Sexual Assault and Alcohol

Sexual Assault and Alcohol: Stop Focusing On The Victim’s Drinking

Sexual Assault and AlcoholRecently, the link between alcohol and sexual assault has received a lot of press particularly as college campuses are attempting to address rape. Most people quote 50% of all sexual assaults involve alcohol although I’ve seen 35-75% in studies over the last quarter century.

Alcohol’s link to sexual assault is often taken as an example of how women are making themselves more vulnerable to sexual assault, and maybe women just shouldn’t drink so they can be safer. However, the same percentage of victims, who drank and were raped, is the same as number of perpetrators who drank before committing a sexual assault — 35-75%. In fact, most perpetrators of sexual assault are heavy drinkers even if they aren’t drinking at the time of the assault.

Some people respond, “Well then neither of them knew what they were doing.”

So if a person get punched in the face by a drunk man or a child gets killed in a car crash with a drunk driver, it’s okay because the person drank? If a house gets robbed by a drunk man on a night the owner is drunk, the owner can’t ask for the robber to prosecuted? In fact, it’s okay for the thief to spend the next 3 months showing off his conquest by sporting the owner’s stolen goods?
Of course not, but when it comes to sex, women are seen as automatically saying yes unless they are screaming no (and sometimes even then). Women have to protect themselves when it comes to rape, but everyone else in every other situation, can count on support? Maybe even disgust that they were robbed by an addict? Or killed by a drunk driver?

Now men reply, “Not all men.” (Or they tweet #NotAllMen)

And it’s true. 95% of men don’t rape women whether the man is drunk or sober. Even the percentage of heavy drinkers in our population is higher than the estimated 5% of men who commit rape. This makes alcohol as a direct cause of sexual assault seem pretty unlikely. It also isn’t the cause for women because in 25-65% of sexual assaults, a woman is sober, and the number of women who are heavy drinkers is much lower than the number of women who will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime.

So why is heavy drinking, or drinking at all, associated with sexual assault? Well, heavy drinking by a rapist could be because they have the urge to sexually assault and being drunk gives them an excuse and the disinhibition for a socially unacceptable behavior and rationalization. Or it could be merely situational — the opportunity to commit sexual assault is more available in drinking locations like bars and parties. Or they are able to blend in at some fraternities and other groups, which encourages both heavy drinking and the exploitation of women.

Yet college campuses warn women about the “red zone” when sexual assaults are highest (the belief was it is the first few months of our first year in college but it actually depends on the college schedules and the upticks in partying). If we are going to worry about how much people are drinking, shouldn’t we be focused on the people who cause the crime? Why are they not warning men about not drinking? Why are they not saying, “A percentage of you will rape a woman when you drink so don’t drink”? Shouldn’t we be telling men that they shouldn’t drink because they are dangerous when they do? Men are more likely to perpetrate a crime will drinking — it’s not just sexual assault. Robberies, drunk driving, physical assaults, and domestic violence are all increased when men drink.

Does it seem ridiculous to tell 100% of men to not drink to try to stop the 5% of men who will sexually assault woman after woman? Even if those men are causing terrible harm to 20-25% of all women. Would these “Not All Men” be willing to make this sacrifice? Maybe we could narrow down the possible suspects by seeing who wasn’t willing to stop drinking. Well, what if we knew more about those perpetrators?

The profile doesn’t just stop with heavy drinking. Male perpetrators have other characteristics in common such as devaluing women, feeling like women are always leading them on, and they are more likely to believe women secretly like forced sex. These men are more likely to commit sexual assault if they live in an area where it often goes unpunished. Interestingly, female victim don’t have overlap in any area except a higher percentage  of sexual assault victims were victims of childhood abuse. Childhood abuse being another crime that is severely ignored, underreported and under-prosecuted. (Studies speculate that a coping method of childhood trauma is often heavy drinking and putting oneself in more risky sexual situations.) But other than that one area, we can’t describe what type of woman will get raped although we can describe what type of man is more likely to rape her.

