What Role Does Alcohol Play in Men’s Sexual Aggression?

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Findings from a recent article published in Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research show that men engage in sexually aggressive behavior targeting women.

Drinks at the bar

Photo: Heatspine

Recent research shows that men target sexual aggression at intoxicated women.

Rape culture is a term that gets thrown around a lot by scholars who study sexual assault, particularly sexual assault occurring on college campuses. Rape culture links rape, sexual assault, and sexual violence to the culture of a society. Rape culture can be defined as a culture in which rape is prevalent and in which sexual violence and attitudes towards sexual violence are normalized, tolerated, excused and even condoned by that society through language, custom, media and implementation of law and policy. When I teach about rape culture in my sexuality courses, students seem to struggle with the concept until I can pinpoint a clear example and say—that, right there, that is rape culture, now do you see what I mean? And then people shake their heads and say oh, I think I get it now.

Rape Culture in the Bar

An article recently published in Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, entitled: “Blurred Lines?” Sexual Aggression and Barroom Culture, presents some really interesting findings regarding rape culture. The authors (led by Kathryn Graham, PhD) conducted an observational study in which 148 trained observers frequented public bars in female/male pairs to observe aggressive behaviors occurring in the establishments and observing if third parties stepped in to help. (Note–the authors provided a very detailed description of their methodology for those who may be interested!)

The observers witnessed 258 sexually aggressive incidents; during 90% of the incidents, men were the aggressors and women were the “targets” of the aggressive behavior. Acts of sexual aggression took the form of “uninvited, unwanted, and invasive physical contact, persistence in the face of refusal and general sexual harassment such as cat-calling.”

Did they know what they were doing?

About one-third of the aggressive incidents involved “intentional aggression on the part of the male initiator.” This means the guys knew what they were doing was unwanted, causing the women they were targeting to feel discomfort, or at times seriously distressed…but did it anyway. The remaining two-thirds were considered to be “probably intentional.” In other words, the guys most likely knew their actions were unwanted, but there is a chance they could just be unskilled at reading social cues and maybe mis-perceived the situation despite the fact that their actions were invasive or the women were telling them to stop.

The authors provided an example of the “probably intentional” actions of aggression: a man was observed grabbing a woman’s blouse and looking down it, presumably at her breasts. The authors indicated that this received a “probably intentional” but not “definitely intentional” label because the observers noted that the guy seemed genuinely surprised by the woman’s reaction (i.e., he was shocked that she did not find this act to be hilarious).

You know, it’s all so confusing…or is it?

The authors rationalized that the “probably intentional” acts were so predominant because we live in a “culture of ambiguity.” In other words, common discourse maintains that lines are blurred (thank you Robin Thicke) and that women are really asking for it. I think the author’s “culture of ambiguity” is really just another example of rape culture—men are targeting unwanted, uninvited acts of sexual aggression at women and our cultural messages excuse their behavior. Instead of chastising, we say, ‘well, did they really know they were behaving badly?’

I can’t help but wonder if they really don’t know, or if they are just playing dumb? Isn’t it easier to ask for forgiveness than ask for permission? Maybe I am a bit skeptical—but for good reason. In a study of mine, published with Dr. Zoe Peterson in The Journal of Sex Research, we found that a small percentage of men reported being intentionally deceptive in their tactics towards obtaining sex. That is, men reported that they would intentionally put their penis into a woman’s vagina or anus prior to obtaining her consent and then if she objected pretend as though it had happened by mistake. We surmised that at least some of these men likely thought that their partner would not have consented to the sexual behavior—after all, if they figured she was going to consent, why the need to be deceptive…unless they had a feeling she wouldn’t consent, right?

Our findings seem to mirror what Graham and her colleagues found. And in my opinion, it doesn’t appear ambiguous. Graham and her colleagues state that our “culture of ambiguity” (which I really see as rape culture) creates an ideal setting for “opportunistic offending.” According to Graham, opportunistic offenders “generally conform to normative restrictions regarding appropriate social behavior but will exploit opportunities to engage in low-level offenses—in this case sexual aggression, partly because they know they can get away with it.” Better to ask for forgiveness, right?

Maybe he was just really drunk?

A main point of interest from this article was the consumption of alcohol. Conventional thinking might chalk up men’s aggressive behavior to alcohol consumption. You know, ‘he is really drunk, so he is just acting like a jerk at the bar.’ Unfortunately, this was not the case. Men’s alcohol consumption was not associated with engagement in aggressive behaviors towards women, nor did it predict invasiveness or persistence of such acts of aggression.

However, the authors note that men’s invasiveness and persistence toward women increased when women were intoxicated. To me, these findings suggest that men are intentional in their acts—they are targeting intoxicated women, perhaps because they see such women as “easy targets.” Men think they are more likely to get away with their behavior because women who are intoxicated are usually blamed for these sorts of things. It is one of the most commonly utilized rape myths—‘she was drunk and asking for it.’

What about the bystanders?

The last compelling finding from this article was the extent to which third parties intervened. This is of particular interest and concern as “bystander” sexual assault prevention initiatives keep popping up on college campuses and are toted as the new best practice. I have been skeptical of these approaches and Graham’s findings seem to support my skepticism.

The authors reported that third parties rarely get involved, even third parties like bar bouncers or security who, ostensibly, should be acting as protection for patrons (including women). Findings from the article suggest that sometimes friends of the women targeted help in evading the male initiator of aggression, but rarely did bar staff intervene. Those who were more likely (though still infrequently) to get involved–friends of the initiators. The guy’s friends tended to get involved by encouraging/egging on the aggressive behavior and thus reinforcing that not only is the behavior okay, but that perhaps it should be celebrated.

This last part is troubling. The fact that men’s friends encouraged the unwanted, uninvited aggressive behavior is an example of rape culture—see there it is, we can point right at it. Not only is he engaging in a sexually aggressive act that is not wanted, but his buddy is laughing at him (normalizing, tolerating, condoning and excusing the behavior) and encouraging him (facilitating this encounter and future aggressive acts). This article makes me think of Jodi Foster’s character in The Accused. It is an older film, but a good example of how rape culture perpetuates rape. If you have seen it or plan to watch it, keep in mind it is loosely based on a true story.

Final thoughts

The findings from this article are perhaps surprising to some, but not to me…though that does not make them any less compelling. The good thing is that this article has given me another example I can turn to in the classroom or in my every day discussions (yes, I do talk about rape culture to friends, family and colleagues) and say—‘see, there it is, this is rape culture!’ The bad thing is—what do we do about that?

Kristen Jozkowski, Ph.D.

received her Ph.D. in Health Behavior from the Department of Applied Health Science at Indiana University in May, 2011, and now teaches at University of Arkansas! (yes, there is life after college). Kristen's research focuses on sexual communication and consent, desire and pleasure, sexual function, and women's sexuality.
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