The Relationship Between Alcohol Abuse and Sexual Assault

Disclaimer: This is an unfiltered blog on the concurrencies of alcohol abuse and sexual assault. As a young woman in college, all too often I hear about situations like this happening. I wanted to explore the studies that have been conducted on these topics to gain a better understanding as to why these things co-occur and what cultural beliefs and stereotypes need to be dismantled in order to prevent situations like these from occurring. There are many dangers associated with binge drinking, and sexual assault is just one of them. However, I think it is imperative to investigate this relationship. 

It is estimated, conservatively, that 25% of women in the United States experience sexual assault. Alcohol consumption by the assailant, the victim or both is typically involved in one-half of those cases. As a young woman in college, it saddens me to say that these statistics do not shock me. More times than I can count, I have heard of instances in which alcohol abuse and sexual abuse went hand in hand. This is a serious problem, and it is sometimes called a “silent epidemic” because of the sheer volume of cases that go unreported. 

Firstly, it is important to note that irrespective of alcohol consumption by the victim, sexual assault is never the victim’s fault. Typically, sexual assaults involving alcohol are more likely to occur between men and women who do not know each other. Assaults involving alcohol are also more likely to occur at parties or bars rather than an individual’s home or elsewhere. There are so many young women who experience these assaults every year, and college towns/campuses are no exception. It is imperative that college students work to make deep, lasting change to our culture to prevent this from happening in the future.

How Large Is Alcohol’s Role in Sexual Assault?

It is no secret that consuming large amounts of alcohol is dangerous on personal and societal levels. While there is no way to prove unequivocally that alcohol consumption is a direct cause of sexual assault, drinking and sexual assault do co-occur frequently. There is even some evidence to suggest that “the desire to commit a sexual assault may actually cause alcohol consumption.” 

Alcohol consumption is sometimes used by a perpetrator to justify the behavior. There are several distal and situational factors that seem to be common threads among perpetrators of sexual assault and its relationship to alcohol. Distal factors include: 

  • General and heavy alcohol consumption
  • Alcohol expectancies for sex
  • Aggression
  • Disinhibition 
  • Stereotypes about drinking women being sexually available and appropriate targets

Situational factors include: 

  • Heavy drinkers spending time at bars and parties
  • Drinking being used as an excuse for socially unacceptable behavior
  • Alcohol’s cognitive impairments enhance perceptions of friendly behavior as sexual
  • Alcohol’s cognitive impairments facilitate an aggressive response if the perpetrator feels as though they have been led on

Let’s break down some of these factors and address which factors are contributed to by cultural expectations regarding alcohol. Firstly, in today’s culture, alcohol is widely thought of as an aphrodisiac. This is a problematic idea because it allows perpetrators to view the consumption of alcohol as an invitation in and of itself. Obviously, this is not the case, and this mentality further illustrates the problems with societal views of alcohol. It is also an illustration of how differently alcohol consumption is viewed for men and women, as men going to bars and drinking is typically viewed more favorably than a woman doing the same thing. 

Another contributing factor is that, as a society, we tend to excuse inappropriate behavior if it is associated with drinking. In a study conducted on college date rapists, 62% of them felt that they had committed rape because of their alcohol consumption and, furthermore, did not see themselves as “real criminals.”

How Research Is Gathered and What It Indicates

Much of the research conducted on this topic has been conducted using a test called an alcohol expectancy set. This is where researchers tell participants that they have consumed alcohol, regardless of what they are given to drink. This type of test allows researchers to further determine what people expect to experience upon alcohol consumption and what they actually experience. Many of these studies have found that aggression actually does increase with consumption. This is because drinking to excess disrupts higher-order cognitive processes. When faced with situations that could potentially induce aggression, higher-level concerns like morality or fear of future punishment are outweighed by anger or frustration. These effects appear largely to be pharmacological. 

Let’s go over a brief summary of the data and the research conducted on this topic and what it tells us. Firstly, it tells us that sexual assault is a major problem within our society, and alcohol is a factor in half of reported incidents. Alcohol, and the consumption of alcohol, is largely viewed as an excuse for inexcusable and harmful behaviors. Women who consume alcohol are viewed less favorably than men who consume alcohol, and perpetrators of sexual assault tend to view a woman consuming a drink as an invitation. Many convicted rapists believe that their crime was committed as a direct result of alcohol consumption. When you combine all of these factors, it’s no surprise that sexual assault is as prevalent of a problem as it is. It is also not surprising that bars and parties are common places for these assaults to occur. 

It is time to dismantle myths and stereotypes that tend to perpetuate this issue. Drinking too much alcohol is never an excuse for any type of misbehavior, particularly those which violate the health, privacy and autonomy of others. Women who consume alcohol are not inviting advances. Sexual assault is inexcusable regardless of mental state and must be reported and dealt with accordingly. Binge drinking is truly a public health issue, and sexual assault is just part of it.

Medical Disclaimer: The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.