Drinkups Are Rape Culture
Bodily autonomy isn’t only about sex.
My youngest brother has a lot of allergies. No, a lot of allergies. They’ve gotten a little better with age and medication, but time was, even smelling milk or eggs or walnuts or cherries or any of a dozen other things would land him in intensive care. I’d come home from school and oops, there’d be a note on the table saying my family was at the hospital again.
People didn’t understand that. Still don’t. “Milk allergy? Oh, you must mean lactose intolerance. There are pills for that now, here, have a cupcake — “ and then it’s another emergency shot of epinephrine to the leg.
So I don’t have much tolerance for people who say, “Here, put this in your mouth. I know better than you what goes in it.”
subject, object, theory, and practice
I started drinking in college, and while I was still feeling out my thoughts about alcohol I liked tipsiness and strongly disliked drunkenness. This was a minority attitude: I was a theater major, and Everclear’s the unofficial sponsor of every college theater department. Explaining why I liked relatively weak drinks to people was difficult. Many of my peers had thoroughly internalized the idea that everyone really wanted to get really drunk, and in that context the only reasons a person would ask for a weak drink would be shyness or coyness or disliking the taste of alcohol.
What this meant, unfortunately, was that only a few trusted friends would respect my wishes when handing me drinks. Everyone else — including other people I classed as friends — was so bound by their assumptions that they believed that giving me a stronger drink than I’d asked for was doing me a favor.
They assumed that their subjective experience was a universal truth.
When analyzing human behavior, the notions of subject and object are often useful. The word “subjectivity” encompasses many concepts, among them: the presence and validity of a person’s subjective experience, and the assumption that they are a free agent with free will. Do you know that weird feeling you had as — a teenager, maybe — when you suddenly realized that your mom had all kinds of thoughts and feelings and motives of her own that had nothing whatsoever do do with “thwarting your every petty rebellion?” That’s what recognizing another person’s subjectivity feels like.
Objectifying someone is the opposite process. While objectification is most often referred to in the context of sexual objectification — that is, focusing on one’s sexual desire for a person to the extent that one ignores their subjectivity — “objectification” merely requires that one ignore subjectivity. It is inherently dehumanizing; it denies the objectified person’s independence and in doing so reduces them to a toy. This process can be accidental or deliberate.
I’d like to believe that my college friends were acting out of ignorance.
“Here, put this in your mouth. I know better than you what goes in it.”
no one wants you to wear a tie
Many of our norms here in tech culture are open and overt rebellion against aspects of mainstream culture that are perceived as buzzkills for the sake of buzz-killing. A lot of bullshit has been thus discarded. Unfortunately, attempts to retrieve the babies thrown out with all of this bathwater are often met with a knee-jerk resistance. As @wirehead2501 once observed:
THIS is the threat. we say “it’s not appropriate to make dick jokes at professional confs,” they hear “we’re going to make you wear a tie”.
No one wants you to wear a tie. If men in tech start needing to wear ties to work, then I’ll start needing to wear pantyhose, and: no.
There’s another dynamic at work here, too.
To oppose something is to maintain it.
They say here “all roads lead to Mishnory.” To be sure, if you turn your back on Mishnory and walk away from it, you are still on the Mishnory road.
Ursula K. LeGuin, The Left Hand of Darkness
When we react against something, it’s important to not do so in a manner that continues to accept the assumptions put in place by that which we’re reacting against.
“Brogrammers” are often described as “overgrown frat boys.” The ur-brogrammer of our darkest nightmares sees his position in the court of our new ruling class as an opportunity to merge work and play, but his definition of play is very narrow. It’s a definition that posits that the only improvements frat-house ragers really needed were cleaner carpets and better beers. It’s also, crucially, a definition that places “play” in direct opposition to “the trappings of conventional adulthood.”
Many programmers manage to do good work in these environments, and therefore — understandably — do not see this disregard for Staid Professionalism as a bar to doing good work. Attempts to tone down the more aggressively “unprofessional” elements of tech culture are therefore seen as buzzkills for the sake of buzz-killing. But when we frame things solely as “fun” or “not fun” we’re trapped on the Mishnory road.
