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The Connection Between Alcohol Abuse And Sexual Assault

Isaac Alexis, M.D., AAMA, AMP-BC

Medically reviewed by

Isaac Alexis, M.D., AAMA, AMP-BC

February 21, 2019

It is estimated that almost half of all sexual assaults involve alcohol. Data is limited due to the underreporting of sexual assaults overall, but there are some patterns that have emerged. Here’s what we know so far.

Alcohol and sexual assault are a complicated combination. There are elements that are related to the environment, the victim, and the perpetrator, and they all affect one another.

It is important to note that alcohol does not cause sexual assault, and the perpetrator is absolutely responsible for their actions, regardless of any other factors. However, there are variables of alcohol-involved sexual assaults that are different from other forms of sexual assault, and it is important to explore them.

Alcohol-involved sexual assaults are unique in that,

  1. these types of assaults have a higher percentage of cases in which the people do not know each other very well (acquaintances, casual dates, or strangers)
  2. alcohol-involved sexual assaults occur more often at parties or bars

In order to understand how alcohol abuse and sexual assault are connected, it is first important to understand what defines both sexual assault and alcohol abuse.

What Is Sexual Assault?

Often times, people imagine sexual assault as a stranger hiding in the dark, and suddenly attacking someone and committing rape. While this is a form of sexual assault (referred to as ‘stranger rape’), it is not the only kind of sexual assault and is the least common.

It is estimated that some 85-90% of all sexual assaults are committed by someone the victim knows. This number is only an estimate, as many sexual assaults go unreported.

Sexual assault has components of both sexual and aggressive behaviors, and includes a full range of sexual acts that are unwanted, uninvited or forced upon a person.

These acts include:

  • forced touching
  • unwanted kissing
  • verbally coerced intercourse
  • forcing any form of penetration

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Is Rape The Same As Sexual Assault?

Rape is a form of sexual assault that, by definition, involves a form of penetration as a result of:

  • force
  • threat of force
  • lack of consent
  • unable to provide consent due to intoxication, age, or mental status

Forms of sexual assault that include the strategies above are considered attempted rape, as well as sexual assault.

Rape and sexual assault can be committed by a partner, a spouse, a friend, an acquaintance, someone a person is dating, or a stranger. There are no boundaries connected to who can commit an act of sexual violence toward another person. Especially when alcohol abuse is a factor.

Defining Alcohol Abuse

Alcohol abuse is any drinking that exceeds one to two drinks per day for men and women, respectively. This excessive drinking includes binge drinking, heavy drinking, and alcoholism.

Binge drinking is indulging in several drinks (4+ for women, 5+ for men) in less than two hours. Heavy drinking is defined by binge drinking more than five times a month, and any additional drinking.

Alcoholism, or alcohol dependence, is when the body becomes dependent on alcohol. A person struggling with alcoholism typically drinks every day. Any abstaining from alcohol is likely to result in intense withdrawal symptoms.

How Does Alcohol Abuse Contribute To Sexual Assault?

When a person abuses alcohol, it can have a major effect on behavior. Alcohol lowers inhibitions and increases aggression, and when it is ingested in high amounts it can also lead to cognitive impairments. This means that the brain is more likely to misread cues of others, misinterpret non-verbal or social cues, and a person may behave in a way that is out of the norm.

When a person has expectations in any situation, it influences how they respond to their environment and the people in it. If a perpetrator enters a situation, a bar, party, or date, expecting to have sex, they may see interactions with the opposite sex in a confirming/denial way.

However, when a person engages in heavy drinking, their interpreting and decision-making skills decline. Social cues are ignored or misread, and potentially causing conflict. Aggressive and violent behaviors are more likely to occur when rejection occurs if alcohol is involved.

Additionally, impulsivity increases when inhibitions decrease. This can lead to a person seeming to be more outgoing, but can also be the reason a perpetrator feels comfortable touching another person or even committing sexual assault.

Alcohol Abuse And Sexual Assault Perpetrators

Individuals who commit sexual assault while abusing alcohol have a set of similar characteristics. Many have a habit of long-term, heavy drinking with alcohol. History of binge drinking and frequenting events where alcohol and parties often occur also increases risk.

Additionally, most perpetrators hold beliefs that women who drink are sexually available and appropriate targets. Coupled with the stereotypes that drinking makes sexual, aggressive, and disinhibited behavior more acceptable, this can create a recipe for disaster.

When at a party or bar scene, perpetrators are more likely to engage in socially unacceptable behaviors and use drinking as an excuse. The cognitive impairments that occur as a result of the alcohol abuse can make the perpetrator misread polite behaviors as sexual, and act out with an aggressive response if they feel the victim was leading them on.

Many perpetrators of sexual assault where alcohol is involved use drinking as a way to justify their actions or diminish their personal responsibility in the sexual assault.

Sexual Assault Influenced By Alcohol Abuse

Victims of alcohol-induced sexual assault do not have a set of criteria. The list of people who can be victims of this kind of assault include strangers, partners, friends, spouse, children, or even a co-worker.

When a victim of sexual assault is under the influence of alcohol, they may mistakenly trust a dangerous situation or struggle to protect themselves if attacked. This is not to say that they are at fault, but merely that there is a potential to misjudge someone else’s behaviors or intentions.

Social norms encourage men to initiate interest in romantic interactions. These attempts to show interest are often subtle and may be misinterpreted if either party has been abusing alcohol. If there is any miscommunication or misinterpreting, the perpetrator may act out in violence or disregard any objection to sex that the victim has.

Alcohol Abuse As A Result Of Sexual Assault

Sexual assault victims often display symptoms of PTSD, depression, and anxiety. This can lead to alcohol abuse or other substance abuse.

Some of the reasons for this substance abuse include:

  • self-medication
  • cope with the trauma of being sexually assaulted
  • escape reality
  • self-destructive or self-harming behavior

Treatment for alcohol or substance abuse often includes trauma-focused therapy for those who have struggled with abuse or are self-medicating as a result of their personal history.

Alcohol-Induced Sexual Assault

Research has shown a significant connection between alcohol abuse and sexual assault. There is data to support that alcohol intoxication reinforces a perpetrator’s stereotypes about men and women, and that reinforcement can influence the perpetrators’ actions.

The cognitive impairments that occur due to alcohol abuse can reduce inhibitions, delay motor responses, and the processing of verbal and nonverbal behavior. This can result in increased aggression of the perpetrator and an inability to respond quickly in the victim. Additionally, the processing impairment can make it difficult to understand the intentions of the other party.

Overall, the relationship between sexual assault and alcohol abuse is there, but more investigation needs to occur to explore just how much alcohol abuse and sexual assault are influencing one another.

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism - Alcohol and Sexual Assault

Drug Abuse - Sexual Assault And Alcohol: What The Research Evidence Tells Us

College Drinking Prevention - Alcohol-Related Sexual Assault: A Common Problem Among College Students

Alcohol Research & Health - Alcohol and Sexual Assault

Aggression and Violent Behavior - Sexual assault and alcohol consumption: what do we know about their relationship and what types of research are still needed?

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