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The Amherst College Drinking Fetish

belushi-fetish

[Trigger warning: sexual assault]
(Ryan Arnold)– In an interview with the Office of Public Affairs, Patricia O’Hara (Dean of New Students) was asked what effect the SMOC report and “last year’s dialogues surrounding sexual misconduct” had on this year’s orientation:

As the SMOC Report highlighted, Orientation is a really critical time for us to communicate with students about standards, responsibilities, resources, expectations. So we have done a lot of work surrounding the discussion having to do with students’ rights and responsibilities. Those discussions are Tuesday and Wednesday of Orientation. We’ve recruited a national expert in dialoguing about diversity and inclusion, which is an aspect of our Honor Code… He has been at the Amherst College campus, speaking to the LEADS program, and they recommended him highly, so we brought him on board. [emphasis mine]

Here’s the description for “Community Values and Inclusion,” the event Dean O’Hara is referring to:

Values are important for understanding who you are and how you relate to yourself, others and your environment. A significant part of your time at Amherst College will be figuring out which values you wish to keep and which values you will have to develop as you begin to experience new life situations and demands… Our goal for this session is to begin a discussion about how you will take part in building a diverse and inclusive campus community.

Dean O’Hara, on behalf of the administration, suggests that an hour and a half-long talk about values and inclusion is the best way to incorporate the knowledge gained from last year into Orientation, and consequently that it reflects the College’s present attitude toward sexual assault. The latter is remarkably true – the absence of any single event dedicated to examining sexual assault on the Orientation ’13 schedule is less bewildering when viewed beside the College’s mistaken beliefs about sexual assault, its slow rate of response, and our shared desire to choose comfortable ignorance over painful reality.

There was no room for sexual assault in the Orientation ’13 agenda because of the College’s fetishistic fantasy about alcohol and student experience. A fetish is the most powerful kind of fantasy: the desire to escape from an impregnable and traumatic loss causes a fracturing of perception and an introversion (literally “to turn inward”) of consciousness away from external experience. In this case, the site of trauma is last fall: the struggle to respond to primary and secondary experiences of sexual assault was eventually lost to ambivalence, and we got tired of arguing. This comforting denial creates gaps in perception, which are then replaced by the fantasy of mastery – reality gains imaginary control over the formerly uncontrollable. The very existence of a fetish object implies the paradoxical recognition that we are powerless to master what hurts us (“je sais bien, mais quand-même“). From this paradox comes the process of fetishistic denial, where the truths in conflict with fantasy are either refused completely and repressed, or are incorporated into the fetish object itself.

A student’s first-year orientation is one of the most dangerous times in her or his college career; it’s the first time that many students decide with impunity to do things like drink or have sex (both of which, by the way, are totally normal behaviors that should not be shamed). This is a fact that Amherst recognizes, and the staff in charge of Orientation goes to great lengths to ensure that nothing bad happens during this period of self-exploration and discovery. However, freshmen women are traditionally viewed as predatory targets by older male students – the younger women are presumed to be naïve and sexually inexperienced, and thus easy conquests. This is a trope as old as the marriage between college and drinking, and while it isn’t exclusive to Amherst, it is alarmingly present here (my friend has a story about his former teammate shouting “SEND US YOUR DAUGHTERS!” at a group of parents and prospective students touring the campus). Given the College’s effort to protect its students, this year’s Orientation programming did an injustice to the new members of our community.

Fetishes are audibly acts of desperation; they echo the scapegoating that followed from the publication of Angie’s narrative. When confronted by abhorrent reality, we impulsively move to identify the pathogen responsible for trauma and highlight it through opinion – athletes, fraternities, Title IX staff, drunk women, Crossett Basement, football, the counseling center, etc. This turns a communal or spiritual problem into an intellectual dilemma. What’s great about intellectual dilemmas is that they’re dispossessed of any pathos; their consequences are felt less because the stakes are hypothetical. Further, intellectual dilemmas are resolved through cogent arguments, which are reached faster, require less effort, and are more persuasive than palpable changes within culture. Amherst is a place that more likely to side with rhetorical might over moral right. But this creates a circle of pedantic opinions repeatedly voiced until the weary nihilism sets in. When that happens, we want to escape; if anyone last year had asked me why I was drinking, “debate-induced spiritual fatigue” would have been the reason.

