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What is the Connection Between Alcohol and Sexual Assault?

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  • Written By: Dale Marshall
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 10 November 2016
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There’s a strong correlation between alcohol and sexual assault, but it would be a mistake to think that because the relationship exists, drinking alcohol inevitably leads to sexual assault. Numerous research studies show that alcohol is involved in just over half of all cases of sexual assault in the United States, as it is in violent crime overall, but the relationship between the two is not causative. If there actually were a causative relationship between alcohol and sexual assault, then it could be said that anyone who drank alcohol would commit sexual assault, which is not the case.

Much of our knowledge of the connection between alcohol and sexual assault is derived from scholarly research, because according to that research, the majority of cases of sexual assault are not reported to law enforcement. This research suggests that not only have the perpetrators been drinking in about half of all sexual assaults, about half of the victims had been drinking at the time they were assaulted. In many cases, perpetrator and victim had been drinking together, or in the same environment. In more than three-fourths of all incidents of sexual assault, the perpetrator and victim were previously acquainted.

These findings have prompted some to conclude that at least some of the responsibility for sexual assault lies with the victim — the famous “blame the victim” defense. More thorough investigation suggests that victims’ drinking didn’t so much “invite” sexual assault as much as interfere with their ability to generate the cues that might dissuade their assailants. In other words, since alcohol impairs both judgment and response to external events, a victim of sexual assault may not perceive a risky situation, and may also not be able to articulate her objections clearly.

The same impairment of judgment and perception may also explain why so many incidents of sexual assault involve attackers who’ve been drinking, even while not excusing their behavior. While it’s difficult to support the idea that alcohol reduces inhibitions because they’re learned and ought not to be responsive to chemical stimulus, the judgment-impairing properties of alcohol might make some men less responsive to their own perception of the risk of sexually assaulting a woman. This may explain why a man would rape a woman he’d been drinking with who passed out. In addition, when men who’ve been drinking assault women who are conscious, their ability to understand a victim’s expression of unwillingness to participate in sex is probably also impaired, according to the research.

An important fact to keep in mind when considering the relationship between alcohol and sexual assault is that even though alcohol is a depressant and dulls the senses, sexual assault is an activity that requires concentration and focus. Consider that the seriously intoxicated person is often referred to as “impaired.” Thus, even as alcohol may have led the assailant to believe he’s not doing anything wrong, he must also overcome the effects of alcohol to accomplish his objective. This suggests that the assailant, while sober, has considered sexual assault as an appropriate or at least desirable behavior; he may even have considered that he might escape responsibility for sexual assault while he and his victim are both under the influence of alcohol.

While there’s a good body of research into the relationship between alcohol and sexual assault that supports these hypotheses, it’s not well understood beyond the academic and law enforcement communities. Thus, victims often blame themselves for having been assaulted or raped; in addition, cultural or religious conventions may also influence a victim not to report her assault. Despite claimed enlightenment, victims fear being ostracized or labeled as “damaged goods.”

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