Culture Mark Silk: Spiritual Politics Opinion

Stop campus rapes by lowering the drinking age

Prohibition advocates
Prohibition advocates

Prohibition advocates

So argues New York Times conservative columnist Ross Douthat proposes and you know what? He’s right.

Douthat’s correctly points out that the “key problem in college sexual culture right now isn’t drinking per se; it’s blackout drinking, which follows from binge drinking, which is more likely to happen when a drinking culture is driven underground.” Specifically, it’s “pre-loading” — young people consuming a heavy dose of alcohol before they show up at a party. The results are not pretty.

What Douthat does not mention is that the impetus for raising the drinking age came from Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), an organization founded in 1980 by Candy Lightner after her 13-year-old daughter was killed by a drunk driver. The federal government took the bit in its teeth, and in 1984 passed a law denying a portion of highway funds to any state that didn’t raise the legal drinking age to 21. By 1988, every state in the Union had done so.

In 1985 Lightner left the organization. As she subsequently told the Washington Times, “It has become far more neo-prohibitionist than I had ever wanted or envisioned. I didn’t start MADD to deal with alcohol. I started MADD to deal with the issue of drunk driving.”

Prohibition was the last great Protestant moral crusade in America, and while it contributed significantly to the growth of organized crime, it did (contrary to popular belief) improve public health and change national drinking habits for the better. While the MADD-led crusade has had a major impact on reducing deaths from drunk driving, its neo-prohibitionist creation of a culture of binge drinking has had the unintended consequence of fostering sexual assault on college campuses and needs to be remedied by lowering the drinking age.
This will enable colleges, as they did in the past, to manage and, to some degree, control alcohol consumption by allowing campus organizations to serve drinks to virtually all undergraduates, and to model moderate drinking in social contexts. It is, in my view, the single most effective tool for administrators to break what Douthat calls “their colleges’ symbiotic relationship with the on-campus party scene.”

In the past few years, the federal government has used Title IX of the Civil Rights Act, which bars gender discrimination, to compel administrators to deal seriously with sexual assault on campus. As chair of a faculty committee charged with reviewing my campus’ disciplinary procedures, I would urge federal officials to think as broadly as we have about how and why sexual assault happens, and to remove the state penalty on the under-21 drinking age.


About the author

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service


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  • Lowering the legal drinking age will decrease crimes of sexual violence and binge drinking? So allowing alcohol served in social setting to those under 21 on college and university campus’ is supposed to curb sexual violence and binge drinking. How dumb can you get. Mark Slik you really think he is right that doing so would change the alcoholic culture? Do you plan to have faculty members or other appointed “keepers of the bottle” saying “O.K. that’s enough now go Susie over there she seems a little tipsy too, she such a nice girl.” You two might hit it off.

    Obviously there’s no problem obtaining Alcohol as well as drugs now. Something left out of the column is a study of whether the 21 age law has any effect on use of alcohol for those under the age limit.

    I have had many year experience as a counselor to persons who are alcoholics and I can tell you many began to drink as children. The stuff permeates our culture. The damage it does to the body fills our hospitals with alcohol related illnesses. Don’t believe me, check it out.
    Much of my experience has been as Chaplain and Pastoral counselor in prison and hospitals.

    Change the law if its you poison. Will it make a difference with binge drinking and sexual violence? Probably not.

  • And I can tell you from personal experience that much college binge-drinking occurs because if you’re under 21 and you’re drinking, you never know when/how you’ll be able to obtain alcohol again. It creates an incentive to drink as much as possible. I don’t know whether lowering the drinking age actually will combat rape, but it certainly will cut down on binge drinking.

  • Mark: Obviously we have a kind of test case with the European university system. While there are some significant differences between US and Euro university systems, there are enough similarities with the age of students, average affluence/ expendable income, and access to alcohol/drugs. The main difference being that Europe tends to have a much lower drinking age (often starting in high school), and a much lower temperature attitude toward drugs and alcohol in general.

    So, with that stated, is there a lower incidence of sexual assault on European campuses? Is there a lower incidence of hospital admissions for incidents involving drugs/alcohol?

    If you can get ahold of said stats, and they report what you predict, it could greatly bolster your argument.

  • Some people are too smart for their own good. The stupidity here is obvious. Teenage drinkers don’t think the way they are portrayed in this article. They drink! And make it available to them at a younger age and guess what? They drink! No more responsibly than before, just able to get it younger. Also, the proposed link between binge drinking and MADD is dubious and unsupported.

    Mark – do you really believe this??

  • The violent nature of the college sex culture is an issue of violence. Alcohol abuse merely sets the table. The guys get trashed enough to not care about the brutal consequences of their behavior. The girls too inebriated to defend themselves.
    ‘Underground’ activity is more risky by nature. Put a pub right in the middle of every quad and supervise the activity…sure, social consumption with a pinch of self-control would be a much improved scenario. But, you better escort every girl back to her dorm room and make sure the windows are locked. Idiots will still be idiots and drunk idiots are extremely dangerous.
    What our college men need is a sense of what’s right and wrong.

  • It isn’t that lowering the drinking age will make it to where younger adults wont drink as much, of course they will if they haven’t been properly taught how to drink. i am 19 years old and i am from Germany. The drinking age is 16 where i grew up. having a lower drinking age enables young adults to be able to go out to eat with family and parents and be able to have a drink or two and be properly taught how to drink and how much is acceptable to drink. the problem with American kids is they do not know they’re limit and haven’t been properly advised on how not to binge drink. most american kids first drink is at a party with others they’re own age and they have not the slightest idea how much is enough when they drink. i 100% agree with Mark. who would you rather your children have their first drink with? the parent in a controlled atmosphere, or at some party with a bunch of drunk horny kids. splitz splitz splitz.

  • In much of Europe, the driving age is higher, and getting a license is more difficult and expensive. The CDC reports that in the US, the number of teens who drink & drive has dropped by more than half since 1991, shortly after the legal drinking age of 21 was implemented in all states. If the drinking age is lowered (which I don’t support), then the driving age had better be raised, otherwise there will be more carnage on the road.

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