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Strict Alcohol Policies At Holiday Parties Won’t Protect Women

An increasing number of companies are implementing drinking quotas at holiday parties to curb sexual abuse. This approach is wrong — and dangerous.

Pixabay/Michael Discenza

By Erin Gee, Erica Ifill, and Bailey Reid

The holiday season is upon us, and with that comes the time-honored tradition of drinking enough on the company dime that your colleagues begin to seem remotely interesting. But in the wake of the #MeToo movement, human resources departments — not wanting to join the deluge of companies firing people for allegations of sexual violence — are reconsidering their policies around drinking. As such, the 2017 holiday party circuit might seem different this year — a little more formal, slightly stuffier, and probably a lot drier (in both conversations and libations).

A HuffPost story recently detailed Vox Media’s revamped holiday-party policy. In lieu of the typical open bar, this year the company will be offering drink coupons, two per person, followed by unlimited non-alcoholic beverages. The decision was made in order to curb any “unprofessional behavior” that could take place at the party, on the grounds that— per an email sent to staffers from management — “creating an environment that encourages overconsumption certainly contributes to” such behavior.

Vox has not explicitly stated that its new policy is related to sexual abuse — perhaps because they recognize using such language could incite backlash, and they want to avoid any liability if something does happen — but it’s hard not to discern a connection between the two. The vague phrase “unprofessional behavior” has become a euphemism for a spectrum of behaviors that don’t belong in the workplace, from racist, transphobic, and homophobic comments, to sexual harassment and assault. Further, the decision comes on the heels of Vox firing its editorial director for sexual harassment — an incident it initially handled by telling the accused that he could “not drink at corporate events any longer.”

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In this, Vox is not alone; many media outlets are reporting on companies curbing alcohol consumption this year, likely in direct response to fear over sexual harassment incidents. Challenger, Gray & Christmas’ annual survey on holiday parties found that for 2017, only 48.7% of the 150 human resource representatives from across the U.S. would be serving alcohol at their company’s party, down from the 61.9% in 2016. Similarly, 11% (up from 4% in 2016) of respondents said that their company would not be hosting a holiday party this year, despite previously hosting one.

Andrew Challenger, vice president of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, told MarketWatch:

“There’s no economic reason right now that we see these holiday parties being scaled back, and that’s why we think it could be an anomaly caused by the Weinstein effect.”

Limiting alcohol consumption to protect against sexual abuse might seem reasonable and well-intentioned. In reality, it contributes to the rape culture that puts so many people at risk of assault in the first place.

As we’ve seen over the last several weeks, men do not need to be under the influence of alcohol to sexually assault someone. They do not need several cocktails to whip out their dicks and masturbate. Shots of liquid courage are unnecessary for men to forcibly kiss, grab, or grope women. The only thing that men are drunk on when it comes to assaulting women is power. (Power is also, it’s worth pointing out, behind the rarer cases of women sexually abusing men.)

The suggestion that alcohol makes men commit assault is an actively dangerous one, undermining how inequitable power distribution inspires the inappropriate and dangerous behavior of men. And there’s another issue, too: Alcohol-limiting policies suggest that women who are sexually abused in a situation where there’s been heavy drinking are responsible for their own assault.

Particularly when sexual assault allegations make it to court, the defense often seeks to discredit the victim by bringing up her alcohol consumption on the night of the alleged incident. We saw this happen in both the Brock Turner trial and the Vanderbilt football trial, among many others. It’s a rape myth as old as time — so old, it’s nearly biblical. As the lie goes, when women drink, they become slutty temptresses; when they wake up, they regret their fall from our societal notions of “purity” and instead of taking responsibility for their actions, they blame men. In Halifax, Canada, a judge took only 20 minutes to acquit a cab driver of sexual assault, stating, “Clearly, a drunk can consent.” In the Vanderbilt football incident, one of the prosecuting lawyers said, “[College is] a culture that encourage[s] sexual promiscuity but not, not just alone, it was also a culture of alcohol, and alcohol consumption.”

This is victim-blaming at its most blatant.

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When it comes to prevention of sexual assault, rather than telling men not to rape, we caution women about their own behavior. We tell women to watch their drinks at the bar, lest they be drugged. We warn them about being around men who are too drunk, and tell them not to dance too close or smile too long. If they accept a drink from a man and are later assaulted, they’re a drunk slut who was asking for it (and if they don’t go home with the man at all? They’re a bitch for not exchanging their time for a $10.50 investment).