Serial rape is only possible in environments where the rapist is not immediately jailed or ostracized following Rape #1. Serial acquaintance rapists, therefore, require environments in which:
- their victims will not report
- their victims’ reports will go unheard, ignored, or dismissed
- both of the above.
In order to ensure #1, most successful serial rapists choose their targets carefully. Rape, at heart, is a particularly striking and brutal subtype of boundary violation. Rapists and other predators, therefore, often choose targets by looking for people who won’t or can’t enforce smaller boundaries. They also create situations in which enforcing boundaries, large or small, becomes unusually difficult.
(I pause here to note that rape is always the fault of the rapist, and that in the wrong context anyone can be or look like a “good victim.” Successful predators are, by definition, good at this shit.)
Predatory escalation — that is to say, “boiling frog”-style boundary violation — is often described as: a hug held a little too long, and ignored. Then a hand at the small of your back that “accidentally” brushes your ass, and a nervous giggle. Then another hand grabs your thigh and there’s no pretense of accident this time. And then, and then, and then, and each slow erosion of physical boundaries goes unchallenged out of politeness or fear. We all know this story.
“Put this in your mouth. I know better than you what goes in it.”
Isn’t it funny that that quote can apply to a cupcake, or a drink, or a rapist’s cock?
on the outside looking in
When we define drinkups, office bars, and other venues for professional alcohol consumption as “fun,” and a rebellion against “not fun,” we assume a shared subjective experience. This assumption does not hold true, and is dangerous for that and other reasons.
A professional culture of extensive alcohol consumption excludes those who cannot drink for reasons of mental health, physical health, or religion. It also potentially excludes those who have chosen, for whatever reason, to minimize or eliminate their personal alcohol consumption, or who feel uncomfortable in the presence of drunk people.
Drinkups, like other professional events, are fantastic networking opportunities. You can find a new job, or a co-founder, or make a good impression on a conference organizer, or any of a dozen other things. There are also less tangible benefits — afterward, you feel more connected and less alone, and that’s a nice feeling when you’re staring down an incomprehensible stacktrace two days later.
These benefits are obvious to people in the excluded categories, and the existence of these benefits therefore pressures people in those categories to overcome or ignore their discomfort and attend the drinkup anyway.
Or, said differently: some people in our professional community have set boundaries about alcohol consumption. Drinkup culture pressures them to ignore these boundaries.
successful predators are good at this shit
Predators both create and seek out situations in which boundaries are unlikely to be enforced. There’s a lot of writing on the role alcohol and other drugs can play in this — by lowering a victim’s mental and physical acuity, a rapist can create a situation where their target cannot enforce his or her boundaries. Much writing on the problems of drinkup culture has focused on the fact that it enables those situations. But the problem starts sooner than that.
If you’re looking for someone who can’t or won’t enforce his or her boundaries, then drinkups — places where people who may not be comfortable with significant alcohol consumption may feel pressured to consume anyway — are something of a target-rich environment. Furthermore, the shape of the event provides many opportunities to test a target’s boundaries by pressing drinks on them and seeing how they react. If a predator can persuade a target to drink to excess, they’ve hit a double jackpot: a physically incapacitated person, who they know won’t or can’t enforce boundaries.
If someone pressures me into a drink I don’t want, or hits on me in a manner I’m uncomfortable with, I often can’t tell if they’re doing so in ignorance or malice — if they’re “merely” neglecting to recognize my subjectivity, or if they are willfully and predatorily choosing to disregard it by crossing my boundaries. In the end, though, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that my boundaries are being crossed.
back to Mishnory
The tech industry is hardly the only place in America that defines Office Space-style bureaucracy as “not fun” and buying a round for the bar as “fun.” Drinkup culture as it’s currently constructed is a reflection of a more broadly broken American drinking culture. But passing the buck is not a solution. For fuck’s sake, people: we are technologists. We disrupt.
I’m not arguing for prohibition, here. I like alcohol, I’ve been known to self-medicate away my social anxiety in crowds, and I am always up for craft beer geekery. But I’ve felt the pressures I describe here at multiple professional events, and as someone who is fairly comfortable with alcohol I know that the pressures likely fall even harder on others.
A culture of constant, casual pressure on boundaries is a culture where consent is not taken seriously. This is toxic in itself.
I am not paid to write. Please consider supporting my work on gittip.