What's alcohol got to do with it?

Researching the role of drinking in sexual assault on campus.

By Antonia Abbey

We’ve all read the headlines: Sexual assault is disturbingly commonplace across the United States, with college campuses currently receiving intense scrutiny for Title IX violations, their policies regarding sexual assault allegations, and their treatment of victims. Many of the stories we hear on the news involve intoxicated male perpetrators and female victims. It is easy to understand why people wonder if many of these sexual assaults could be avoided if no one was drinking. But what’s the evidence? Does alcohol play a causal role in men’s sexual violence against women?

As is true for most human behavior, the answer is complicated. About half of all sexual assaults involve alcohol consumption by the perpetrator or victim or both. (Here we refer to sexual assault as the full range of forced sexual acts, including forced touching and kissing, verbally coerced intercourse, and physically forced vaginal, oral and anal penetration.) When alcohol is involved, it may play one of three roles, and there is evidence that each is sometimes true.

  • Alcohol may encourage sexual aggression—in specific situations, among individuals predisposed to sexual aggression.  
  • Conversely, sexual aggression may cause alcohol consumption. Wait, isn’t that backward? No: Some perpetrators may get drunk to justify sexual aggression.
  • Drinking and sexual aggression can co-occur, because they are both caused by other factors. For example, an underlying personality trait such as impulsivity might lead someone to drink alcohol and to commit sexual assault.

Why are these distinctions important? Because different prevention and treatment programs are needed to address these different situations. Interventions that limit alcohol consumption are likely to be most effective when alcohol plays a causal role. For perpetrators who are using alcohol as an excuse for violence, programs are needed that discredit that notion so they will be held legally and morally responsibility for their actions. Perpetrators with underlying personality disorders may need intensive psychotherapy.  

What kind of person would commit a sexual assault?

Evidence shows that men who commit sexual violence against women tend to score high on a number of characteristics that put them at risk for sexual aggression. Perpetrators vary; no one set of risk factors describes them all. But many show a strong lack of concern for other people, scoring high on narcissism and low on empathy. Many have high levels of anger in general as well as hostility toward women; they are suspicious of women’s motives, believe common rape myths (e.g., women say “no” when they mean “yes”), and have a sense of entitlement about sex. Many also prefer casual sexual relationships and drink heavily.

According to the research, men with many of these risk factors are most likely to commit sexual violence. Thus, even when alcohol plays a causal role, it doesn’t work alone. Instead, it works in combination with personality, attitudes and past experience.

Are drinking perpetrators different?

A few studies have compared perpetrators who drank during a sexual assault with those who did not. They found that both drinking and sober perpetrators had similar scores on many of the risk factors described above.

The two groups did differ in their degree of alcohol consumption. Perpetrators who committed an alcohol-involved sexual assault were the heaviest drinkers, both in general and in potential sexual situations with women. They also strongly believed that alcohol increased their own sex drive and that alcohol made women want to have sex.

So alcohol appears, primarily, to influence the circumstances under which some men are most likely to commit sexual assault, but not to influence who will become a perpetrator in the first place. This sets the stage for the next point.

Body and mind

Alcohol consumption hits us from two directions: Pharmacologically, alcohol is a drug that affects brain function, and psychologically, it is associated with common assumptions about alcohol use.

Pharmacologically, alcohol impairs a host of cognitive functions: episodic and working memory, abstract reasoning, planning and judgment. This set of functions is often labeled “executive cognitive functioning” and is used to weigh conflicting information and make complex decisions. Alcohol also impedes inhibitions, leading people to focus on what is most salient and ignore harder-to-access motives such as empathy for the victim and concern for future consequences. It can also exaggerate anger, frustration, sexual arousal and entitlement, especially among men predisposed to sexual aggression.

Psychologically, many cultures glamorize alcohol consumption and link it to disinhibition, sexual desire, sexual performance, risk taking and aggression. As on Mardi Gras or New Year’s Eve, alcohol provides a time out from normal rules. It is easier to excuse inappropriate behavior when drinking, allowing some men to act on their sexual arousal and sense of entitlement by pushing a woman for sex regardless of her response. When she refuses his advances, it doesn’t take much to trigger an aggressive response for some.

