Drinking and Sexual Assault: The Connection Between the Two

Scott Hampton, Psy.D., explains the connection between alcohol drinking and sexual assault. Dr. Hampton is Director of Ending the Violence, a sexual violence prevention program.

Drinking and Sexual Assault

alcohol and sexual assault
Scott Hampton

Alcohol drinking 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 him or her to guard against an attack.

A common misunderstanding is that if people commit sexual assaults only when drunk. Then, first, the drinking must have caused the assault. And second, 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. However, it would be ridiculous to suggest that being awake caused them to commit sexual assaults. So, what is the relationship between alcohol drinking and sexual violence?

Important Facts

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). Similarly, alcohol also makes it easier to do what you want to do. For example, grope a person.

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.

“Permission Slip”

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

drinking and sexual assault
Aaaah……NO!

Memory loss is not the same as lack of intent. If a perpetrator of sexual assault claims no specific recollection of the assault, that does not mean there was no intention. All it means is that the perpetrator is currently either unable or unwilling to report their state of mind when the assaults occurred.

Sometimes perpetrators report on events that were acceptable. They may say “I remember drinking and dancing.“ Yet not the events that would show guilt. For example, “I don’t recall fondling that person.“ Or the perpetrator will not recall the offense, but will be able to assert with confidence what their state of mind was at the time. For example, “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?

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.

Principles of Sexual Consent

To address this, good sex offender programs teach the principles of sexual consent. These principles are:

  1. Privilege. Sex is never a right. It’s always a privilege that can either be granted or taken away.
  2. Permission. Since sexual contact is always a privilege, you always must seek permission first. Permission requires that the other person is capable, at the time, of giving you permission. Thus, the person must be old enough, sober enough, and not coerced by you to agree. If the other person is afraid to say “No” because you have a position of power or authority, you cannot know whether the person truly consents.  That’s true even if he or she does not actively resist your advance
  3. 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.
  4. 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. Remembering that sexual violence is not “just a part of the disease of alcoholism.” 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.

 Scott Hampton, Psy.D.

About Dr. Hampton

Dr. Scott Hampton is Director of Ending the Violence, home of the Consexuality Project, a sexual violence prevention initiative. He can be contacted at [email protected]/. Posted with slight editing by permission of Dr. Hampton.

Resources

  • Abbey, A., et al.  Alcohol and sexual assault. Alco Res Hlth., 2001, 25(1), 43-51.
  • MacAndrew, C., and Edgerton R. Drunken Comportment: A Social Explanation. Chicago: Aldine, 1969.
  • Raphael, J. Rape is Rape. Chicago: Lawrence Hill, 2013.
  • Some Doubt the Role Alcohol Plays. Statistics seem to indicate a connection between alcohol and drug abuse and domestic violence. But some researchers question the cause-and-effect relationship. About Alcoholism, June 24, 2014.
  • Ullman, S., et al.  Alcohol and Sexual assault in a national sample of college women. J Interpers Viol., 1999, 14(6), 603-625.
  • Zubretsky, T. & Digirolamo, K. The False Connection Between Adult Domestic Violence and Alcohol. In Roberts, A. (Ed.). Helping Battered Women. New York: Oxford U Press.