We can say that the tall, good-looking, straight-A student, who take a few shots, tells everyone that he’s going to get laid and she’s going to love it, and two minutes later hands a fellow college student a drink with a wink to his friends, is probably using alcohol like it’s more media-popular cousin, roofies. Studies have shown that over a third of men report their friends approving of getting a woman drunk to have sex.

“Ah-ha,” people say. “That statistic may make part of this profile of a perpetrator a problem since more men think it’s okay to get a woman drunk for sex than rape women.”

But what if the 65% of men, whose friends don’t approve of getting women drunk for sex, spoke up? The idea it would become less acceptable much like how drunk driving went from something that happened sometimes and “go sleep it off” to a shunned decision both by neighbors and the police with designated drivers being people we salute. I’m not suggesting an actual battalion of thought police but peer pressure works. Perhaps it would become more obvious who was the rapist among friends just as drunk driving often speaks to a more serious drinking problem whether the person is caught or not.

Sexual assault is a complicated crime if only in how underreported and under-prosecuted it is coupled with our disparate attitudes towards men, drinking and sex versus women, drinking and sex. However, prevention clearly begins with isolating the perpetrators of sexual assault through working on attitudes around women, reducing drinking culture, and punish offenders rather than demanding the victims lock themselves alone and sober in their homes and dormitories.

Research (please note that some of the research I included disagreed with others I’ve included — I chose the more scientifically based answer in those cases):

Alex Iwashyna

Alex Iwashyna went from a B.A. in philosophy to an M.D. to a SAHM, poet and writer by 30. She spends most of her writing time on, a humor blog (except when it's serious) about her husband fighting zombies, awkward attempts at friendship, and dancing like everyone is watching. She also has a soft spot for culture, politics, and rude Southern people who offend her Yankee sensibilities. She parents 2 elementary-aged children, 1 foster baby, 3 cats, and 1 puppy, who are all Southern but not rude. Yet.

6 thoughts to “Sexual Assault and Alcohol: Stop Focusing On The Victim’s Drinking”

  1. I totally with where you’re going with this. Buying the lady a drink is a time honored approach and I’m against saying that women shouldn’t accept the drink. But there’s a powerful defense in the offing. “Undercover Colors” is a brand of nail polish some Carolina State University students have invented and are trying to market. Wearing the nail polish, a lady merely has to swirl her fingertip in her drink and the polish changes colors in the presence of a variety of date rape drugs.

  2. So many women- and I was once one of them- have the age-old “It won’t happen to me.” trust and stance. I was sober when I was raped at age 21 by a man who was surely a substance abuser. He lived in my neighborhood. I was hanging with college friends and going to house parties with those friends and it didn’t even happen there though looking back I think I skated close to sexual assault a few times because kissing and cuddling so often had young men claiming’ blue ball’s and getting mad and sometimes aggressive when I asked them to stop. Well, I’m rambling. This 95% seems awfully high. In the 18 1/2 years since my rape, I’ve told many people and almost every time I tell someone new that person tells me she or a close relative or close friend was also raped. I think the prevalence and frequency of rape and sexual assault is dangerously under-reported. Young women need to know how often, and how easily, it does and can happen. .

    1. Thank you so much for sharing your story — it helps others so much to know they aren’t alone. I hope one day our society is open and supportive enough to allow more woman to report their rapes and find not only belief but justice. Thanks for being a part that by sharing your experience.

  3. It makes me so mad when people talk about how the victim should have prevented her attack. Are you fucking kidding me??? That’s ridiculous. And the whole #notallmen while true is disregarding that they are the majority of the gender doing the crime and that instead of standing up and saying we’re all not like that they should be doing something to help the men that DO the crime understand what they are doing. I have a more personal experience with this as I have been raped, I was 13, please tell me how a 13 year old was asking for a 21 year old man to rape her? He was an adult and a friend of my mom’s friend, how was I to know he wasn’t to be trusted? And I never told anyone for 8 years because I felt it was my fault that I did something wrong. Because we live in a rape culture, because we always tell women what to do to not get raped, because we blame the victim for dressing a certain way, etc I could go on and on.

  4. Excellent post and great resources. I love the way you turned the tables and suggested that 100% of men stop drinking to prevent drunken rape. Rape culture is sickening – thanks for speaking up and educating!

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