This just occurred to me as I was lying on my bed in my home in Malibu, trying to draw some air-conditioned breaths as the heat wave continues. I was listening to a story on the radio about student misconduct and these little bitty thoughts crept into my heat-stroked brain:
I, your humble servant, had the great pleasure of graduating from Columbia College in New York City in 1966. It gave me a fine education and good friends so I have affection for it. I had my first romantic relationship of any meaning there. It was a powerful experience and I still have vast affection for the woman I was involved with (although she won’t speak to me — she’s a Democrat).
I was thus greatly concerned when I read that the students at Columbia are suffering from a string of sexual assaults and are demonstrating about it. I read that this phenomenon — sexual assault among students — is a national epidemic. Mr. Obama is treating it as a crisis and devoting government attention to it. And it is a serious matter.
Obviously, women should feel safe on campus. Obviously, sexual assault is a terrible matter.
But how to approach the issue? I don’t know all of the ways, but here is a big area where young people could use some help: alcohol abuse by students.
When young people — or people of any age — drink, they tend to get more aggressive, to get more adventuresome, to secrete more testosterone, and to do things they would not do when sober. They get to feeling sexually aggressive. That’s a basic chemical change that happens when alcohol hits the nervous system.
Women who would be reserved and decorous report being too drunk to recall if they gave permission for sex or even who they had sex with. Men’s judgment is greatly impaired and a sort of wicked cast of thought takes over in many men’s minds. They see their interactions with women as if they were in a porn movie, not as if they were on the campus of a university, and act accordingly. They see the women as things and not as persons with dignity.
The statistics vary, but there are apparently tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, of unfortunate and often illegal sex acts committed by young people under the influence on campuses. Women’s spirits and reputations are broken. They carry the scars for years and maybe decades.
This does not have to happen. Yes, for generations out of mind, heavy drinking in college was a rite of passage. I know I did plenty of it myself and acted with incredible irresponsibility behind the wheel. (I was at Columbia when taking sexual advantage because of alcohol would simply not have been thought of, at least by anyone I knew. I was with the future economists.)
But excessive drinking is not required to be young or to enjoy life. It is possible to have a great life without any alcohol at all in one’s veins.
I have been in the recovery community for almost 30 years now. I am far from being a young person but I see and talk to a great number of young people in recovery. I hear them talk about how miserable their lives were when they were ruled by alcohol and how happy they are that their lives are free from booze.
I see genuine miracles in the lives of college kids who substitute meditation, exercise, travel, and a carefully, patiently cultivated romance for drunken hookups.
It occurs to me that it would be enormously useful for schools to encourage students to leave alcohol out of their lives if they cannot act responsibly while under the influence. It would be a great day when the cool kids on campus were more interested in sobriety than in losing their minds and souls under the influence of beer and liquor. Sometimes, this will be accomplished by turning to a superhuman power, which is how by far the best program for sobriety, AA, does it. Perhaps sometimes it can happen in other ways. Obviously, public schools should not force any special religion on anyone. Just as obviously if inmates are encouraged to pray in federal and state prisons, it is insane to keep young people in school from prayer. Prayer works and prayer works wonders. We have strayed far too much away from it in the postwar era. Perhaps getting back to it through the recovery world will work miracles in the nation as a whole.
Let’s not kid ourselves. Alcohol changes people, especially young people, in ways that can be devastating. If the country is going to respond intelligently to sexual assault on campus, intelligent and restrained approaches to the use of alcohol, the absolute condemnation of binge drinking and idealizing blackouts is essential.
And let’s be specific: The beer companies that make drinking look so glamorous are creating a massive cost in the wreckage of lives. They make money from it and they do not pay for it. It would be a good idea if the de-romanticizing of alcohol on campus started with them. They won’t like it.
But it’s got to start somewhere.
And if we refuse to admit prayer and a higher power into our lives in the struggle against alcohol fueled sexual assault, we are shutting the door on safety, decency towards women, and health.
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