t go away. And if it happens, whatever other vulnerability is present will be counted against me. If I went on a date with him, if I invited him to study at my place because he’s in my classes or club, if I wore the wrong thing. Don’t drink the punch is another reminder that I will be blamed for being vulnerable. I will be blamed for being a victim.
Part of what it means to be human is to be vulnerable. As a woman, I feel it more acutely. Everyone in a minority position of any sort- race, sexuality, economic status, religion, knows there is an extra vulnerability that comes with being part of the non-dominant power group.
Don’t drink the punch is another reminder of that. Of re-enforcing and setting the stage for blaming me for being vulnerable. Of, in this case, not having as much physical power and social capital. Of not having my worth be based on my “potential” but on my purity.
I am vulnerable. It’s part of my humanity. I cannot give it up. It will always be a risk. Every date, every hello, every yes and every no to every man I ever meet. It will always be a risk. Being vulnerable has led to some horrible, horrible places in my life. But it has led to the best places to. Asking for help more than 5 years ago led me on the path to my current career, which I love. Meeting a stranger at the farmers market turned into my husband. Saying yes to a lunch group with some women I barely knew (and frankly, I was totally intimidated by because of their awesomeness!) has turned into a life giving group of encouragement and healing and productivity.
If you want to say “what we mean is don’t get drunk”- then say that. You have the right, even if it will be poorly listened to. Even if it doesn’t actually help. Teach students about alcohol education for the sake of their knowledge and self-empowerment. Teach students what it feels like to be drunk vs. drugged, how much alcohol is in a beer vs. an everclear vodka kool-aid, and what different levels of alcohol feel like and do. Teach students the laws about medical amnesty, so they don’t fear calling for help. Write medical and safety amnesty policies, so we don’t contribute to the vulnerability we keep blaming them for. So we don’t keep exacerbating the problem. We don’t make ourselves safer by covering assault up with vulnerability-shaming and ignorance.
I’m a Christian, and the evangelical bones in my body still ask “what would Jesus do? How does God see this?” And I’ve yet to imagine Jesus telling anyone “don’t drink the punch.” The God who died for me did so with absolute love expressed through a physical and spiritual vulnerability that has changed my life. And when I meditate on that, it’s clear my vulnerability is not the problem. Vulnerability is not a sin. Taking advantage of the vulnerable is.
And I hope the conversation with your kids centers on the problems, and the solutions about sexual assault. Talk about consent. Talk about love and yes means yes. Talk about rape culture. Talk about fact-based alcohol education. Talk about ignorance and fear. But don’t blame vulnerability. Don’t blame the punch. It tastes gross, it’s probably unhygienic despite all that alcohol, but it’s not capable of committing any crimes. It’s a liquid in a cooler, not a person, not an institution, not a culture.
And those are our problems. Individuals who commit crimes, institutions that discount them and re-victimize women for being vulnerable, and cultures that care about winning football games or men’s potential more than they care about women. Cultures that think saying “don’t drink the punch” is the appropriate prevention tool against sexual assault. It’s not. It only makes things worse.
Lilly Leman, MDiv., George W. Truett Theological Seminary Pastor, First United West (UCC)