One thing remains constant: the underlying narrative that women are responsible for not getting sexually assaulted, and one strategy to keep themselves out of harm’s way is to cut down their consumption of alcohol. In limiting the amount of alcohol that a female employee can consume at their holiday party, Vox Media (and all companies following that same lead) are essentially saying that women need to have someone paternalizing them, so that they don’t overindulge and make poor choices that they may later regret.

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As well, such policies put women at a disadvantage when it comes to climbing the career ladder, while further cementing the protocol of the Old Boys Club. If, as these policies suggest, a man is likely just one martini away from a harassment suit, there might be cause to exclude women from events with drinks altogether. And while neither women nor men should feel social pressure to drink more than they want to, the fact is that at many workplaces, important business discussions take place over drinks, often after hours. If women are shut out of these gatherings (which they often are for other reasons as well, including childcare burdens), they may find it that much harder to ascend the ranks.

Underlying all this is a dangerous message: women are weak, unable to handle their liquor and vulnerable to putting themselves in harm’s way. Such reasoning further solidifies misogynistic notions that women can’t hack it in the workplace.

Lowering alcohol consumption to prevent sexual assault is no more than a bandaid placed over a gaping wound. In order to truly reduce workplace sexual harassment and assault, more significant systemic change is in order.

“This cultural change will be difficult because it will require tackling long-standing behaviors that have been tolerated for years,” says Stefanie Lomatski, coordinator of the Sexual Assault Network (SAN) in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. To create true change, Lomatski says that companies need to develop sexual harassment policies that are survivor-centric, by treating them with respect and not discriminating or passing judgment on them, and by recognizing that privacy and confidentiality must be paramount. And then these policies must be clearly communicated to employees, emphasizing that they are important to consider during company events as well. In addition to these policies, educating staff on what constitutes sexual violence delivers a clear message about what is, and is not, appropriate behavior. Training like this is easily accessible, including at many local sexual assault centers.

Lowering alcohol consumption to prevent sexual assault is no more than a bandaid placed over a gaping wound.

SAN is one organization doing important work on this front; its “Project SoundCheck” trains people to intervene when they see potential sexual harassment or violence happening. Often, they’re discussing this within the context of music festivals, where alcohol and drugs are a significant factor — but in their training, sexual violence is never excused by drinking. Rather, creating safer spaces is the focus. Usually, the formula looks something like, “This is problematic behavior, whereas this is what a caring community looks like,” says Lomatski. Essentially, social change models are much more effective in preventing sexual violence than simply telling people how to behave for one event, once a year.

Yes, workplace sexual violence policies “with teeth” will educate employees about what management expects from them, but to really dictate an organization’s culture, work events held outside the workplace, particularly outside working hours, need to include as many reminders as possible about appropriate behavior. This doesn’t need to be complex; posting workplace policies in conspicuous areas and having regular check-ins about harassment and violence go a long way. Finally, when it comes to spaces where colleagues are partying together, it’s important to have (sober) individuals at the event to serve as a support for those who feel unsafe, and who people can approach if something happens to them.

Social change models are much more effective in preventing sexual violence than simply telling people how to behave for one event, once a year.

There are plenty of very legitimate reasons to change the culture of drinking at work events. Namely, it excludes groups of people who choose not to drink for health reasons, religious reasons, because they’re in recovery, or simply because they don’t like getting wasted with a bunch of people they’re already forced to spend upwards of 35 hours a week with. And just as there are sensible reasons to change drinking culture in the workplace, there are more sensible solutions to curbing workplace sexual harassment and assault than providing warnings to staff that are based on rape mythology and victim-blaming. It starts with changing the organization’s cultural attitude toward women (and those who identify as women or non-binary) by not only giving them a seat at the table, but by ensuring their decision-making roles are formal, respected, and viewed as critical to the bottom line. When women are viewed as decision-makers, with autonomy and power in a workplace, they are seen that way sexually as well. We have the agency to make our own decisions about how much we can drink, we have the agency to decide how and by whom we’ll be touched, and we have the agency to speak up when we are sexually harassed.

And no, we will not be held accountable for your actions — no matter how much we’ve had to drink.

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