People often use alcohol as a kind of crutch to lean on, to inspire confidence in social settings. This is especially the case with young people; I know I’ve used it to raise my self-esteem a little, and a lot of my friends would admit to having a drink before a date or party. This liquid courage is not a bad thing when it comes to having fun and initiating sexual intimacy, but it does heighten the need for communication if you and/or your partner have been drinking to ensure sex remains enthusiastic, consensual and respectful of boundaries. In today’s culture and society, there are ways to help you feel safe when drinking. This can include being surrounded by reliable friends when on nights out and being aware of your alcohol tolerance level. It is a sad fact that individuals subjected to sexual assault and violence are often met with more scepticism and victim-blaming when they were intoxicated, rather than the blame being focused solely on the perpetrator, leading women to have to adjust their behaviour and freedoms in order to feel more protected.
As unfair and infuriating as this is, perpetrators of sexual violence may take advantage of people who are highly intoxicated, and use their intoxication as a way to avoid complications or identification. According to a study, 39% of victims of rape or sexual assault believed the offender to be under the influence of alcohol, and the same percentage said that they too were under the influence of alcohol.* Perpetrators of sexual violence may use the effects of alcohol to their advantage and use it to excuse themselves, especially when they themselves are drunk. This, of course, will never be a defense or excuse.
Consensual sex is freely given, clearly communicated agreement to engage in sexual activity between two adults, and if someone is overly drunk, or not awake, aware, and in control, they can’t consent. Even if someone makes it clear they want to have sex with you, their decisions may be influenced by the amount of alcohol they have drank, and so they still may not be able to consent. It is important to pick up on your partner's body language and be aware of their level of intoxication; communication is key when it comes to navigating consent, and this is more important than ever where alcohol is concerned. If you think someone is too drunk to consent, or if you yourself are too drunk to pick up on the social cues of your partner, it’s best to wait to sober up. Remember that consent can be withdrawn at any point, and if your partner progressively seems more intoxicated or loses bodily control after initiating sex, you must also stop. Making sure that both parties are consenting at all times is the bare minimum when it comes to initiating sex. We, as a society, need to work on constructing a consent culture which makes this information common sense, to drill it into men and into our drinking culture.
Other than feeling safe while navigating consent and alcohol, it is also important to be aware of the risk of alcohol being used as a ‘date rape drug’, added to a drink without knowledge or consent in order to overpower and incapacitate. With recent terrifying cases of needle spikings in the UK creating a lot of fear, people often overlook how commonly alcohol can be used for the same purpose. Society often takes it a lot more lightly, joking about how their friends put too much alcohol in their drink, etc. This is perhaps because alcohol is so much more normalised, accessible and familiar - but it is so dangerous precisely for this reason. Drink spikings are less reported than needle spiking, perhaps because they are somewhat more difficult to be sure of, but they are more common than needle spikings.* Staying with people you trust on a night out and keeping your drink with you at all times is good practice to try and feel safer, although there is little women can do to keep themselves 100% safe from these things.
Alcohol can lead to situations with blurred intentions and boundaries, and organising your own feelings about an experience where memories are fuzzy can be confusing and scary. It is never, ever your fault if you have been subjected to sexual assault or have felt taken advantage of while drinking. Alcohol can lower a person’s defenses, enhance vulnerability and result in individuals feeling less able to communicate their discomfort, but this shouldn’t mean that women, or anyone, should have to miss out on living their life fully and having fun because of what other people do wrong. It only means that we need to be aware of the ways in which we feel safer, and try our best to ensure others feel safe too.
- E. Brean