April 28, 2015

The Role Of Alcohol Use In Sexual Assault

In her second post in a series about sexual assault, Morgan Mohr explains the multifaceted role played by the most common date-rape drug: alcohol.

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Image of hands holding up tumblers of whiskey in a toast/salute

Image of hands holding up tumblers of whiskey in a toast/salute

Discussion of alcohol use and sexual assault is central to unraveling the problem of campus assault, but it is also paradoxically problematic. Focusing on alcohol use threatens to promote victim blaming of sexual assault survivors who were consuming alcohol, but considering the fact that on average, at least 50% of campus sexual assaults involve alcohol, failing to address this context will impede efforts to reduce prevalence of assault.

In her widely cited article, “Alcohol-Related Sexual Assault: A Common Problem among College Students,” Antonia Abbey, Ph.D. dived into the complex relationship between alcohol and sexual assault. Abbey proposed ten causal pathways that continue to capture the relationship between alcohol and sexual assault. You may notice that the following pathways capture a scenario in which the perpetrator is male and the victim is female. Though Abbey acknowledged that both male victims and female perpetrators of sexual assault exist, she explained: “Less than 5% of adolescent and adult sexual assault victims are male, and when men are sexually assaulted, the perpetrator is usually male. Thus, most research focuses on female victims and male perpetrators.”

1. Traditional Gender Role Beliefs About Dating And Sexuality

Traditional sexual norms dictate that men should pursue sex and that women should set the limits of sexual behavior. Santana and colleagues (2006) found that young men who adhere to traditional masculine gender role ideologies were more likely to have unprotected vaginal sex and perpetrate intimate partner violence. Data from interviews and surveys with college students suggest that traditional gender roles and alcohol consumption are also linked such that the ability to tolerate large amounts of alcohol is considered an expression of masculinity. Men who are drinking alcohol are more likely to act upon these traditional beliefs, as described below.

2. Men’s Expectations About Alcohol’s Effects

Men anticipate feeling more powerful, sexual, and aggressive after drinking alcohol, which can become self-fulfilling, even independent of the physiological effects of alcohol. A 2011 study of changes in alcohol expectancies found that men expected alcohol to facilitate positive sexual encounters and to give them “liquid courage” and these expectations were higher when participants had consumed alcohol than when they were sober. So positive expectations influence whether a person will drink and then once intoxicated, alcohol influences a person to perceive the effects of alcohol as even more positive.

3. Stereotypes About Drinking Women

Women who are drinking, especially in bars, are perceived as more promiscuous and sexually available. Abbey cited a quote from one of her studies in which a male college assault perpetrator justified his actions by writing “She was the sleazy type . . . the typical bar slut.” Unfortunately, there is evidence that women associate drinking with being sociable and attractive, and so a minimal effort to attract may be exaggerated into perceived intent to seduce and promiscuity.

4. Alcohol As A Sexual Signal

These stereotypes about drinking women are closely related to alcohol being perceived as a signal of sexual desire or availability. McAuslen and colleagues (1998) found that over 20% of men “thought verbal pressure was acceptable if either of them was drinking alcohol or if they met at a bar.” Recent experimental research by Koukounas, Djokic and Miller revealed that men attributed greater sexual intent to women in a video when they were merely holding a bottle of alcohol than when the women were holding a bottle of water, absent any other indicators of interest or of intoxication. Other research consistently shows that sober respondents are less likely to characterize a sexual assault as such when alcohol is involved, and rate the degree of necessary resistance from the woman as higher when alcohol is involved.

5. Men’s Misperceptions Of Women’s Sexual Intent

Gender roles construct men as sexual initiators and men may consequently be socialized to ascribe sexual meaning to situations. This gender role socialization has been implicated to explain a consistent finding in research: that men perceive a greater degree of sexual intent in women’s behavior than women do. Since alcohol disrupts higher order cognitive processes such as planning and problem solving, this issue is exacerbated by men’s alcohol intake. For example, survey research in 2007 revealed that frequency of drinking in dating and sexual situations was predictive of men inaccurately perceiving sexual intent. The perception of being “led on” by a woman increases the likelihood of men to commit assault.