It all works together

Sex and alcohol are frequently linked in movies, music lyrics and advertisements. These beliefs are often outside conscious awareness; nonetheless, they influence how we perceive other people and their actions. For example, some studies ask sober individuals to read a story about a couple on a date. Nothing about the story varies except what the woman in the story is drinking. When she is described as having two drinks of alcohol, she is viewed by others as behaving more sexually and being more interested in having sex as compared with when she consumed two sodas.

Beliefs can take on a life of their own. Thus, if someone predisposed to sexual aggression decides a drinking woman is interested in having sex, he is much more likely to ignore refusals, assuming she is just “playing hard to get.” If he is also drinking, then alcohol-induced cognitive impairments allow him to focus only on his sexual gratification and to feel justified in using force. These beliefs do not warrant the use of sexual violence or lessen perpetrators’ responsibility for their actions. But we need to understand perpetrators’ justifications for their actions in order to develop effective prevention and treatment programs.

Here’s a hypothetical ...

It is nearly impossible (and unethical) for researchers to observe situations in which sexual aggression is likely to occur. Thus, researchers bring people into their labs and randomly assign some to drink an alcoholic beverage and some to drink a nonalcoholic beverage. Male participants are then exposed to scenarios that describe a prototypical campus sexual assault: The man and woman know each other, they engage in some consensual sexual activity, but when the woman refuses further sexual activity, the man uses verbal and physical pressure to obtain sex against her will.

When compared with sober participants, intoxicated participants evaluate the man’s behavior as more appropriate and less violent, are more likely to believe the woman enjoyed being forced to have sex, and report greater willingness to use similar strategies if they were in similar situations.

For example, one study asked 160 male college students to listen to an audiotape of a date rape in which the woman agrees to kissing and touching but protests when the man attempts to remove her clothes. The female character’s refusals become more and more vehement as the tape progresses, and the male character uses escalating levels of verbal and physical force.

Participants were asked to stop the tape at the point the male character’s behavior was inappropriate and he should leave the woman alone. Participants who consumed alcohol allowed the man to continue for a longer period of time and rated the woman’s sexual arousal higher than did sober participants. The findings suggest that intoxicated men may project their own sexual arousal onto a woman, missing or ignoring her active protest.

Other studies have found that alcohol’s effects are strongest among men who are predisposed to sexual aggression due to their high levels of hostility, acceptance of violence in relationships and need for sexual dominance.

On Campus Alcohol graphicMore alcohol frequently means more violence

Most surveys of sexual assault focus on whether alcohol was consumed, not on how much. When we asked 113 male college students who acknowledged committing a sexually violent act to report the number of drinks they consumed before or during the incident, we discovered that the more alcohol consumed, the greater the amount of aggression.

Based on the tactics used and the type of sex that was forced (ranging from verbally coerced sexual contact to physically forced penetrative sex), we found that as perpetrators’ alcohol consumption increased from zero to four drinks, outcome severity also increased. It then plateaued until nine drinks were consumed. No surprise: At that level, perpetrators’ cognitive and motor impairments were presumably too debilitating for them to complete a rape.

Moving forward

As this brief summary of the research highlights, there is no simple answer to the question “Does alcohol cause sexual aggression?” Research verifies that men behave more aggressively when drinking; however, the effects appear to be strongest for people who are already predisposed to aggression. The personality characteristics, attitudes and past experiences of sexual assault perpetrators who drink before and during the assault are similar to those who do not.

Heavy episodic drinking contributes to many problems for college students in addition to increasing the risk of sexual assault. Multiple approaches to prevention and treatment are needed to counteract alcohol’s psychological and pharmacological effects.  Colleges need to partner with students to examine current alcohol policies and develop programs that reduce hazardous levels of drinking.

It is also time to consider the insidious negative effects of media images that link alcohol with sexual desire and continue to encourage men’s use of women as sexual objects rather than equal partners. Educators have the opportunity to encourage students to carefully evaluate these messages and to make their own decisions about responsible alcohol consumption and sexual behavior.

Antonia Abbey, a member of the Wayne State University AAUP/AFT, is a professor of psychology with a long-standing interest in women’s health and reducing violence against women. Her research focuses on men’s sexual aggression, alcohol’s role in sexual assault and sexual assault measurement. She has published more than 100 journal articles and book chapters and has served on a variety of national advisory committees. This article has been condensed from its original publication form in the journal Drug and Alcohol Review.

AFT On Campus, Spring 2015 Download PDF (3.75 MB)
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