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Crimes of Intoxication

The Intimate Relationship Between Alcohol and Sexual Assault


Not long ago, I was jolted awake by a female voice. “Help! Please help me!” It was 2:30 in the morning, and the voice seemed to be coming from the direction of our street. “Somebody help me!” I grabbed the phone, dialed 911, and went out the door to try to locate the voice and wait for the police. I never saw her, but law enforcement found her in a neighboring driveway. I heard her give her age: 15. And I could hear enough to tell that she was intoxicated. I don’t know if anything had happened to her while she was intoxicated, but I hope she was more fortunate than the victims I have worked with for many years.

Over the past nine years as a sexual assault nurse examiner providing forensic exams, I have become increasingly concerned by the relationship between alcohol and sexual assault. More than 50 percent of our county’s adolescent and adult sexual assault cases involve alcohol. When the victim is a student, the chance that alcohol was involved is dramatically higher. “Date rape drugs” are talked about, but alcohol is by far the most prevalent drug involved in sexual assault cases. Alcohol is popular, legal for those 21 and older, and readily available regardless of age. Recently I saw a magazine ad for a “unique new alcohol beverage” with “real fruit juice.” Sounded pretty tasty, and probably gets you pretty wasted before you know what hit you. The ad made me reflect on the names of drinks I’ve heard victims talk about: Sex on the Beach and Slippery Nipple, to name a few. Not much separation between alcohol and sex, huh? Generally, alcohol-related sexual assaults get little media attention unless they involve athletes or celebrities. But perhaps they should. Here are some examples:

A 19-year-old student seeking the morning-after pill at a student health center said she thought she may have been sexually assaulted about 36 hours earlier. She’d waited, she said, “Because I was afraid everybody would say it was my fault, because that’s what happens when you go out drinking.” Or that no one would believe her because there were a lot of things she just couldn’t remember, including whether or not she’d had sex. A forensic exam confirmed findings consistent with intercourse. The student provided the name of a male student she’d been drinking with before passing out on her sofa and waking up with her pants off the next morning. The male student became a suspect, but for a variety of reasons the case was not prosecutable.

The mother of a high school student thought her 15-year-old daughter was spending the night with a friend, until she was awakened by a 5 a.m. phone call from a hospital emergency department. Her daughter had been found, unconscious and partially clothed, in a Goleta park by an early-morning jogger. “Alcohol intoxication and possible sexual assault” was the diagnosis. A forensic exam confirmed genital injuries consistent with penetration. The teenager reported being lured to the beach by two unknown males, with the promise of beer and tequila. The suspects were never identified.

Alcohol, when consumed in sufficient quantities, can have a profound sedating effect, including impaired judgment, poor motor coordination, loss of inhibition, unconsciousness, and impaired memory or recall. Sexual assault cases involving alcohol are very difficult to prosecute, and many end up as “he said/she said” situations. Certainly there are predatory situations-someone taking advantage of another individual who is under the influence. But what happens when both parties are intoxicated, and the consent issue is cloudy? And later, is it his fault when she sobers up and can’t recall consenting to sex? Even though charges may be dismissed or the defendant may be found not guilty, the accused’s name is on record as having been a suspect in a sexual assault. And the woman may be left to always wonder if she was a victim, or whether she consented to a sexual encounter while intoxicated. The forensic exam may yield evidence of sexual intercourse, even injury, but this is not definitive for sexual assault; there’s not an expert in the land who can look at an injury and qualitatively state that it is the result of sexual assault. While DNA can establish contact between two individuals, it cannot tell us whether the contact was consensual or non-consensual.

A friend of mine says alcohol doesn’t cause rape. While she is technically correct, alcohol is definitely a contributing factor. (Just as it’s technically true that guns don’t kill people; people do.) Without alcohol, the number of student sexual assault cases would probably decrease by at least 75 percent-a conservative estimate. You could say the same thing about drugs, but in my experience, the majority of drug-related sexual assaults also involve alcohol.

There is a common denominator, and it’s called alcohol. We may be able to “keep the keys from the keg,” but how can we keep the keg from the kids?

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