It’s become common knowledge that alcohol is a major factor that contributes to sexual assaults. On Monday, USA Today published a story quoting doctors and experts who point out that alcohol is the most common date rape drug, far more likely to be used to incapacitate a victim than “roofies” are. And that’s just the most recent piece on the subject. After Slate columnist Emily Yoffe stoked controversy earlier this month by writing that young women should avoid getting drunk, since it’s been proven that drinking is “closely associated” with sexual assault, the dialogue about alcohol and rape has been re-opened.
This entire conversation is predicated upon the assumption that the presence of alcohol increases the likelihood of rape, so we need to encourage college students to drink less. Yoffe played into a decades-long tradition of framing that discussion specifically around women, a method of victim-blaming that feeds into rape culture. But even when the discussion is properly framed around the perpetrators rather than the victims, how strong is the correlation in question? Will getting kids to drink less actually get them to rape less?
Toward the end of the USA Today article about alcohol’s function as a date rape drug, one of the experts who agreed to be quoted in the story noted, “People don’t get raped because they have been drinking, because they are passed out or because they are drunk. People get raped because there is a perpetrator there — someone who wants to take advantage of them.”
That gets to the heart of the complex issue: Even though alcohol is associated with sexual assault, it’s not actually a direct association. Getting intoxicated only leads to rape when there’s someone present to commit that rape. When you remove rapists from the equation, the risks of getting drunk — which, of course, do involve serious public health consequences — don’t include getting raped.
A 2001 research project into sexual assault and alcohol commissioned by the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism puts it this way: “Although alcohol consumption and sexual assault frequently co-occur, this phenomenon does not prove that alcohol use causes sexual assault.” In some cases, the researchers pointed out, it may actually be the other way around. The desire to commit a sexual assault may actually encourage alcohol consumption, as some men may drink before assaulting a woman in order to help justify their behavior.
National statistics dispel the direct correlation between alcohol and rape, too. The Department of Justice’s National Crime Victimization Survey has found that the number of Americans who say they’ve been raped — regardless of whether they reported that crime to the authorities — has been declining since 1979. During that same time period, binge drinking has been steadily rising. As Slate’s Amanda Hess points out, that suggests something else besides alcohol consumption is actually factoring into the nation’s sexual assault rate. Indeed, research has found that intimate partner violence declines not as people drink less, but as society moves toward gender equality.
Of course, that doesn’t mean alcohol has no relationship with sexual assault whatsoever. The same National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism study estimated that alcohol is present in about half of sexual assaults, although researchers noted that’s a rough estimation because it’s hard to gather data in this area. It’s certainly possible that alcohol clouds some perpetrators’ judgment and encourages them to push the boundaries of consent further than they would have otherwise. And it’s undeniably true that alcohol is one of the tools that rapists use to prey on women and lower their defenses.
But the important point to note is that alcohol is just one of many tools at rapists’ disposal — and if alcohol isn’t available, that won’t necessarily stop a rapist from assaulting people.
David Lisak, a former clinical psychologist who now consults the U.S. military and college administrations on issues of sexual assault, has done extensive research into the nature of sexual crimes. In one of his research papers, he details some “common characteristics of the modus operandi” of the people who he refers to as “undetected rapists” — that is, the men who are violating women’s consent and getting away with it. According to Lisak’s observations over two decades of working with this population, these people:
- are extremely adept at identifying “likely” victims, and testing prospective victims’ boundaries;
- plan and premeditate their attacks, using sophisticated strategies to groom their victims for attack, and to isolate them physically;
- use “instrumental” not gratuitous violence; they exhibit strong impulse control and use only as much violence as is needed to terrify and coerce their victims into submission;
- use psychological weapons — power, control, manipulation, and threats — backed up by physical force, and almost never resort to weapons such as knives or guns;
- use alcohol deliberately to render victims more vulnerable to attack, or completely unconscious.
Alcohol, of course, appears on that list. It makes sense that alcohol would be a tool that’s useful for rendering a victim powerless; that’s what USA Today’s piece is getting at when it refers to alcohol as a “date rape drug.” But Lisak points out there are several other strategies that can also be used to achieve this end.
This profile isn’t simply hypothetical. Last year, a user on the social media site Reddit started a thread for rapists to give them a platform to explain what motivated them to commit their crimes. The thread was eventually removed, but not before it garnered hundreds of comments. One of the comments that went viral came from a man who described himself as a “serial rapist” during his college years. He wrote that he began forcing himself on women because he liked the “thrill of the chase,” and described how he selected the girls who he would rape: “I would find attractive girls that were self-conscious about their looks… Hopefully a girl who was a bit damaged, had a shitty ex-boyfriend, or family issues, came from a small shut in town, that sort of thing… So, when I showed interest in them they’d be completely enamored, they’d almost be shocked that a popular, good-looking, and well liked guy would be talking to them.”
That Redditor mentioned that “alcohol helped.” But most of the tactics he employed were actually about carefully selecting his victim, using emotional manipulation, and testing their boundaries — the first bullet points on Lisak’s list. That points to a largely undiscussed aspect of sexual violence: often, the “drunk victim” was targeted as a victim before they took a sip of alcohol on the night of their assault. It didn’t matter how much they ended up drinking.
It’s difficult to identify rapists, so there isn’t a huge body of research that has investigated their behavior in this way. But a few other studies in this area echo many of Lisak’s findings — most notably, the uncomfortable reality that most sexual predators don’t simply “slip up” after having too much to drink and accidentally violate someone’s consent. Rather, they’re often making calculated decisions to achieve their goal of assaulting multiple victims, just like the Reddit user. A 2009 survey of rapists enlisted in the navy found that the vast majority of men who had committed rape admitted to raping multiple victims, and many of them said they used alcohol as one of their tools. A recent large international study on sexual violence also found that repeat offenses are very high among rapists, and more than 70 percent of the participants who admitted to rape said they did it because they believe they’re entitled to women’s bodies.
Those type of conclusions turn most of the conventional wisdom about rape and alcohol on its head. All of a sudden, it becomes clear that preventing sexual assault is a much more involved process than simply encouraging young people to chug fewer beers.
And perhaps more broadly, it’s important to remember that sexual assault isn’t actually unique in its relationship to alcohol. In fact, at least half of all violent crimes occur after the perpetrator, the victim, or both have been drinking alcohol. Sexual assault simply fits neatly within that larger pattern — yet we’re much less likely to assume that alcohol factored into an armed robbery, or call on people to stop drinking so they won’t get mugged.