“Drunk Yet?” Alcohol is the #1 date rape drug

Trigger Warning: This essay contains a scenario of acquaintance rape.

Education Warning: This essay contains information that may change the way you think about the connection between alcohol and rape.

alcohol drinks-07

Because it is legal and can be found pretty much anywhere, many people fail to recognize alcohol as a drug. Yet it is a drug, and a powerful one. More than GHB or Rohypnol (roofies), alcohol use among those who commit rape is common and often overlooked.

When people hear about reports of alcohol-facilitated rape, they often think it must have been a misunderstanding, miscommunication, or regretted drunk sex that was mutual and consensual at the time.

The lived experience of survivors disputes this perception. In a recent article, a 47-year-old OB/GYN recalls her experience of acquaintance rape:

I tried to push him away, I said ‘No!’ and ‘Get off’ multiple times, but he was much stronger and suddenly I found my hands pinned behind my back and a forearm crushing my neck and for a few minutes I found it hard to breathe. I was 22, far from home, scared, and shocked and so at some point I just stopped kicking and let him finish…

When a man who is much stronger than you holds you down (Hey baby don’t fight, you know you want it) and forces your legs open the violence and power of those movements is horrifically violating and utterly disempowering.

This is rape. Rape is not a miscommunication or misunderstanding. It is not regretted sex.

Regretted sex is regretted because the parties involved made a choice that proved to be a mistake. In sexual assault there is no choice. [Source: “Alcohol: Why it’s not an excuse”]

Dr. David Lisak, Associate Professor of Psychology and Director of the Men’s Sexual Trauma Research Center at the University of Massachusetts Boston, has conducted research on unreported rapes:

Dr. Lisak’s research has documented statistics like the following. In one sample of 1,882 men, the subjects were representative of the diverse American population, had an average age of twenty-eight, and were employed and attending college part-time. The results revealed that 120 men had committed 483 rapes against women they knew. None of these rapes were ever reported. Source: “The Undetected Rapist & A Response to ‘The Undetected Rapist'”

Within this study, Lisak found that out of these 120 rapists, two-thirds of them were repeat offenders who had committed an average of six rapes each. How did he define rape?

Of the four questions used to identify rapists, three refer explicitly to the use of threats and/or overt force, and one refers to having sexual intercourse with an unwilling victim who was “too intoxicated (on alcohol or drugs) to resist your sexual advances (e.g., removing their clothes).” [Source: “Repeat Rape and Multiple Offending Among Undetected Rapists”]

Lisak’s research offers insight into the common dynamics of rape. His findings indicate that the vast majority of rape is premeditated and that those who commit rape lack empathy for their victims, lack concern for their victims’ desires and boundaries, and approach them as dehumanized targets. Those who commit rape rarely use weapons such as guns or knives and rarely inflict serious visible injuries – instead they tend to prefer the invisible cloak of psychological and social weaponry: power and control, manipulation, threats, and alcohol used deliberately to control and incapacitate their victims or render them more vulnerable to attack. Most people who commit rape reserve the use of excessive physical force and violence only for when it is absolutely necessary to terrify and overpower their victims into submission.

Below is the story of Marcella, a 15-year veteran in the restaurant business, which offers an example of how undetected rapists use alcohol to facilitate sexual violence:

She was serving a table of two individuals out on a date, but when the woman went to the restroom, the man asked Marcella to bring a few rounds of shots to the table. The problem was that he asked Marcella to serve his date vodka and him water. When she did bring the shots to the table, she switched them so that the woman got the water. When the woman complained that she had received water, Marcella explained to her what her companion had asked her to do, and said she must have mixed them up. It brought the hidden situation into the open and Marcella was there to ensure that the woman knew what was going on. [Source: BARCC “Bar Workshop”]

This man attempted to deliberately deceive his date into thinking they were drinking together when in reality he attempted to get her drunk while he remained comparatively sober and in control of the situation without her knowledge. This is the calculated behavior of a perpetrator.

NPR recently reported on a study of sexually aggressive and violent behaviors in bar settings, which further disputes the perception of sexual aggression as accidental and unintentional:

When researchers at the University of Toronto and the University of Washington observed young people’s behavior in bars, they found that the man’s aggressiveness didn’t match his level of intoxication. There was no relationship. Instead, men targeted women who were intoxicated…The fact that men were more likely to take advantage of intoxicated women shows that most of these incidents aren’t well-intentioned. [Source: “If He’s Sexually Aggressive In Bars, It’s Not Because He’s Drunk”]

This is more evidence to indicate that these incidents are not misunderstandings or accidents, or imagined aggression and violence. They are not the result of a perpetrator getting drunk and not knowing what he’s doing. These are real, premeditated acts of violence, and we must take them seriously.

On January 22, 2014, President Barack Obama issued a statement on the creation of the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault:

It is estimated that one in five women on college campuses has been sexually assaulted during their time there. These young women worked so hard just to get into college; often their parents are doing everything they can to help them pay for it. So when they finally make it there only to be assaulted, that is not just a nightmare for them and their families, it’s an affront to everything they’ve worked so hard to achieve. It’s totally unacceptable.

