The Relationship Between Drinking and Sexual Assault

Photo credit: Nadine Shaabana via Unsplash

Content warning: This article discusses sexual assault and may be triggering for some.

Alcohol is involved in no less than half of all violent crimes. Sexual assault is no exception.

We have probably all heard the lines about alcohol and consent at some point, but how many of us actually live it? How much do we actually understand about the ways in which drinking can impact our ability to be fully autonomous in our sexual experiences? 

In order to unpack this, we must look at both the biological and social impacts that alcohol myths have in our culture of victim-blaming.

The Social Construction of Alcohol Myths

Myth #1: Alcohol causes sexual assault.

Within our culture, several myths revolve around alcohol. Alcohol on its own does not cause sexual assault in and of itself. Many conversations about sexual assault still focus on victim-blaming and state that women should, among other things, refrain from drinking to remain vigilant in social situations. However, current research shows that among the reported cases of sexual assault, drinking was involved in approximately half of those cases.

Myth #2: Leaving a drink unattended is the main sexual assault-related concern.

It’s widely accepted that sexual assault usually occurs between strangers, but this is also incorrect. Research shows that sexual assault is most likely between two people who know each other rather than between strangers: In fact, in nearly 80% of sexual assault cases, the victim knew the perpetrator. Though being vigilant about leaving your drinks unattended at a bar is important, this shouldn’t be your main concern. It’s the friend of a friend you run into and strike up a conversation with, or the acquaintance you’re meeting, that are statistically the most likely perpetrators.

Underlying this is the myth that by partying, drinking, or going out and drinking with people you don’t know, you are putting yourself at risk. Data on the attitudes of perpetrators find that they exploit this social belief because they know that the victim involved will likely be shamed.

Biological Experience

The social framework is only a part of the drinking and sexual assault equation. Generally, alcohol is found to be linked to aggression and impulsivity. It is widely known to be associated with the prevalence of domestic violence in social science.

It’s important to acknowledge the neuropsychological changes that alcohol causes. It results in lowered inhibitions, delayed reaction times, increased instances of sexual activity, and levels of aggression. However, this doesn’t cause assault any more than drinking causes someone to gamble away their savings or tell off a friend; it simply results in higher impulsivity, making these situations more likely to occur. 

Because of the changes in mood, cognition, and reasoning that drinking causes, it creates vulnerabilities that often wouldn’t otherwise be present. This is why alcohol is thought to be involved in so many instances of sexual assault, as it can cause susceptibility to danger (as well as an opportunity to create a dangerous circumstance). Alcohol affects the prefrontal cortex and the brain’s limbic system, meaning it impairs executive function and the ability to accurately read social queues. This clouds both perpetrators’ and victims’ ability to communicate and understand one another’s behavior.

However, even stereotypical threat on its own is enough to contribute to the prevalence of sexual assault, as holding beliefs about the effects of alcohol and gender roles can influence perpetrators’ behavior. 

Even worse still, perpetrators often use this vulnerability to their advantage, knowing that drinking makes it more likely that it will be difficult for another person to say no, and that they can use alcohol as justification for inflicting assault.

That’s the real crux here: the perpetrators. 

It’s not simply the substance itself that’s responsible for sexual assault; it’s the perpetrator’s misappropriated use of it. Many perpetrators will target victims in social environments that involve drinking, and that’s no accident, as it’s easier to find vulnerable individuals in these settings. Drinking alone at home isn’t going to increase your risk of assault because while you may be biologically impaired, so to speak, you are not in the presence of a perp. 

Thus, the responsibility here lies with those who cause harm rather than the victim. Harm reduction should center around the inflictor, not the tools by which they are doing so. Otherwise, the heart of the problem isn’t being directly addressed.

Unfortunately, that message hasn’t been clear in our culture, which is why so many programs aimed at reducing sexualized violence will try to stop people from using alcohol instead of focusing on reducing the egregious behavior itself.

