Trigger Warning: Discussion of alcohol-facilitated sexual assault

I could not figure out a neutral, trigger-free way to lead into this post, so here is an outrageous bunny instead.  Intro starts immediately following this loofah.

This Angora rabbit looks like a loofah!

I am a loofah!

When discussing responsibility for an assault, people often focus on how much the victim was drinking.  The arguments of those who take this approach, such as Emily Yoffe, are deeply offensive and thinly-veiled rape apologism.

However, if the attacker identified as male, there is a second question people ask after an assault that involved alcohol: was he drunk?[1]  If so, the tendency is to justify his actions in light of his intoxication.  After all, if he was drunk, he was not in control of his actions, and therefore could not have been at fault.  He didn’t mean it.  He never would have done that sober.  Right?

Skeptic Cat demands proof

“Drunk girl gets assaulted: she is responsible. After all, she was drinking.
Drunk guy assaults girl: he is not responsible. After all, he was drinking.
…Wait, what?”

You heard the cat.  If we’re in the business of using alcohol to hold women responsible for being raped while simultaneously using it to excuse the actions of their rapists, I want some proof.  Unfortunately for rapists, science is not on their side.  Although alcohol is often found at the scene of the crime, evidence suggests that the alcohol itself is not what causes the rapist to rape.  Instead, rapists use alcohol as an excuse to do things while drunk that they would gladly do while sober.[2] In addition, the central claim of their excuse – that it is possible to drink to the point of being unaware of your actions and to then sexually assault someone – is false.  Here’s why.

Alcohol decreases all types of nerve cell activity in parallel: memory and consciousness decrease in tandem with ability to engage in coordinated movement.  That is to say, anyone who can execute the coordinated movements necessary to force someone to engage in sexual activity against their will is sober enough to have his memory and consciousness intact.  Science!

The “people can have blackouts while otherwise appearing to be totally normal” thing comes from early studies on the impacts of alcohol on memory that were conducted primarily through surveys with AA respondents, who had acquired a very high tolerance for alcohol.  (More science: see section titled “Alcohol-Induced Blackouts” ) Among such participants, it is quite possible to drink to the level of blackout without outward signs, but among the vast majority of people who do not have alcohol dependence, it is very unusual / unlikely to have a blackout unaccompanied by signs such as slurred speech and uncoordinated movement.

On the blackout note, blackouts occur not because people are unaware of their actions at the time, but rather because ethanol interferes with memory encoding.  That is, people who experience a blackout are conscious of what they are doing at the time; the memory is just not written down for later.  Ethanol does not interfere with accessing long-term memory, which includes rules of conduct, such as not touching others’ genitals without their consent.  We are still on this science thing

Okay, that was long, so let me break it down.  If an attacker is sober enough to execute the coordinated movements necessary to assault someone, he is sober enough to know what he is doing.  If he is so drunk that he is unaware of his actions, then he is incapable of the coordinated movements necessary to assault someone. That is, it is virtually impossible to assault someone while you are that drunk.  That is, the claim that an attacker was too drunk to know what he was doing is probably false.  Even if the attacker has a high tolerance for alcohol and can coordinate his movements while blacked out, he is still able to access the social rules stored in long-term memory, including rules about not assaulting other people.

Last but not least, in the Netherlands, people who commit crimes while drunk can’t legally use it as an excuse, because they are presumed to know about the effects of drinking beforehand and are considered responsible for taking that into account.  This makes sense.  I mean, even in the U.S. of A., when was the last time that a drunk driver who killed someone was exonerated because he was drunk? Oh, right: we don’t exonerate drunk drivers for hurting people while drunk – we arrest them for it.  We expect drivers to know about the impacts of alcohol on the brain and to take responsibility for making sure that they don’t drink to the point of harming others.

So, returning to the case of sexual assault, let’s throw society a bone and throw all that science we just learned out the window.  Let’s assume that alcohol does make men suddenly and completely unable to prevent themselves from assaulting others.  How unaware do you have to be to not pick up on the societal mantra that alcohol turns good men into rapists?  And, how unethical do you have to be to be like, “Sure, if I get really drunk I might attack someone, but you know what, I don’t care”?

Very.  The answer is very unaware and very unethical.

Confused?  I made a flow chart.  Click to expand, then click to magnify.

This flow chart outlines the responses this article makes to those who try to use alcohol as an excuse for committing sexual assault.

Pronouns here are male for the attacker and female for the victim to reflect the differences in social shaming toward people identified as women versus people identified as men. However, it is important to note that while perpetrators of sexual assault usually identify as male, both attacker and victim can identify as any gender.

Bottom line: the choice to use alcohol to harm another person is a choice.  Whether the attacker made that choice before he got drunk or during, it was still his choice.  People who make that choice cannot hide behind the alcohol.  It doesn’t work that way.

Thoughts?  Feelings?  Write me ALL OF THEM.

1. Because this post is addressing the differences in how society treats men who drink (excusing them from their actions) versus how society treats women who drink (holding them responsible for other people’s actions), the pronouns in this post are male when referring to an attacker.  However, it is important to note that although those who commit sexual assault predominately identify as male, both attackers and victims can and do identify as any gender. Back
2. “As the quotes at the beginning of this article indicate, perpetrators often use alcohol to excuse sexual assault perpetration, whereas victims often feel guilty because they were drinking.” — Abbey, A. (2002) Alcohol-Related Sexual Assault. p. 120
There is lots of other important information in this article as well; this DDPost is specifically addressing attackers’ frequent argument that being drunk excuses them from responsibility for sexual assault. Back
** Shoutout to Susan C. Shelley for the awesome title and to all the DDPeople who helped a freaking ton with this post!