The planning for Orientation ’13 was plagued by miscommunications about the College’s desire for a dry campus. The end result was a clause in the contract signed by student Orientation Leaders, promising to “refrain from the use of alcohol and drugs during the orientation period.” It was an impotent and unenforceable request, but the logic makes sense – by modeling abstinence, older students could help the College “move to a safer Orientation”; it would also theoretically decrease the availability of alcohol to new students.

The fetish’s most identifiable administrative protuberance is eCHUG, that profoundly stupid piece of teetotaler propaganda prescribed by Amherst for the Class of 2017, which only becomes more offensive in the intellectual vacuum of Orientation programming. eCHUG serves one purpose: to shame each participant who confesses to drinking alcohol. It accomplishes this goal through a variety of unimaginative tactics, most of which are stolen from Regan’s echelon of “scared straight” failures. eCHUG works by exploiting the inherent guilt felt by the adolescent citizens of a culture that presumes (if not expects) they drink while simultaneously highlighting its illegality. If that’s not enough to get you running to The Rooms, eCHUG makes sure you know exactly how many calories alcohol has added (it literally says “How many CHEESEBURGERS did you DRINK last month?”)  to the prescribed monthly intake. eCHUG previously shamed people for having “unwanted sexual experiences” while drunk, but has since removed this language from the program.

The link that eCHUG works to establish (despite the token revision that was made to its language after Ethan’s article) is the link generated by the administration’s fetish object – since the resolution of sexual assault would require a restructuring of Amherst’s entire psychical landscape, it is easier for it to be subsumed by a fetish umbrella. The result is the mythic and inimical belief, frequently expressed by members of the administration (and by society at large), in a causal relationship between alcohol and rape. This is the pure fantasy of the fetish, to be able to metonymically control sexual assault by controlling alcohol; by getting rid of one, we will take care of the other.

The problem, of course, is that all of this is total and absolute bullshit. Alcohol doesn’t cause rape; survivors who were raped while drunk are no more responsible for what was done to them than a pedestrian who happened to be drinking before getting run over by a drunk driver. Amherst’s decision to prioritize alcohol over sexual assault is ethically negligent at best, and willfully ignorant at worst. To suggest that sexual assault can be combatted through discussions of personal values is an insult to the intelligence of the students of Amherst College; it’s the path toward moral relativism. It means there are no higher principles governing how we should or shouldn’t treat each other, which is a dangerously ignorant way to live. Not all opinions are equally valid; some things are wrong unequivocally, and are legitimate positions for debate.

President Martin, in the Convocation address she gave on Monday evening (which marked the end of Orientation ’13), spoke at length about the place of ignorance in our culture. In order to contest ignorance, we must be guided by principles and be willing to subject our own beliefs to the same scrutiny we use to evaluate the beliefs of others. “The undoing of ignorance,” said Biddy, “requires awareness and guts.” I share President Martin’s enormous gratitude for being here, which is why I will conclude by repeating her words back to her:

Ignorance is not the absence of information. It is not a simple emptiness waiting to be filled… Ignorance is active, even willful, though often unconsciously so; it is structured by configurations of power and distribution of resources; it works through us by virtue of the ways we are enfolded in those configurations. It is cemented by bonds of love—by the attachments and loyalties that shape us, and sometimes lead us around by the nose.  The undoing of ignorance requires awareness and guts, which depend on the fellowship, the guidance, and support of others who are committed to rigorous analysis… It is possible to make of it [diversity] a kind of fetish when it is not connected the work of the institution and the vision for our relations with one another. It becomes a fetish when the responsibility for it is left to those who seem to represent it, rather than being assumed by every one of us.

