“But They Were Both Drunk”: Addressing Sexual Assault & Alcohol
When it comes to teaching about sexual assault, students have a lot of questions, especially when alcohol enters the conversation. How do you respond when students express that they don’t think it is possible to commit sexual assault if both parties are intoxicated?
Acknowledge the comment in a positive way:
What constitutes sexual assault can be very confusing, so I’m glad you brought this up so we can talk about it together.
Define sexual assault and consent:
Sexual assault is an actual or attempted sexual contact with another person without that person’s consent. This definition includes intentional touching of another person’s intimate parts or other intentional sexual contact with another person without their consent; coercing (meaning to compel by either force, intimidation, or authority), forcing, or attempting to coerce or force a person to touch another person’s intimate parts without that person’s consent; or rape, which is penetration no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus of a person by any body part of another person or by any object, or of the mouth of a person by a sex organ of another person without that person’s consent.
Consent must be informed, voluntary, mutual, and can be withdrawn at any time. This means that when sexual contact is forced, whether expressed or implied, or when coercion, intimidation, threats, or duress is used it is not consensual. Silence or absence of resistance does not imply consent, and past consent to sexual contact or activity does not imply ongoing or future consent.
If a person is mentally or physical incapacitated or impaired so that they cannot understand the fact, nature, or extent of the sexual situation, there is no consent. This includes impairment or incapacitation due to alcohol or drug consumption. This also includes being asleep or unconscious.
Sexual assault and rape are illegal and punishable by both your university and the law. Whether or not the accused perpetrator of sexual assault was intoxicated or not, they are still responsible for their actions and will be held accountable for them.
Give an example:
If we look at other criminal offenses we see that intoxication is not an excuse for perpetration. For example, if an intoxicated person gets in their car to drive home and harms another person along the way, they are still responsible for the harm that they caused. Sexual assault is the same. We all are responsible for getting a clear, affirmative, unimpaired consent before engaging in sexual activity with another person.
Explain the effects alcohol has on the body:
Alcohol has very specific effects on the body because it is a central nervous system depressant; this means that there are very few cognitive functions (knowing, thinking, learning, judging) that are not impacted by alcohol consumption. For everyone, alcohol decreases our inhibitions. For men it also tends to increase sexual drive, and aggression. For women it decreases the ability to fight back and resist unwanted advances. For all genders alcohol also impairs perception and decreases the ability to communicate effectively, meaning that signals get easily confused and distorted. This is because when we drink alcohol we have a harder time seeing or hearing anything other than what we want to see or hear. So if you are wanting to have sex with another individual and you are intoxicated, there is an increased chance that you will ignore any verbal or non-verbal cues that indicate the other person isn’t into it, and doesn’t want to have sex. Additionally, if you don’t want to have sex with another individual and are intoxicated, there is an increased chance that you will not be able to fully understand that the other individual intends to have sex with you, and you may not be able to fully convey that you don’t want to have sex in a way that the other person will take seriously.
Discuss why having sex while intoxicated is a risky behavior:
Often students ask how you can tell someone has had too much to drink and they are no longer able to give consent. There are a couple of things to consider: incapacitation is generally defined as temporarily incapable of understanding or assessing one’s conduct due to the influence of drugs or alcohol. If someone is passed out, is vomiting or has vomited, is stumbling, having a hard time staying upright, has a hard time performing physical tasks (for example lighting the wrong end of a cigarette or spilling things), or is slurring their speech they are showing signs of incapacitation. However, not everyone responds to alcohol the same way, and it is possible for someone to appear relatively sober when in fact they are incapacitated. There is no guarantee that one can accurately assess if another person is sober enough to give consent. This is why having sex when intoxicated is a risky behavior.
Explain how drunk consent is not clear or affirmative:
So knowing the effects alcohol has on our ability to communicate, and understand and judge situations can you see that drunken consent is not so clear or affirmative?
