How alcohol complicates the conversation about sexual assault
By Amy Obarski
It’s Friday afternoon, and you have just completed what you think is the most hellish week of your college career. You had three tests, two papers and a bullshit assignment that your sociology professor required you to submit via Blackboard. You are ready to let loose. So you arrange your plans for the night, which include pre-gaming at a friend’s room before heading off to a house party on Aurora, and get ready for some fun.
All seems to be going well at the house party, and you are managing your drinks as you usually do, but you decide to let yourself have another couple of shots. Why not? This week sucked, and you need to unwind. As you set your glass down, you see that someone has been flirtatiously eyeing you from across the room. You think they sit next to you in art history, but you’re not sure. You return the friendly glance and ask some friends who the stranger is. Your best friend tells you the name and relationship status of the individual, and you think, “Why not? What the hell?” And that is all you remember.
Fast forward to the next morning. You awake in the bed of a sleeping stranger, not knowing what happened or how you even got there. You quickly look around for evidence, and you see that your clothes are strewn across the floor. An empty can of FourLoko, which you don’t remember downing, is on the nightstand. Your looker from last night wakes, and you ask, “We didn’t… you know… do it?” All you see is a smile on the stranger’s face.
This situation is parodied all too often in the media. Sure, it’s funny when Ross and Rachel have another unexpected roll in the hay or when Will wakes up with Grace after having too many martinis, but in real life, this scenario is anything but comical.
The Basics of Acquaintance Rape
What needs to be presented first and foremost is this: Consent cannot legally be given if alcohol or drugs are involved from either party. “People don’t realize how much communication sex takes, and when you’re drunk, you give signals, vague signals,” said Ithaca College senior Heather Mueller, president of the IC chapter of SAFER (Students Active for Ending Rape). According to PAVE (Promoting Awareness, Victim Empowerment), an organization that tries to educate the local and campus communities on myths about sexual violence, the definition of rape is “Oral, vaginal or anal penetration obtained through force, threat of force or the inability to provide consent. Sexual assault is more encompassing, including acts ranging from non-consensual touching, kissing to completed rape.”
Society’s stigmas regarding these crimes only perpetuate harmful misconceptions. Many blame the victims for the way they look, dress or present themselves. If they are drinking alcohol, many people ponder, isn’t it their decision to let their guard down? Wrong, said Kali Fallon of Ithaca PAVE. “Sexual assault is never the victim’s fault,” she said.
Another misconception is that only strangers in alleyways commit sexual assault. False.
Lis Maurer, the program director of the Center for LGBT Education, Outreach & Services, stated that most victims who come to her with issues of sexual abuse know their assailant.
“Every once in a long while, there is a different situation, but the vast majority is with someone they know,” she said. Many also think that sexual assault happens exclusively to women in the straight community. However, this is an issue just as pertinent for men and members of the LGBT community. In fact, according to the Advocacy Center of Ithaca, an organization that runs a support line and provides resources to victims, 10 to 20 percent of men (of all sexual orientations) will be sexually violated in their lifetime. It is far from uncommon to hear of members of the LGBT community being sexually assaulted by “dates,” and it has been surveyed that transgender people are more likely to be sexually violated by a partner.
Statistically, 90 percent of sexual assault victims know their assailant. This is known as acquaintance sexual assault. According to IC’s Student Code of Conduct, “The acquaintance may be a date or friend of the victim or someone the victim knows only casually. The same criminal laws and penalties apply to both acquaintance rape and stranger rape.”
Drunk Decisions, Sober Consequences
The IC Student Code of Conduct goes on to say, “Frequently, the students involved in these assaults have been drinking or using drugs. An intoxicated victim may be unable by law to give consent to sexual intercourse.”
Lyn Staack, the youth educator and LGBT coordinator from the Advocacy Center of Ithaca, affirms this, saying, “a higher percentage of our sexual assault clients are college-aged, and in a majority of those calls, either the victim or the offender, or both, had been drinking alcohol.”
Another major issue comes into play when victims are brave enough to confront their assailants. Commonly, when a victim addresses his or her attacker, the perpetrator passes it off as trivial. We were both drunk. It doesn’t count when alcohol is involved. I thought you wanted it. One sees it as consensual, the other as rape. Who, then, is to be believed?
The one who believes it to be rape has a right to call fire. No one should ever feel sexually uncomfortable, and the one who feels violated has many options to pursue and investigate if what actually happened was sexual assault.