Amherst College must renew its commitment to this “rigorous analysis.” The gulf between the reality of student life and the administration’s perception is startling, but it has not yet become impassible. We must subject each other and ourselves to our analyses; our fetish is not simply “diversity” or “drinking culture,” but all of the easy answers. A fetish is, after all, the  fantasy of ignorance. We must stop entertaining ignorance, no matter how cogent its formulation. My dreams for this year fill my heart with hope, love, and possibility, and with conviction I look through my fears toward the difficult questions that are waiting for us.

About Ryan Arnold

This isn't shoegaze - this is suicide.

16 comments on “The Amherst College Drinking Fetish

  1. Yoni R
    September 4, 2013

    i don’t mean to be antagonistic here at all (i would love for amherst to have a more lenient policy towards drinking and i would love even more for sexual assault to stop on campus) but i have a hard time believing that there is NO causal relationship between alcohol and sexual assault. i of course accept that alcohol is not always involved or to blame.

    secondly, and again im not trying to start a fight, what would an actual solution to the problem be? if discussion about sexual assault wont work, and reducing alcohol on campus wont work, what will? you said ” since the resolution of sexual assault would require a restructuring of Amherst’s entire psychical landscape” but what does that mean in practical terms? is there any way we could actually fix anything?

    • Ryan Arnold
      September 4, 2013

      hi yoni, thanks for specifically not trying to start a fight. to clarify re: your first comment, there is definitely a relationship between alcohol and sexual assault — statistics show that approximately half of all sexual assaults “involve alcohol consumption by the perpetrator, victim, or both” (source 1); other sources determine that the perpetrator is intoxicated in 1 in 3 sexual assaults, 30% of the time with alcohol (). it’s also a cultural fact that people who are intoxicated are targetted for sexual activity (e.g. the movie Superbad). however, it is a veritable truth that there exists no causal relationship between drinking alcohol and sexual assault. alcohol doesn’t cause people to rape others; the cause of rape is inside the rapist, not a bottle.

      to your second point: i borrowed the phrase “restructuring of the psychical landscape” from psychoanalysis, meaning that the acceptance of reality is so great a task that it would require renovations to fundamental pieces of the mind’s infrastructure. the analogy is obvious — amherst would need to change the paradigms responsible for its handling of sexual assault and its continued inability to address it; this shift is too high a demand, hence the retreat into willfully ignorant fetishism.

      in terms of a solution: if i knew the answer, my dude, i would have already written that post. i know that a) we need to confront a problem in order to fix it — this means making it a priority and doing stuff to address it — and b) we need to stop embracing false cures, in the hope that it will go away on its own. this means that we need to take some facts to heart: the singular cause of sexual assault is the person who commits it; we live in a culture that permits (if not encourages) rape through degrading depictions of women in media and speech; and that rape has incredibly little to do with sex and everything to do with entitlement and power.

      • annacse
        September 5, 2013

        Not that this is the only solution by any means, but expelling rapists would be a concrete start.

  2. Anonymous
    September 5, 2013

    Another meaningless ACVoice article. Lots of big words, no solution.

  3. Pleased Reader
    September 5, 2013

    Ryan,

    Your article is meaningful to me both for its recognition of our administration’s troubling sidestepping of a genuine struggle against sexual assault, and on a broader level for its recognition of what seems to be our tendency (among students and administration alike) to restrain confrontations with troubling aspects of our lives to the realm of the academic in order to avoid the pain of confronting them in the realm of feeling and emotional weight. Amherst needs more thinkers like you. Please continue writing.

    -Pleased Reader : )

  4. Lance H
    September 5, 2013

    however, it is a veritable truth that there exists no causal relationship between drinking alcohol and sexual assault. alcohol doesn’t cause people to rape others; the cause of rape is inside the rapist, not a bottle.