6. Alcohol’s Effects On Men’s Willingness To Behave Aggressively

Alcohol increases aggressive behavior, and therefore the likelihood of assault, particularly if a male has felt led on. “Thus an intoxicated man is likely to focus on his sexual arousal and sense of entitlement rather than the potential pain and suffering of his victim or the possibility that he will be punished.” Recent research by Abbey in 2011 revealed that perpetrators who use victim impairment strategies have much more hostile attitudes toward women than non-perpetrators and perpetrators who use verbal coercion, and that they  consumed much more alcohol than other participants during the sexual assault incident even though they have similar drinking levels in general. A review of the research literature on the effects of alcohol also revealed that intoxicated men are more likely than sober men to find use of force to obtain sex as acceptable and moreover, that these effects are strongest in men who have hostile attitudes toward women. These findings support Abbey’s earlier proposal that alcohol may exacerbate hostility/aggression in men and add to the risk of perpetration of assault in men predisposed to be sexually aggressive.

7. Alcohol’s Effects On Women’s Ability To Assess And React To Risk

Experimental research by Stoner and colleagues in 2007 revealed that when presented with a scenario depicting  a male character making escalating unwanted sexual advances, women who received a high dose of alcohol reported much more uncertainty about his intentions and experiencing higher conflict about what they would do. Alcohol also makes women more likely to engage in consensual sexual activities such as kissing. In addition, alcohol makes women more likely to take risks they would normally avoid, such as riding home with a man they don’t know. Research by Abbey in 2011 revealed that sexual assault perpetrators who use victim impairment as a tactic are more likely to have engaged in some consensual sexual activities with the victim during the incident. Unfortunately, perpetrators often justify that consent in kissing and petting also constitutes consent for intercourse, even when they acknowledge that they know sex is unwanted.

8. Alcohol’s Effects On Women’s Ability To Resist Effectively

Alcohol inhibits motor skills that aid in a woman’s resistance to sexual assault. The research by Stoner and colleagues (2007) revealed that high alcohol dose not only increased uncertainty but also indirectly affected women’s resistance to unwanted sexual advances by reducing intents to resist assertively, increasing intents to resist passively, and increasing intents to consent. “Three-quarters of the college date rapists interviewed by Kanin indicated that they purposely got a date intoxicated to have sexual intercourse with her.” Lisak and Miller conducted research in 2002 with undetected rapists and found that 80% of those who committed sexual assault in their sample did so against women who were incapacitated by drugs or alcohol.  Research by Abbey in 2011 found that some perpetrators of sexual assault continue to use victim impairment exclusively as a strategy to engage in sexual acts they know are against the wishes of the victim and feel no need to use physical force because the impairment of alcohol is sufficient for them to complete the assault.

9. Alcohol’s Effects On Perceptions Of Responsibility

In the Kanin study from above, 62% of perpetrators felt that they had committed rape because of their alcohol consumption. In contrast, women who are raped while drinking tend to blame themselves. Experimental research by Stormo and colleagues in 2006 revealed similar findings and that when both perpetrator and victim are portrayed as having equivalent levels of intoxication in acquaintance rape scenarios, study participants regularly place more responsibility on the female victim.

10. Peer Environments That Encourage Both Heavy Drinking And Sexual Assault

The Greek system and other organizations, such as some athletic groups, create norms around binge drinking to engage in “uninhibited behavior” including casual sex. A systematic review of research on athletic involvement indicated that sports participants drink more alcohol than non-sports participants and they are more likely to commit acts of violence (including sexual violence). Though fraternities do not condone sexual assault (for the most part—see the “rapebait email”), “Martin and Hummer (1989) argued that many fraternities create a social environment in which sexual coercion is normalized because women are perceived as commodities available to meet men’s sexual needs.” More recent research by Franklin and Bouffard in 2012 using path models to test the male peer support hypothesis confirmed that fraternity affiliation was a significant predictor of sexual assault, operating through alcohol consumption and peer pressure for sex.

Each of Abbey’s pathways have continued to be supported by subsequent research and moreover, very recent qualitative research supports her proposal that the real and perceived effects of alcohol and gender norms related to sexuality combine to support male dominance and facilitate assault against women. Though this reality of many interrelated causal pathways may seem too vast and intimidating to combat, this conceptualization of the relationship between alcohol and sexual assault gives multiple possible points of intervention to address campus sexual assault, from gender roles and sexual expectations to dangerous social environments.

Morgan Mohr is a Wells Scholar majoring in Political Science, History, and an individualized major in Feminist Policy.