Alcohol abuse and sexual assault and misconduct are closely connected
Sexual assault and alcohol are closely connected. A person who has consumed alcohol often finds their ability to think clearly and logically is impaired. Individuals become confused and incapacitated, and perpetrators take advantage of this. In addition, alcohol use causes poor judgment leading to unwanted one-night stands or sexual misconduct. Alcohol is used in different ways, whether binge drinking, drinking alcohol to cope with pain or trauma, social drinking and heavy alcohol use. However, as drinking becomes more problematic, individuals are more likely to report being sexually assaulted.
Research done on college campuses, for example, showed a strong relationship between alcohol consumption and unhealthy sexual assault perceptions. As alcohol use became problematic, more students were reporting sexual misconduct. Conversely, experiencing sexual assault impacts drinking rates as survivors may use alcohol to cope with pain and trauma. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 25% of American women have experienced sexual assault. Approximately one-half of those cases involve alcohol consumption by the perpetrator, victim or both.
Unfortunately, the prevalence of alcohol use and sexual assault is difficult to track because sexual assaults are usually underreported. However, conservative estimates suggest 25% of women have been assaulted, and 18% have been raped, per the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Furthermore, 20% of men report having perpetrated sexual assault, and 5% report having committed rape. In addition, alcohol consumption by perpetrators and victims tends to co-occur; when one of them is drinking, the other one is drinking as well.
There are different pathways alcohol contributes to sexual assault, according to NIDA. The research explains distal factors, such as general, heavy alcohol consumption, alcohol expectancies about sex, aggression and stereotypes about drinking women or men being sexually available. Situational factors include heavy drinkers spending time in bars and drinking alcohol being used as an excuse for socially unacceptable behavior. In addition, alcohol’s cognitive impairments enhance misperception of the woman’s or man’s social cues, and alcohol cognitive impairments facilitate an aggressive response if the man or women feel they have been led on.
As more people come forward stating they have been sexually assaulted, more is being done regarding preventing and responding to sexual assault and misconduct. Workplaces and schools, for example, have likely implemented training programs for preventing sexual misconduct and reducing heavy drinking. Sexual misconduct and assault could occur anywhere, whether at a workplace, college, home or social setting. However, prevention and education have been a successful tool that increases awareness and gives a new perspective.
Alcohol safety, for example, includes keeping an eye on your friends. Check in with them during the night at a party or social setting, and step in if something does not look right. Do not be afraid to let a friend know if something is making you uncomfortable. According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, it is recommended to have a backup plan if the situation worsens, or the environment does not feel safe. Having multiple options ensures the individual can get a ride home or to a safe location.
Additionally, know what you are drinking and know who mixed or served the drink. RAINN recommends trusting your instincts, and if you feel unsafe, uncomfortable or worried for any reason, do not ignore those feelings. Never leave a drink unattended, and do not accept drinks from people you do not know or trust. Finally, know your limits, and check in with yourself. Be aware of sudden changes in the way your body feels and considering the level of intoxication. Alcohol interferes with the brain’s communication pathways and affects the way the brain looks and works. These disruptions cause a change in mood and behavior, and make it more difficult to think clearly and move with coordination.
When a sexual assault involving alcohol occurs, it is essential to strive to be supportive and non-judgmental. Assure the individual that you believe them and remind them that what happened was not their fault and they did not do anything to deserve what happened to them. More importantly, report what happened; too many sexual assaults go unreported within the United States. Only 310 out of every 1,000 sexual assaults are reported to police — two out of three go unreported.
Michael Leach lives in Atco, New Jersey, and has spent most of his career as a health care professional specializing in substance use disorder and addiction recovery. He is a regular contributor to the health care website Addicted.org and a certified clinical medical assistant.