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Alcohol and rape

Exploring the connection

Alcohol and rape are closely interconnected. In at least half of sexual assaults between acquaintances, alcohol was used by the abuser, the survivor, or both. Heavy alcohol use is also a major predictor of future rape. People who have a history of being sexually assaulted who are also heavy drinkers are 700% more likely to experience another assault than light drinkers who haven’t been previously assaulted.

We will use gendered language throughout this article, and that is not by mistake or omission. Alcohol and rape is a particularly gendered issue. Most of the literature cited on the topic in this article explores how alcohol puts men more at risk of being perpetrators. Moreover, one study found that nearly all types of substance use put women at more risk of being sexually assaulted. The same was not found for men. 

Men can be survivors of sexual assault, women can be perpetrators, and all genders can be involved in any role. However, when it comes to alcohol and rape, men are more likely to be the perpetrators. Moreover, the literature examined for this article also shows women more likely to be survivors of sexual assault due to drinking. 

When all of this is taken together, it paints a grim picture of the role alcohol plays in sexual assaults against women. But what is the connection between alcohol and rape?

The role of alcohol on women

Alcohol has an inhibitory effect on the brain. This essentially means that it shuts down certain parts of our functioning as people drink more. This often starts with what is called higher order thinking, which includes complex, rational thought. As someone drinks more, alcohol starts to impair the person’s ability to control their motor functions. This means that they might be less able to fight off an abuser if in a state of heavy intoxication.

It is through this method that many abusers try to use alcohol to facilitate their assaults. In other words, alcohol and rape go together partially because an abuser can use the fact that someone is inebriated to commit their act of sexual violence. This is what is known as incapacitated/drug-alcohol facilitated rape, or AIR.

Link between alcohol and rape

One thing to keep in mind is that some studies found that any alcohol use is associated with higher chances of being assaulted. This may be because, especially if somebody isn’t regularly a heavy drinker, abusers might take advantage of their lower tolerance for alcohol consumption. A common tactic that abusers use is giving a woman strong drinks (i.e., high alcohol by volume content). Abusers may use the advanced state of impairment to commit AIR.

There is a complex relationship between alcohol and rape. Some studies have found that people who were victimized in the past may use alcohol to cope with those emotions. This, unfortunately, leaves them at a higher chance of being assaulted in the future. And, when a woman is drinking, she may suffer from something academics call “alcohol myopia”. This means that alcohol limits the amount of information a survivor can process, which might make them miss risk factors from their abusers.

It is important to remember that it is not the woman’s fault for being abused. This is the case regardless of whether or not they have been drinking. Oftentimes, women who were drinking at the time of an assault can blame themselves. For others, they might fear negative reactions from those they tell. Sometimes, they don’t feel like they will be believed at all. However, we’ve talked about consent in the past, and a perpetrator who commits AIR is guilty of rape. Full stop.

Men’s use of alcohol and rape

80% of sexual assaults occur between people who know each other. But, when alcohol is involved, sexual assault usually happens between people who are less familiar with one-another. These could be strangers, acquaintances, or casual dates. They are also more likely to take place at parties or bars while, when alcohol is not used, sexual assaults more commonly occur in the survivor or perpetrator’s home.

Men in particular tend to associate alcohol with sexuality. They see women who are drinking as more “available” for their sexual advances. Alcohol use in men is also linked to increased aggression and misreading social cues. This can mean that they might interpret a woman’s actions as being “flirty” when they do not. And, when coupled with the aggression, they use alcohol to feel more justified in sexually assaulting a woman if they feel like they have been “led on”. This is backed up by studies showing men are more likely to endorse acting like a man who commits a sexual assault after they themselves have drank alcohol.

This isn’t to say that all men who drink, or all men who drink alongside women, will commit sexual assault. There are certain factors that are linked to a man being more likely to commit an assault. These are:

Actions that are required

For women

Sexual assault prevention programs need to emphasize the relationship between alcohol and rape. Creating awareness around things like alcohol myopia can help women to be mindful of the risks that may be around them. Creating an awareness about the intoxicating effects of alcohol, and how it might make it harder for women to fight off an abuser, will be helpful to integrate as well.

Being able to target excessive drinking can also be helpful in preventing sexual assaults. One study found that women who were given a resistance training program that included information on alcohol were nearly half as likely to have experienced a completed rape than a control group. The control group was also nearly 300% more likely to have faced an attempted rape than those who got the intervention.

Additionally, being able to get treatment for binge drinking and substance abuse can be helpful for lowering the risk of future sexual assaults. Everyone should keep the substance use spectrum in mind while exploring their relationship to alcohol.

For men

We’ve talked about how hegemonic masculinity and gender role stress can play roles in sexual assault. Specifically with alcohol, men need to understand that because a woman drinks does not mean she is looking for sex. Men who hold traditional gender role beliefs need to understand how to communicate more clearly and understand that no does in fact mean no. Men need to let go of the rape myths and rape culture that indoctrinates them into becoming abusers.

As a man, I know that social drinking can be a fun way to let off steam. But, being aware of how much someone is drinking can be a helpful way to avoid the negative effects of alcohol. Keeping in mind that alcohol is never an excuse for rape, men who drink heavily are more likely to perpetrate sexual assaults. Also, men in general tend to misinterpret women’s actions as sexual interest when intoxicated. One study has shown this affects about 2 out of 3 women in post-secondary settings, so a man who moderates his drinking can make a big difference in the lives of the women around him.

Lastly, for men, there are some basic pieces of understanding that need to be laid out. Now, many men may know this already, but some definitely need to hear it:

  1. Forced or coerced sex is rape.
  2. If someone resists a sexual advance, then continuing is sexual assault.
  3. If someone cannot consent to sex, then “sex” with them is actually rape.
  4. Drinking alcohol does not legally or morally absolve you from your actions while drunk.
  5. Nobody is entitled to sex, period.
  6. Women are equals, not rivals.

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