According to Maurer, there is no time limit for a victim to seek help or legal assistance. It doesn’t matter if the assault happened last night or a year ago; the victim is not bound by time to file a report.
The Psychological Scars
But why is denial from the other party such a common response? Ultimately, society has decided that the need for consent becomes null and void when alcohol is involved. Red cup/blue cup parties, where the red cups, given to girls, contain a lot more alcohol, or even roofies, to make them easier sexual targets, only perpetuate this ideology.
“I feel like [denial] is the common thing, just of people I know and stories I’ve heard,” said Mueller. “I don’t think they want to admit they did something wrong. You don’t want to admit you’ve done something wrong, but you [the initiator] did.”
To make this idea of consent more clear, Mueller also emphasized, “Make sure your partner gives consent. It doesn’t have to be verbal but there needs to be some exchange of consent. Alcohol makes it even blurrier. And it’s different in every situation, which is why there needs to be that communication.”
Ithaca College is small, and for many reasons that can be a good thing. But it becomes especially challenging for victims when they are forced to see their attackers on a weekly or daily basis.
Megan Wright, a student at Dominican College in Orangeburg, NY, experienced how painful the daily reminder can be. After being raped by multiple assailants, she reported the crime to the college, which did nothing to punish the attackers. She was forced to see her violators every day, and, after falling into a deep depression, committed suicide.
The psychological ramifications for sexual assault are great. According to RAINN (the Rape, Abuse, Incest National Network), victims of sexual assault are four times more likely to commit suicide.
A Culture of Apologists
Fallon said, “Rather than focusing on a victim’s drinking, as a campus we should focus on why a perpetrator’s behavior is generally excused by our culture when alcohol is involved.” Many of the perpetrators walk away unscathed. As much as 75 to 90 percent of total disciplinary actions doled out by schools that report statistics to the Justice Department’s Office on Violence Against Women amounted to minor sanctions like apology letters or counseling. Universities that don’t choose to expel rapists from campus operate under the assumption that these students won’t assault again, which is dangerous.
We live in a time when an attacker can go online and look up the recipe for a date rape drink in a matter of seconds. According to the Department of Justice, only 60 percent of rapes are ever reported.
“Victims fear they won’t be believed, especially when alcohol is involved,” said Fallon. We think that when we hear about them on Intercom or in the media, that that is only when they happen.
But people need to be clear on this so-called blurry line of consent. If you plan on having sex with someone and either one of you is consuming alcohol, then communicate and confirm that both parties are on the same track. Feeding someone drinks so that he or she will sleep with you is the same as manipulating someone to have sex by means of physical force.
College is supposed to be a time of fun and exploration. This article is in no way saying, “Don’t drink alcohol because you might be sexually assaulted.” Rather it is making a plea for students to be smart, know where they are going, what they will be doing and with whom they will be partying.
Amy Obarski is a sophomore cinema and photography major. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
There are plenty of options for people who find themselves on all ends of the spectrum regarding sexual assault. If you believe you have wronged someone while under the influence of drugs or alcohol, seek counseling help immediately. If you or someone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, there are many resources available.
>>> 911rape.org is an organization for rape survivors with information on acquaintance rape, drug-facilitated sexual assault (DFSA), how to help a friend and more. There are also survivor stories and information on the impact of rape for support and strength.
>>> PAVE Ithaca strives to empower victims to “shatter the silence of sexual violence.” The organization is designed not only for survivors, but for everyone to get involved against sexual violence. PAVE is inclusive to all communities and includes a national network.
>>> The Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network provides information on federal and state policies on sexual assault. The network also operates the National Sexual Assault Hotline with free, confidential, 24/7 access to one of more than 1,100 rape treatment hotlines in the caller’s area. Victims can also go to the Network’s National Sexual Assault Online Hotline if they feel more comfortable seeking services online.
>>> SAFER-Ithaca is an on-campus group that works to make students active against sexual assault in order to create a safer campus. Their website dispels societal myths about rape and fights the notion of Rape Culture.
>>> The Advocacy Center in Ithaca helps victims of domestic violence and sexual assault through free services, including crisis intervention, support groups and shelter at their safe house. The center also accompanies victims to outside services, like a hospital, court proceedings or social services.
>>> Ithaca College’s Center for LGBT Education, Outreach and Services provides an office staffed with a professional program director, a resource room with LGBT student mentors and allies, and essential information on LGBT issues. The center can cater to LGBT students’ worries about sexual assault and related issues.