(Last) week in Washington, a Department of Education panel continued negotiations over new campus sexual assault regulations.
Among the topics was how to define "consent."
The definition requires review because of a prolific component of most sexual assaults on campus: alcohol.
Last month's report by the White House Council on Women and Girls recounted a shocking statistic that one in five women was sexually assaulted while in college.
The report further acknowledges that "the dynamics of college life" -- read: the unfettered availability of alcohol and the propensity for its irresponsible consumption -- "appear to fuel the problem" of sexual assault.
Many young people -- both men and women -- engage in sexual behavior while intoxicated, high or incapacitated. And in such circumstances, it is easy, particularly for a man, to take advantage of a woman who is incapable of saying "no."
But not every case of assault is so cut-and-dry.
In a sharply criticized column, Wall Street Journal writer James Taranto argued that in sexual encounters where both men and women are intoxicated, the parties bear equal blame. Yet his commentary is not wholly deserving of the consternation it has generated.
It would be naive -- even dangerous -- to ignore what writer Cathy Young calls the "very real phenomenon of alcohol-facilitated rapes by serial predators." Such men operate with impunity in campus environments where drinking is part of almost every social activity.
But as Young also explains, "it is equally true that, in today's climate, many cases labeled as sexual assault involve two young people who are drunk and reckless."
Young points to the underlying data from the report the White House cites that find "70 percent of the incidents classified as sexual assaults were based on women's self-reports of sexual contact while 'unable to provide consent or stop what was happening' due to being 'passed out, drugged, drunk, incapacitated or asleep.' Yet only a quarter of these women -- 37 percent when penetration was involved -- believed they had been raped. ... Two-thirds didn't regard the incident as serious enough to report."
It should be clearly stated that sexual assault in any form is wrong. Period.
But there is a difference between assault and alcohol-fueled, regretful sexual behavior. While both are damaging to women, they should not be conflated.
Unfortunately, this sentiment is often unwelcome among the communities of women who seem to embrace female sexual freedom but shun its requisite responsibility.
Cosmopolitan magazine columnist Irma Kurtz was recently pilloried for the cautionary sentiments she shared on BBC radio's "Woman's Hour": "The woman is responsible for herself. Men and women are not quite the same. If a woman had a weapon she could use when she got drunk, I would tell her not to, of course. But what she does have that she can use is self-defense. And drunkenness tears that away."
Kurtz was summarily assailed by feminists and victims' groups, although she herself is a victim of rape.
Yet she was merely restating an inconvenient truth about the sexes. Irresponsible drinking puts women at much greater risk.
Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker talks of "the obvious biological and anatomical differences" that render women more physically vulnerable.
In sexual circumstances involving alcohol, Parker challenges men to show restraint: "the stronger of two has the moral responsibility to protect the weaker."
But chivalry is not an attribute to be reliably found in all men, particularly drunk ones. So women must again be implored to make wise choices for themselves.
I'll take it a step further than that: Women must assume the responsibility to look after each other.
In college, my girlfriends and I had rules about leaving one another at parties or in dorm rooms with men, especially when alcohol was being consumed.
Prying an inebriated friend from the arms of a guy or calling a girlfriend after a party to make sure she had made it back to her dorm without incident were occasionally necessary steps to take.
We considered our safety a communal responsibility. We knew we were vulnerable to the various risks of drinking, and the benefits of protecting each other seemed to outweigh any costs.
Women do not and should not bear responsibility for a crime once committed. But when reasonable measures to prevent assault and regretful behavior, alike, can be taken, we should employ them.
This kind of prevention cannot be regulated by universities or the government. It must be assumed by us all if we are serious about protecting women.
(Cynthia Allen is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.)