Alcohol is often involved in cases of rape, and is one of the most commonly cited factors in attempts to explain or excuse it.
However, although alcohol consumption is something in which anyone over 18 is free to indulge, in the public discourse around rape and sexual assault, its significance is something that plays out very differently for women than it does for men.
Alcohol is seen both as something that greatly increases the vulnerability of women not only to rape, but also, perversely, to accusations of blame for that rape. Although it is men who perpetrate rape, it is women who are urged to modify their behaviour by abstaining or drinking less, and thus accommodate the danger posed by predatory men.
Alcohol is used by men who rape both as a means of incapacitating the women they assault, and also as an excuse for their own behaviour.
It is deeply ingrained in our culture that this is the natural order of things – that women are prey and therefore obliged to behave in a way that can prevent or avoid harassment and assault.
The result of this is that behaviour which genuinely is problematic (to the extent that it is criminal) – the willingness of so many men to target and exploit women who are drunk, or use alcohol as an excuse for assaulting them – is never challenged or even addressed.
And until it is, and we stop blaming women for rape because they were drinking, women in Scotland will continue to pay for the double standard we apply where alcohol consumption is concerned.
The proof: some facts about public attitudes
More than a quarter (26%) of the broad cross-section of the Scottish population (700 interviewees) who took part in research carried out by Progressive on behalf of Rape Crisis Scotland in August 2007 believed that women contribute to rape if they are drunk.
This corresponded very closely with other research findings:
- Research conducted by Amnesty International in 2005 found that 28% of people believe that a woman is totally or partially responsible if she is drunk
- A survey of 986 Scots carried out by TNS System Three in February 2008 for the Scottish Government found that 24% think a woman can be at least partly responsible if she is drunk at the time of the attack
- Research with mock juries has demonstrated that people are more likely to blame women for rape if they have been drinking (Wenger & Bornstein, 2006).
The view that women are somehow culpable or that issues of consent hold less weight when a woman has been drinking are so insidious that they frequently emerge not only in individual opinions, but as institutional policy and even as an authoritative legal position:
In August 2008, the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority confirmed that, in line with a clause which stated that alcohol "contributed to the circumstances that gave rise to the injury" in the past year, 23 rape victims had had their awards cut in the last three years.
One woman, who believes she was raped after having her drink spiked, told the Guardian it "felt like a slap in the face" when she read that the standard award of £11,000 would be reduced by 25% in her case, because the CICA believed that her "excessive consumption of alcohol was a contributing factor in the incident."
In November 2005, a rape case in Wales collapsed when a High Court judge directed the jury to find the defendant (a security guard who had been asked by staff at the campus where the woman had attended a party to see her home safely), not guilty as it was still possible for the complainant to have consented to sex even though she told the court that she was extremely drunk, had emerged only briefly from consciousness during the incident and only became aware that full sexual intercourse had taken place two days later after the defendant was interviewed by the police.
“Drunken consent is still consent” declared Justice Roderick Evans.
What you can do
Challenge the notion that a woman who has been drinking must share some responsibility for an assault against her – drinking is not a crime – rape is
Attribute responsibility for rape to those perpetrate it, not to those who they assault
Don’t think in terms of analogies – a woman who has been drinking is not “an unlocked car”, “a purse sticking out of a back pocket”, or any other imagined incitement to criminal activity – she is not a potential crime scene but a woman, and entitled to the same freedoms and respect as any man
Reject any suggestion that alcohol consumption somehow muddies the waters around consent: on the contrary – any question that a woman’s intoxication poses even the smallest degree of uncertainty about her capacity to consent should deter any effort to claim or secure it
Stop insisting that women have a duty to protect themselves and insist instead that it is men who must ensure that their behaviour does not make that protection necessary
Ask yourself some questions
Why is it up to women to remain vigilant and keep themselves safe when it is so often men who make them unsafe?
How can we justify a double standard where drink operates simultaneously as something that makes women vulnerable but excuses the actions of men who assault them?
Why do discussions around so-called “date rape” drugs so often focus around chemical compounds such as Rohypnol and GHB and routinely overlook the most prevalent drug of all: alcohol?
Do we really think that women who have been drinking should be less entitled to the full protection of the law (and less entitled to full compensation when that law is broken by someone else)?
Finally … If you want to stop the myths around rape and alcohol compounding the assault on women who have been raped, download a briefing pack to spread the word elsewhere.