Sexual assault is a situation that needs to be eradicated. Survivors of this act should be believed and receive treatment and compassion. Unfortunately, we have created a climate where victims are held responsible for what happens to them, especially if alcohol was involved. Whether the victim, the perpetrator, or both had consumed alcohol, the victim is often left defending themselves while the perpetrator is given a pass. This is just one aspect of how we respond to sexual assault that needs to change.

What Is Sexual Assault?

Now, whether it’s an SNL sketch or a real problem may be in question (or at least our uncomfortableness with the subject may lead us to avoid details), but it’s always important to have a solid definition when discussing something this controversial. As defined by RAINN, the largest anti-sexual violence organization in the US, sexual assault includes fondling or unwanted sexual touching, forcing a victim to perform sexual acts, attempted rape, and rape. Note that not all sexual assault is rape, and you need not have been raped to experience sexual assault. The fact that it didn’t get that far does not mean you are not a victim of sexual assault.

The other important thing to note is that many sexual assaults are carried out by people the victim knows. This does not make it anything other than sexual assault. Indeed, even marriage does not fully excuse someone of the crime of rape, though US laws continue to vary in what is required for the offending spouse to be prosecuted and how harsh the penalties are.

Only by knowing what constitutes sexual assault can we be prepared to recognize it, and combat it, in our own or our loved ones lives.

Effects of Alcohol Consumption

A person who has consumed alcohol often finds that their ability to think clearly and logically is impaired. It is also easy to become confused or incapacitated. If someone is looking for a person to take advantage of, or is liable to decide to take advantage of someone on a spur of the moment impulse, a person who has impaired thinking or judgment due to alcohol is a prime candidate. A predator will take advantage of a person’s inability to fight back, unsteadiness, and even an unconscious state to fulfill what they see as a need. It is not uncommon for a person who has experienced a sexual assault to have memory loss and not even be able to remember the act itself. This may be due to the alcohol they drank or drugs that may have been slipped to them through their drink.

Pathways Through Which Alcohol Contributes to Sexual Assault

PerpetratorsVictims
Distal FactorsGeneral, heavy alcohol consumptionGeneral, heavy alcohol consumption
Alcohol expectancies about sex, aggression, and disinhibitionChildhood sexual abuse
Stereotypes about drinking women being sexually available and appropriate targets
Situational FactorsHeavy drinkers spend time in bars and at partiesHeavy drinkers spend time in bars and at parties
Drinking is used as an excuse for socially unacceptable behaviorAlcohol’s cognitive impairments reduce ability to evaluate risk
Alcohol’s cognitive impairments enhance misperception of the woman’s friendly cues as sexualAlcohol’s motor impairments reduce ability to resist effectively
Alcohol’s cognitive impairments facilitate an aggressive response if the man feels he has been “led on”

(NIH – Alcohol and Sexual Assault - https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh25-1/43-51.htm)

What Is the Connection Between Alcohol Consumption and Sexual Assault?

The connection is complicated to say the least. Although there are many cases of sexual assault that are alcohol-related, certainly, not all sexual assaults involve alcohol. Part of the complication comes in when it must be determined if only one or both involved persons consumed alcohol and, if so, how much and were either or both inebriated to the point that consent could not be given.

On a simplistic note, sexual assault is considered to be drug-facilitated if the survivor cannot give consent because they are under the influence of alcohol or drugs which inhibit their ability to put up any sort of resistance during a sexual assault.

Perpetrators use alcohol in one of two ways. They’ll take advantage of a person’s inebriation as a result of consuming alcohol or they’ll secretly give them alcohol or drugs and then take advantage of them once they’re incapacitated. Either way, survivors are left feeling guilty because they’re often told they drank too much or partied too hard and that this is the reason this terrible thing happened to them. This leaves them feeling that the incident was their fault despite the fact that someone else made a conscious decision to take advantage of them in that state. The facts are that alcohol and inebriation are legal; sexual assault is not.

Alcohol is the tool perpetrators use to select their victims, but it is also often used by the perpetrator as “liquid courage”. Alcohol lowers inhibitions, causing people to do things they might not do otherwise. This is in no way an excuse for taking advantage of someone, it’s merely an acknowledgment that alcohol can be a factor for both the perpetrator and the survivor.

Understanding the Double Standard

This double standard mentioned above, in essence, lets the perpetrator off the hook, while piling responsibility onto the survivor. If the perpetrator was drinking at the time of the sexual assault, they are considered impaired and the survivor may be questioned as to why they didn’t fight harder, since the perpetrator was drunk and “certainly” could have been fought off. .