    I notice you keep trying to hammer down this statement for mainly ideological reasons. It’s not wrong, by any means: sure, the cause of rape is “inside the rapist” not a bottle, if you’re talking about immediate causes. But we recognize indirect causes which may contribute to this hypothetical rapist’s state of mind when she is about to commit the rape. You yourself cite “a culture that permits (if not encourages) rape through degrading depictions of women…” If we were using your logic, then I would answer: “What does such a culture have to do with solving the problem of sexual assaults? After all, “degrading depictions of women culture” doesn’t cause rape, just like “drinking culture” doesn’t cause rape. The cause of rape is inside the rapist, not the culture!”

    Do you see the inherent contradiction in the implications of your post here? Your logic is not tenable in many other sorts of situations either, E.g., “Why are blacks on average poorer than whites? Oh, no, it has nothing to do with culture, the cause of poverty is in the minds and bodies of black people themselves!” In a nutshell: you’re making no sense, because you’re comparing direct causes (the causes “inside the rapist” before she is about to commit rape) and indirect causes (the influences from culture and other environmental factors which lead to the direct causes).

    Now I don’t necessarily entirely disagree that maybe the administration has overemphasized alcohol as contributing to the occurrence of sexual assault. But your way of expressing this viewpoint is to take wild swings at the very basic concepts of causality, resulting in an incoherence which is only masked by your polemical rhetoric and casual use of vulgarities. This does not help the situation at all.

  5. physphilmusic
    September 5, 2013

    however, it is a veritable truth that there exists no causal relationship between drinking alcohol and sexual assault. alcohol doesn’t cause people to rape others; the cause of rape is inside the rapist, not a bottle.

    I notice you keep trying to hammer down this statement for mainly ideological reasons. It’s not wrong, by any means: sure, the cause of rape is “inside the rapist” not a bottle, if you’re talking about immediate causes. But we recognize indirect causes which may contribute to this hypothetical rapist’s state of mind when she is about to commit the rape. You yourself cite “a culture that permits (if not encourages) rape through degrading depictions of women…” If we were using your logic, then I would answer: “What does such a culture have to do with solving the problem of sexual assaults? After all, “degrading depictions of women culture” doesn’t cause rape, just like “drinking culture” doesn’t cause rape. The cause of rape is inside the rapist, not the culture!”

    Do you see the inherent contradiction in the implications of your post here? Your logic is not tenable in many other sorts of situations either, E.g., “Why are blacks on average poorer than whites? Oh, no, it has nothing to do with culture, the cause of poverty is in the minds and bodies of black people themselves!” In a nutshell: you’re making no sense, because you’re comparing direct causes (the causes “inside the rapist” before she is about to commit rape) and indirect causes (the influences from culture and other environmental factors which lead to the direct causes).

    Now I don’t necessarily entirely disagree that maybe the administration has overemphasized alcohol as contributing to the occurrence of sexual assault. But your way of expressing this viewpoint is to take wild swings at the very basic concepts of causality, resulting in an incoherence which is only masked by your polemical rhetoric and casual use of vulgarities. This does not help the situation at all.

    (sorry for the repost, my comment got mangled in the browser).

  6. Caitlin
    September 5, 2013

    I agree that colleges (and actually even more so high schools) focus too much on preventing drinking and not enough time on preventing sexual assault. But even if the link is not directly causal, if alcohol creates circumstances in which sexual assault is significantly more likely to happen, reducing alcohol would probably have some positive effect, right? (I mean that in a let’s not get people who would rape to be more likely to do so and let’s have people more aware of themselves for safety, not in a ‘it’s your fault if you were drunk sense,’ obviously.)
    Also, if consent is impossible when a person is too drunk to give it, then technically alcohol would directly cause rape in that it would make any sex had while drunk into non-consensual sex, yes?

  7. annacse
    September 5, 2013

    Great article, Ryan. The alcohol crackdown has bothered me and it was really great to see you lay out its problems in a step by step way

  8. Drew
    September 5, 2013

    As I understand it, there were actually several events during Orientation that related to sexual assault (the Can-I-Kiss-You skits/discussion, queer queries, elements of the RC show, the She skits)… did you even look at the schedule, or did you just make an assumption that suited your rhetorical needs?