A White House report also concluded that because many attacks occur at parties, victims are often “abused while they’re drunk, under the influence of drugs, passed out or otherwise incapacitated.”

You may be thinking, “If they don’t want to get raped, they shouldn’t get drunk!” Many people think this. For a long time, that’s exactly what I thought.

I know from personal experience that when people argue that women shouldn’t drink to avoid being raped, it is usually with the best of intentions. Yet getting drunk is not what causes sexual violence – it is a contributing factor, not a causal factor. If we’re talking about preventing hangovers and poor decision-making, promoting moderate alcohol consumption is a no-brainer. Yet when it comes to preventing rape, the “don’t drink” strategy is a distraction. Worse, it is ineffective and counter-productive.

Risk Reduction vs. Rape Prevention

Advocating that women not get drunk is not a form of rape prevention; it is a form of risk reduction. These are two different things. Risk reduction focuses on what potential victims can do to reduce their risk of being assaulted in a culture where violence – in this case, rape – is a cultural norm. Preventing rape means actually reducing perpetration. To accomplish this will require establishing and upholding cultural norms of respect and nonviolence – in part by responding to rape (and other forms of sexual violence and sexual entitlement) by supporting survivors and holding offenders accountable.

The danger of focusing so intently on risk reduction and victims’ behaviors is that we render invisible the harmful, antisocial, unacceptable act of rape. We look at a scenario in which one person drank too much and another person committed rape, and we resoundingly shame the nonviolent behavior instead of the violent behavior. By doing so, we help these undetected rapists put on their invisible cloak. We unintentionally yet materially support the perpetration of rape and the idea that the rapist was justified in raping someone.

rape the other girl

Advocating that women not get drunk is not a tactic for making women safe; it is a tactic women are advised to use precisely because women are not safe in our culture thanks to (1) the presence of violent, antisocial individuals who target them in a calculated effort to commit sexual violence against them, and (2) the presence of all other people who shame victims for nonviolent behavior instead of holding offenders accountable for violent behavior.

When we focus on what victims did not do “right” prior to being assaulted, we actively perpetuate a culture in which victims feel intense shame about the violence another person committed against them, while those who commit rape feel little to no shame at all – with our blessing. This maintains real barriers to reporting and accountability, which, as previously mentioned, are key parts of real and meaningful prevention of sexual violence.

Dr. Lisak notes:

Given the number of interpersonal crimes being committed by these men, how is it that they are escaping the criminal justice system? The answer may lie, in part, in their choice of victim and in their relative abnegation of gratuitous violence. By attacking victims within their social networks – so-called acquaintances – and by refraining from the kind of violence likely to produce physical injuries in their victims, these rapists create ‘cases’ that victims are least likely to report, and that prosecutors are less likely to prosecute. A recent study of the factors associated with rape reporting found that only two factors could be isolated that increased the likelihood of victim reporting: physical injuries and the use of a weapon (Bachman, 1998). It is probably not a coincidence that these are also among the factors that tend to make prosecutors look more favorably upon charging a case (Estrich, 1987). [Source: “Repeat Rape and Multiple Offending Among Undetected Rapists”]

Due to people commonly transferring accountability from offenders to victims, survivors may choose not to report and to suffer in silence for decades because they feel they should have done more to stop or avoid what happened to them. Or the survivor files a report but it isn’t taken seriously because in the eyes of law enforcement, he or she caused the assault by engaging in “risky” behavior such as drinking while female. Meanwhile, the perpetrator of rape goes on committing more offenses against others:

The data from this study of 120 undetected rapists underscore the similarities between incarcerated rapists and at least some of the rapists who escape the notice of the criminal justice system. These data conflict with the implicit notion that these rapists are in some way less serious offenders than their incarcerated counterparts. Almost two thirds of these rapists were repeat offenders who averaged close to six rapes each, and the majority also engaged in other forms of interpersonal violence, ranging from battery to physical and sexual abuse of children. This portrait is more consistent with the data on recidivism among sex offenders than with the still-prevalent image of a male college student who, under the influence of alcohol, mistakenly crosses the line between sexual pressure and rape. [Source: “Repeat Rape and Multiple Offending Among Undetected Rapists”]

As a reminder, here’s what usually happens when a woman drinks to the point of passing out around an acquaintance:

When we stop to think about it, this is what most of us would do for someone who drank to the point of passing out. This is how we would expect our children to treat a friend or acquaintance – or, you know, any human being – who drank to the point of passing out. Plenty of people get drunk hundreds of times without experiencing rape because there was not a rapist present who successfully targeted them.

In our culture, we collectively treat drinking while female as a more serious offense than rape. This is unacceptable, and it’s up to all of us to flip the script. It’s time to treat alcohol-facilitated rape as what it is: offensive and criminal violence that shouldn’t be tolerated by us or by anyone.

Poster - Drunk Yet

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2 thoughts on ““Drunk Yet?” Alcohol is the #1 date rape drug

  1. Pingback: Sex is Great! | Change in Sight

  2. Pingback: Confronting our Blind Spots |

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