Shame and Stigma

Sexual assault is highly stigmatized and vastly misunderstood in our society, which all too often focuses on the survivor’s role in their assaults. 

Even the emotion of shame itself is highly misunderstood. Shame isn’t spoken about openly and this creates even more shame, often to a level that is deemed to be toxic. Because sex in and of itself is filled with shame, this leaves survivors of sexual assault and abuse as some of the most vulnerable to suffering from its effects.

Shame isn’t just a psychological experience, however, but also a psychological one. This happens through a temporary ceasing of activity in the pre-frontal cortex, causing us to actually lose our ability to reason. Through shame, we lose connection to ourselves and others.

Research on those who were drinking at the time of the assault finds that they are likely to experience high levels of distress, citing fear that they will either be blamed or not believed at all.

I spoke with a survivor, Anna, who experienced sexual assault after a first date. “I met a man off of Hinge at a bar after work a few summers ago and thought it would just be a casual night out,” she tells me. Instead, she wound up in his bed after being heavily intoxicated. “I thought we were having a good time, and I was enjoying being with him,” she tells me. 

However, he started to engage in an activity that Anna told him she wasn’t comfortable with. At first, he backed off but then started to engage in it knowingly a short while later.

“I felt completely gutted,” she recalls. “Waves of shame and regret poured over me.” Even though she stood up to her perpetrator, she knew that going to the police or reporting him would be for naught. “I’m still angry that there’s no way to tell this story without being judged for being so drunk.” I was struck by how when alcohol is at all involved, it becomes the focal point of these stories—both to the survivor and society at large.

The question of substance use comes up quite frequently in the aftermath of sexual assault. Women are often asked if they were drinking when it happened as if that can determine the extent to which the violation occurred. This brings us to the myth of direct responsibility, which says that if you were not acting in ways that were safe, you were inviting violence to happen to you. 

It’s like saying that if your car was broken into, it’s your fault because you left your doors unlocked. Of course, alcohol can increase one’s vulnerabilities to assault, as we’ve discussed, but that has nothing to do with the perpetrator’s responsibility for committing a crime. Does leaving your doors unlocked increase your vulnerability of being robbed? Sure. Does it mean that others shouldn’t be held responsible for stealing your possessions because ‘they couldn’t help themselves?’ Of course not.

However, because we live in a rape culture in which sexual violence is normalized, drinking becomes the scapegoat. This leads to the endless debates about whether or not it’s possible to consent while drunk, the outrage expressed when a woman dares to go home with a man after drinking on a first date, and the idea that someone was ‘asking for it’ by being intoxicated and unable to say no. 

The absence of consent indicates the presence of violence. 

Consent is not the absence of a no. 

It is the presence of an enthusiastically given “yes.” 

If consent is not present, it is sexual violence. 

This is the heart of the issue and why it is so crucial to believe survivors when they come forward (also because people are no more likely to lie about being sexually assaulted than they are about being the victim of any other crime). We cannot possibly address the ways in which alcohol contributes to sexual assault without cultural understanding and acceptance of consent, which by and large, does not exist.

What Can Be Done 

Reducing sexualized violence doesn’t mean that we need to stop people from drinking, as we’ve discussed. However, it’s important to acknowledge the empirical reality that drinking within the proximity of perpetrators (i.e., social settings with booze) does increase women’s risk of assault. Choosing to abstain can reduce your vulnerability, especially in regards to date or acquaintance rape (with acquaintance rape being the most common occurring scenario). 

With that being said, the most important things we can do to address the connection between alcohol and sexual assault are adopting a model of enthusiastic consent and believing survivors when they come forward. Not tolerating assault in any circumstance and holding perpetrators accountable is paramount in addressing this injustice as a collective. We cannot ask questions about context in order to decide if something is ‘really’ rape or rate our trauma on a scale from kind-of-fucked-up to full-blown assault.

Instead, we must be willing to leave our baggage of shame and blame behind us. 

I hope you’ll join me in doing so.

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