    And your assertion that the school has “suggest[ed] that sexual assault can be combatted through discussions of personal values” is an obvious straw man tactic (a favorite of yours, it seems). Come on, man.

    I personally think that Amherst’s response to the problem of sexual assault has been sickeningly negligent, but your masturbatory response adds less to an intelligent discussion than it detracts by its deceptive use of misinformation and slippery polemic. The forced Freudian analysis bit is almost comical, too, mostly because it relies upon the deliberate ignorance of the facts that I mentioned above; next time, save it for your cultural anthropology professor and spare us. Or, if you can’t resist busting out last semester’s psychoanalytic theories in your op-eds, at least get your facts straight and avoid the rudimentary logical fallacies, my dude.

    • Anonymous
      September 6, 2013

      Thank you for this cogent critique that uses the actual tools of logic. As I am less experienced with those tools, I will add only my complaints about the tone and implications of this masturbatory, puerile article.

      First off, read as a whole, the article has an sense of moral superiority that is both embarrassing and academically disingenuous. A few examples: describing the eCHUG thing as a “profoundly stupid piece of teetotaler propaganda”, accusing Amherst of being ” a place that more likely to side with rhetorical might over moral right”, and diagnosing the supposed absence of sexual assault awareness during Orientation as due to ” the College’s fetishistic fantasy about alcohol and student experience”.

      That superior sentiment would be excusable if this article was content with being a simple op-ed and if it were explicitly labeled as such, perhaps right next to that patronizing trigger warning (another argument entirely), but it was apparently written in the spirit of actually trying to effect change, in order to “stop entertaining ignorance, no matter how cogent its formulation” in its own words. Trying to do so from such an unobjective and uncogent position, however, is silly, counter-intuitive and indeed masturbatory. After all, how is anyone supposed to logically believe in something that so purposefully attempts to guilt them into it with its holier-than-thou, I-am-the-sole-moral-authority attitude betrayed by such sentences as “Not all opinions are equally valid; some things are wrong unequivocally, and are legitimate positions for debate”? We here at Amherst are supposedly taught to be critical of everything, especially absolutes. Writing off whole opinions and different views as “wrong unequivocally” and not “equally valid” is absolutely antithetical to this academic spirit. If we subscribe to the closed-off ideals of the author, then why care about any position that’s not considered by him to be correct?

      If anything, this piece fetishizes the idea of change and evolution in the College’s policy so ardently wished for by the author without providing any tangible or credible solution to back it up. The irony inherent in writing this article is lost on the author even as he himself declares “To suggest that sexual assault can be combatted through discussions of personal values is an insult to the intelligence of the students of Amherst College; it’s the path toward moral relativism”. What is this article if not a gussied-up discussion of his personal values and how they should be implemented in order to fix the college? And how is his attitude of “not all opinions are equally valid” anything but him thrusting upon us his moral vision, thereby contributing to the College’s canvas of moral relativism which he himself purports to dislike? I do agree wholeheartedly with the first half of the above quotation, though. I feel that my and every other critical reader’s intelligence has been insulted due to the author’s addition of yet another logically toothless voice to add to the din of pointless manufactured hysteria already present on campus.

  9. jason
    September 5, 2013

    The article seems to take issue with the administration’s crackdown on alcohol by suggesting that it’s not exactly a solution for the sexual assault problem. Not that I agree with the specific steps taken by them to address the alcohol problem, or the manner in which they’ve carried this out, but perhaps the alcohol policy is simply this: an alcohol policy. Whatever you think about the relationship between alcohol and sexual assault (let’s be clear here though: alcohol clearly impairs judgment = drunk people more likely to do bad things they’d regret, e.g. rape), it is undeniable that (a part of) Amherst has a problematic and unhealthy alcohol culture. If you don’t believe so, you need to step back, observe, and reconsider.

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