Define alcohol facilitated rape and sexual assault:
Having sex with a person when they are too drunk to consent has a name: Alcohol facilitated rape and sexual assault and it is against the law.
You might be wondering why this type of sexual assault gets its very own name. This is because alcohol is the number one tool used by perpetrators of rape and sexual assault. Because of the effects alcohol has on a person, perpetrators of sexual assault do not need to use as much physical force in order to assault their victims. Perpetrators know how effective alcohol is in disarming others abilities to resist and fight back, so they use it to help facilitate non-consensual sex.
Engage the students in a conversation about their own experiences:
Have you ever heard someone talk about using alcohol to get people to have sex with them? How did their comments make you feel?
Studies have found that the majority of bystanders who hear comments that indicate using alcohol to get sex, feel uncomfortable. This is because on some level we recognize that using alcohol to get sex is coercive and wrong.
Provide signs of predatory behavior:
If you hear someone talking about purposefully getting someone else drunk in order to get them to have sex, or if you see someone buying or giving a particular person several drinks in an attempt to get them drunk, working to get another person more intoxicated then themselves, or working to isolate another person away from their friends or others around, they may be about to commit sexual assault or rape.
No one deserves to be sexually assaulted, no matter how much alcohol they consume, no matter what they are wearing, or no matter how much they are flirting with another person. All sexual contact should be wanted, enthusiastic, and consensual. Consent for one sexual act does not mean there is consent for all sexual acts. This means that if both parties consent to kissing, they are only consenting to kissing. If one person wants to do sexual acts beyond kissing they need to get consent for each additional sexual act.
It is important that as a community we look out for each other and intervene when we see a potentially dangerous situation.
Address bystander barriers:
Sometimes it is difficult to step up and intervene when we see potentially dangerous, predatory, or violent situations. There are many reasons why people find it difficult to intervene: they may feel the situation is none of their business, they may feel fearful of retaliation or lack of support by other bystanders or their peers, or they may not know what to do to intervene.
If you are unsure if a situation you are seeing is consensual or not, check in. You can do this by going up to the people you are worried about and asking one of them a question or get involved in a conversation with them. You can also try to get one of them to go check something out with you, and then ask them if they are comfortable with the situation, if the other person is bothering them, if they are ok, or if they need help. Additionally, you can explain to them what concerning actions you have seen, and tell them you are looking out for them. You can also ask one of their friends to check in with them, or for another bystander to help you check in with them. Here are some examples of things you could say:
“You’re going to want to see this, come on." (Then guide them to a safe place to talk.)
“Oh my gosh, you could be the twin of my friend ____, you have to come meet them and see for your self.”
“Your friend ___ was looking for you, let’s go find them.”
“They look really drunk, let’s find their friends to make sure they get home safely”
Here are other intervention techniques
Make a distraction
Move closer or insert yourself in the conversation
Cut in (when others are dancing)
Get other bystanders to help with a group intervention
Use humor to bring attention to the situation
Get help from the bartender, RA, person in charge (tell the host of the party you are worried about their house getting in trouble for issues related to sexual assault), or call the police
Talk with the aggressor directly
If the person you checked in with expresses that they do feel uncomfortable, ask them what you can do to help get them get to a safe place. If the person you checked in with expresses that they are trying to work a yes out by getting the other person drunk, tell them that is alcohol facilitated sexual assault and against the law. Express that you are just looking out for them because you don’t want them to get in trouble, and that if the other person really wants to have sexual contact with them they will do so sober and without pressure. If you are worried about having this conversation ask for help from other bystanders; most likely if you are uncomfortable with the situation other people are too.
Ask students what bystander intervention techniques they have used:
What things have you said to check in with people who you think might be engaged in a risky or dangerous interaction?
Thank you again for bringing up this very important topic. When a person is intoxicated they are unable to give consent. Non-consensual sex is sexual assault and it is against the law. It doesn’t matter if both parties were intoxicated or not, sexual assault is still against the law.