Additionally, people may act under the assumption that, if the survivor was drinking, whether or not the perpetrator was drinking is almost immaterial, because they put themselves in a dangerous situation which they could have avoided had they not been drinking. If both have been drinking, this generally falls under the viewpoint that the perpetrator was impaired and the victim should have known better. This results in a perpetrator who doesn’t face any real repercussions and a victim who unfairly carries around the guilt of what happened to them.

Statistics of Sexual Assaults Involving Alcohol

The statistics are hard to pin down because many sexual assaults go unreported for a variety of reasons. That said, the statistics that do exist suggest that 25% of American women have experienced rape or another form of sexual assault. Of those cases, roughly one half involve alcohol use by the survivor, perpetrator, or both. According to a campus sexual assault study created by the NCJRS, “43% of … sexual victimization incidents involved alcohol consumption by victims and 69% involved alcohol consumption by the perpetrator.”

Sexual Assault, Alcohol, and the College Campus

Although a person can be sexually assaulted pretty much anywhere, college campuses are facing a serious problem where sexual assault cases are concerned. Schools are starting to take steps to try and combat the issue, and

the following statistics showcase why action needs to be taken:

  • Fraternity boys are more likely to commit sexual assault than non-frat members
  • Male students engaged in sports are more likely to commit sexual assault
  • 20-25% of female college students will be the victim of sexual assault
  • 99% of all perpetrators are male
  • Males can be the victim of sexual assault
  • Students who live on campus either in dorms or sorority or fraternity houses are more likely to be victims of sexual assault over students who live off-campus

College campuses are the perfect environment for such activities to take place because of the lack of supervision and the prevalence of alcohol, even on supposed “dry” campuses. As long as this environment is combined with a certain group of individuals who feel they are entitled to anything they want and will stop at nothing to get it, these statistics are not going to improve anytime soon.

Consent

When law enforcement is considering charges, consent is a factor. If the survivor was capable of giving consent, was is given? And this isn’t just a college campus/date rape issue; any accused sexual assault is investigated in the same fashion. Consent has to have been given, otherwise sexual assault charges could be filed. While some discuss consent as “They didn’t say no.”, we are starting to look instead for positive or affirmative consent. Someone who is blackout drunk will also likely “not say no” because they are unconscious and unable to do so. This does not mean that they have given consent.

Affirmative Consent

When talking about affirmative consent, several things need to be considered. First, affirmative consent means exactly what it sounds like, both parties provide clear “Yes, this is ok” consent before any sexual interaction occurs. Second, as mentioned before, not saying no does not equate to a yes. Consent in the affirmative must be given. Finally, not everyone has the legal right to give affirmative consent, even if they’re capable. For example, a person who is under the legal age of consent cannot give any kind of consent.

US Laws Regarding Intoxication and Consent

The vast majority of states have laws that require consent. Several states can also add additional charges if the survivor was taken advantage of with the use of alcohol. However, the perpetrator being under the influence of alcohol isn’t supposed to be factored in. (Note that how things work in a courtroom are not always how they are meant to work based on the letter of the law.) In the majority of states, if the answer to the question “Does intoxication impact the victim’s ability to consent?” is yes, then it is taken into consideration when charges are being compiled, in many cases increasing the severity of charges. For example, a sexual assault charge that was a misdemeanor can be upgraded to felony rape if alcohol was used during the incident.

How Does Alcohol Consumption Affect A Sexual Assault Case?

The short answer to this is that it harms the survivor’s case but can help the perpetrators. If the survivor was under the influence of alcohol when the assault took place, a survivor is less likely to report it. This is because the fact that they had been drinking is historically likely be used against them in court. Even in cases where the perpetrator gave the survivor the alcohol with the sole intention of at least lowering inhibitions, they are often painted as someone who should have known better. If the perpetrator was inebriated, it can be an advantage for the defense because the perpetrator wasn’t in their right mind at the time of the incident and it can be argued that it’s not something they would have done if alcohol hadn’t been a factor.

Final Thoughts

Although survivors of sexual assault might hesitate to come forward and report what happened if alcohol was involved, it is important that these actions are reported. The situation will never change if perpetrators know that they can do whatever they want without any consequences. As more survivors are taking the brave step to hold their abusers accountable in the court of law, laws and legal actions are catching up and catching on to the statistics, danger of releasing predators, and common facts around these cases. It might also mean that other potential perpetrators might be persuaded not to take advantage of someone if there is a chance of real legal repercussions. For those who decline to press charges against their abusers, these people should be encouraged to seek help to deal with the trauma they experienced and continue to move forward with their lives.

Sources:

  • https://sexinfo.soc.ucsb.edu/article/different-types-sexual-assault

  • https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4616254/

  • https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh25-1/43-51.htm

  • https://www.drugabuse.gov/sites/default/files/sexualassault.pdf

  • https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/221153.pdf