sexual assault

Sexual Assault and Alcohol Use

CW: rape/sexual assault

The Ford/Kavanaugh case has engendered numerous discussions about the connection between drinking and sexual assault. People – even in the mental health profession – are speculating about the accuracy of Dr. Ford’s report given her (reportedly minor) alcohol consumption around the time of her assault. Others are wondering whether or not Kavanaugh might have drank enough to have blacked out, interfering with his memory from the night’s events.

Questions are circulating in the media, among family and friends, and in therapy about this case and what it brings up for them. A large percentage of women (and men) have been sexually assaulted, and these attacks, unfortunately, continue to happen as we witness the unfolding of the Ford/Kavanaugh case. According to RAINN, an American is assaulted every 98 seconds.

Alcohol can play a role in sexual assault, but it’s not the role we commonly understand it to have. Here’s what we know to be true about the relationship between drinking and sexual assault:

  1. Blackouts can occur fairly frequently with heavy alcohol use. Most people I ask acknowledge a history of blacking out, whether this occurred only during their college years or continued to occur in later adulthood.
  2. Memory of events that occur during a blackout is weak, if not nonexistent.
  3. When you black out, your judgment is impaired, you might make decisions inconsistent with your values, and you aren’t thinking cogently and coherently (these consequences can actually occur with drinking which doesn’t result in a blackout, too). However, you are still acting and impacting others and certainly still responsible for your behavior.
  4. Approximately one half of sexual assault cases involve drinking on the part of the perpetrator, the victim, or both.
  5. If you are sexually assaulted while under the influence of alcohol, you are not to blame. Your drinking did not cause the assault, your assailant did. Sexual assault happens to those who are sober, too. Drinking does not cause rape. If being under the influence of alcohol were to blame for sexual assault, we’d see even higher statistics for this crime than we already do. If you believe you have a drinking problem, that can be something to explore in therapy, but please, let’s not conflate these issues. Your drinking is not the culprit.
  6. If you committed sexual assault while under the influence of alcohol, and you don’t endorse sexual violence, it is critical to examine your relationship to alcohol. Drinking can impact your judgment, your analysis of a situation, your understanding of consent (or not), etc., yet you are still responsible for your behavior. Some might choose to reduce significantly their level of alcohol use or the situations in which they drink to reduce risk. Others might choose to stop drinking completely to ensure they  are in total control of their behavior and to avoid risking any confusion or concerns. Therapy can help you better understand your relationship to alcohol and devise a plan in which negative consequences associated with drinking are minimized or eliminated.

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