Alcohol and Sexual Assault: The Connection
Alcohol and sexual assault often happen together. According to
some research, 30 percent of all sexual assaults occur when the
perpetrator is under the influence of alcohol. In some cases, the
victim is also intoxicated. Drinking makes it easy for the perpetrator
to ignore sexual boundaries, while the victim's intoxication makes
it more difficult for her to guard against an attack.
A common misunderstanding is that if people commit sexual assaults
only when drunk, then (a) the drinking must have caused the assault
and (b) sobriety and alcohol counseling are adequate to prevent
future assaults. These erroneous conclusions confuse correlation
and causation. To illustrate, consider the correlation between consciousness
and sexual assault. Perpetrators of sexual assault typically commit
sexual assaults only when they are awake, but it would be ridiculous
to suggest that being awake caused them to commit sexual assaults.
So, what is the relationship between alcohol and sexual violence?
First, alcohol use does not cause sexual violence. Putting alcohol
into your system does not cause you to commit a sexual assault anymore
than putting gasoline into your car causes you to drive to the airport.
Gasoline makes it easier to do what you want to do (e.g., drive
a car) while alcohol also makes it easier to do what you want to
do (e.g., grope women). If you do not at least think about doing
something when sober, you are not likely to do it when drunk. For
example, no one worries about becoming so intoxicated that he will
lose control and stab himself in the eye with a fork. Why? Because
he would never consider doing that when sober.
Alcohol acts as a permission slip. By reducing inhibitions, alcohol
often makes it more likely that someone will choose to sexually
assault another person. As one man in a violent offender program
noted, “When I first came to your program I told you that
I hit my wife because I was drunk; now I realize that I drank so
that I could hit her.” He realized that alcohol did not excuse
or even explain the abuse. Instead, alcohol was the way that he
had tried to avoid responsibility for the abuse.
Sexual assault occurs despite alcohol use, not because of it. When
someone is extremely intoxicated, we call that person “impaired.”
“Impaired” means that you have more difficulty performing
tasks. Therefore, if you are going to sexually assault someone when
drunk, you have to try harder, focus your attention and be more
determined than if you were sober. In effect, people who sexually
assault when drunk, do so, not because they are intoxicated, but
despite their intoxication. They have to overcome the impairment
to commit the sexual assault.
Memory loss is not the same as lack of intent. If a perpetrator
of sexual assault claims that he has no specific recollection of
the assault, that does not mean that he had no intention of doing
it at the time. All it means is that the perpetrator is currently
either unable or unwilling to report his state of mind when the
assaults occurred. For example, sometimes we hear perpetrators report
on events that were acceptable (e.g., “I remember drinking
and dancing“) but not the events that could result in arrest
and prosecution (e.g., “I don’t recall fondling that
person“). Or the perpetrator will not recall the offense,
but will be able to assert with confidence what his state of mind
was at the time (e.g., “I had no desire for sexual gratification.”).
How can you NOT remember what you did, but be absolutely certain
what your motives were when you did it? How does alcohol know which
memories to delete and which to keep intact?
Sexual assault and substance abuse are separate issues. If someone
violates sexual boundaries while drunk, that person has two problems
that need to be addressed. Taking responsibility for alcohol consumption
addresses only half of the problem. The perpetrator also needs to
take responsibility for the sexual violence. On the most basic level,
the perpetrator needs to learn that all sexual contact without permission
is sexual violence.
To address this, good sex offender programs teach the principles
of sexual consent. These principles are:
- Privilege. Sex is never a right; it is always a privilege, an
honor, a gift that can either be granted or taken away by the
person you wish to have contact with.
- Permission. Since sexual contact is always a privilege, you
always must seek permission before initiating contact. In addition,
you need to be sober enough to know whether or not you have been
given permission. Permission requires that the other person is
capable, at the time, of giving you permission (e.g., that person
is old enough, sober enough, and not coerced by you to say “Yes.”)
If the other person is afraid to say “No” because
you have a position of power or authority, you cannot know whether
your potential sexual partner truly wishes to have contact with
you (even if he or she does not actively resist your advances).
- Justification/Intent. There is no excuse for engaging in sexual
contact without consent. Sexually respectful people adopt the
philosophy of “First Do No Harm.” Those who do not
respect sexual boundaries should not be allowed to explain or
minimize their use of aggression as the result of alcohol or drug
use, stress, deviant arousal patterns, loss of control or misunderstandings.
- Responsibility. The only person who ever is responsible for
a sexual assault is the perpetrator. The victim never is. We,
as members of their community, share responsibility for holding
perpetrators accountable for their violence. How do we do this?
By never blaming victims for the harm they suffered. By remembering
that sexual violence is not “just a part of the disease
of alcoholism.” By never letting a perpetrator’s sexual
access and satisfaction become more important than the victim’s
sexual safety and autonomy. By keeping these principles in mind,
we can make great strides in achieving sexual safety in our community.
by Scott Hampton, Psy.D.
Dr. Scott Hampton is Director of Ending the Violence,
home of the Consexuality Project, a sexual violence prevention initiative.
He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Posted with slight
editing by permission of Dr. Hampton. The Ending the Violence web
site is located at www.endingtheviolence.info
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