The Role of Alcohol

Myth: If she was drinking, it was her fault she got raped
Reality: Alcohol is often used to blame the survivor while simultaneously it is used to excuse the perpetrator.  This reasoning is masked behind our cultural expectations for women and men in terms of sexuality; women are expected to be the gatekeepers, while men are expected to be the aggressors.  Hence, there is an assumption that she shouldn't have made herself vulnerable, and he was only doing what was natural in that out-of-control drunkenness.  Responsibility for the rape is wrongly displaced from the perpetrator to the victim in this way. If a person is drunk, they are incapable of giving consent.

There are many reasons why people are attracted to drink. When inhibitions are reduced, people can be friendlier, funnier, and more talkative. However, many negative effects can result--people take risks they wouldn't normally. For example, some may find themselves in situations that are uncomfortable or unsafe. Some may misjudge their abilities to do something. For example, they may believe that they can run faster than they actually can, or drink more than they can actually handle.

As blood alcohol increases, so does physical and mental impairment. Research has indicated that up to 90 percent of sexual assaults involve the use of alcohol by the perpetrator, survivor, or both. Alcohol reduces inhibitions, making some things such as sexual assault seem more acceptable.  When using alcohol, it is important to learn your personal limits, as perpetrators tend to choose folks they perceive to be more vulnerable. Being intoxicated does not release any initiator of sexual activity from his/her responsibility for obtaining consent.

Alcohol  & Sexual Assault Statistics
In 2002, more than 70,000 students between the ages of 18 and 24 were victims of alcohol-related sexual assault in the U.S.
*Hingson, R., Heeren, T., et al. (2002). "Magnitude of alcohol-related mortality and morbidity among U.S. college students ages 18-24." Journal of Studies on Alcohol 63(2): 136-144.

Ninety percent of all campus rapes occur when alcohol has been used by either the assailant or the victim.


The use of alcohol for sexual purposes can often be a coercive tactic. Coercion is explained as a continuum of activities, ranging from subtle to overt:

  • encouraging someone to disregard personal boundaries
  • encouraging someone to drink alcohol
  • actively pressuring someone to drink
  • supplying someone with alcohol for the purpose of engaging in sex with that person

Although alcohol often causes increased feelings of sexual arousal, these feelings can be intensified if people expect to feel this way. This is not to say that sexual assault is caused by intensified feelings of sexual arousal, but that a person's expectancies of what could happen when drinking can lead to engaging in forceful, aggressive behavior regarding sexual arousal. Sexual assault is not a result of extreme arousal, but a result of forcefully imposing sex against a person's will.

Gender stereotypes and social expectations can also support certain behaviors while condemning others. For example, what assumptions are made about women who frequently drink at parties or bars? What allowances are made for men when alcohol consumption gets out of hand?
Wanting intimacy, affection, and sexual contact is natural for all human beings. Depending on upbringing, personal values, and perceptions of the expectations of others, we may attribute shame, embarrassment, or other inhibiting feelings to sex. Needing alcohol in order to socialize or engage in sexual activity might indicate some level of dependency. Talking these feelings over with a counselor could be very helpful.

*Norris, J, and Kerr, KL. Alcohol and violent pornography: Responses to permissive and nonpermissive cues. Journal of Studies on Alcohol Suppl. 11: 118-127, 1993

*Abbey, A; Ross, LT, McDuffe, D; and McAuslan, P. Alcohol, misperception, and sexual assault: how and why are they linked? In: Buss, DM, and Malamuth, N, eds. Sex, Power, Conflict: Evolutionary and Feminist Perspectives. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. pp.138-161.

When sex is a possibility:

  1. Pay attention to how much your partner is drinking
  2. Remember that consent to sexual activity before drinking is helpful but never final
  3. Remember that impairment of judgment can begin with the first drink
  4. Remember that probability of miscommunication is high when people have been drinking.
  5. Warning bells should be going off if you see an opportunity in hooking up with an intoxicated person. If you're in doubt - wait!

Who is responsible when both parties are drinking?

    How can one person's choice to drink increase responsibility while another's decreases responsibility? What if both people are drinking? The answer is not always black or white - it is most often in the gray area.
     If someone chooses to drink alcohol, that choice never equates to "asking" to get hurt. No one should ever hurt or take advantage of another person's vulnerability or impairment. Society often blames victims of sexual assault who have been drinking because it is assumed that their choice to drink led to the assault. In reality, it is an offender who chooses to take advantage of another person's level of intoxication to commit an assault. When alcohol is involved in a sexual assault- it is always the fault of the offender- regardless of whether or not he/she had been drinking as well.
     If consent is unclear, stop immediately and clarify with your partner. Remember, those incapacitated by the use of drugs or alcohol are unable to consent to sexual activity. Engaging in any sort of sexual activity with a person who is incapacitated may be a crime and is certainly a violation of the Student Conduct Code at the University of Oregon.
     When alcohol is involved in a sexual assault, we do know that victims are generally held MORE responsible ("They shouldn't have been drinking") and offenders are generally held LESS responsible ("Well, they had been drinking").

* Information used with permission from College of William & Mary Website*