Auntie SparkNotes: Let's Talk About Sex And Booze
I have a question about your comment on one of your recent posts, about whether or not drunken consent counts as consent.
You asked Sparklers to refrain from debating the issue there, and you were right, but I feel like it's something important that deserves to be discussed separately. You see, in the last year or two I've been exposed to several situations in which girls were taken advantage of when they were drunk, and it struck me as something deeply wrong and very upsetting.
In one case a girl was asked to have sex while drunk. She said no but passed out shortly afterwards, and woke up to the guy... having his way with her. Another time at a house party, a boy dragged a girl (who had been in a drunken coma on the couch for most of the night) upstairs and blocked the door from anyone trying to stop him. (I don't know exactly what happened in the room, but it wasn't PG13.) And that same boy also once convinced another girl, who was drunk and upset, to have sex with him even though she had already said no repeatedly.
All these girls had one thing in common: they drank alcohol to the point that they were no longer in full control of themselves. And I do realize that it's not healthy to drink yourself into such oblivion, and that while being sexually assaulted was not their fault, they should learn that there are consequences to loosening your inhibitions to such a point. But I still don't think that in a fair society, one of those consequences should be potential rape.
So should I trust my instinct that a crime was committed in these cases? Is this rape? And how can I support anyone who has had such an experience? It would seem insensitive to suggest that the responsibility was partially theirs, and that even though they were drunk, it was their choice to drink that much. I also know some of these boys, they hang out with my friends, and it makes me sick to my stomach to pretend to be nice to them after what happened. What's the best way of dealing with my feelings towards them, and towards these situations in general? I don't drink that much myself, and I thank God that nothing like that has happened to me, but I still find it very distressing and it's affected how I see the world, and boys in particular.
I'm so glad that you asked this question, Sparkler, because you're right: it's an important discussion to have. (And it's gonna be a long one, too, so let's all grab a beverage and get comfy.)
And before we go any further, let's be completely clear: the situations you've described, which are very, very different from the regretful hookup we discussed last week, are unambiguous cases of sexual assault. If you have sex with someone despite a clearly-articulated (or physically indicated) "No," that's rape. If you have sex with someone who's impaired to the point of incoherence or unconsciousness, that's rape. And if you have sex with someone who seems ambivalent or upset about what's happening, and you don't stop, talk, and make sure he or she is okay with what you're doing... well, it may not fit the legal definition of rape depending upon the circumstances, but it makes you a morally-delinquent scumbag at the very least.
And as for the guys who did this, there's no question that they should be held accountable, reported, and punished. By all means, shun them. Shame them. Tell them that they're disgusting human beings, because they are, and because that's the only way things are ever going to change. This stuff needs to be taken seriously, and we need to create a culture in which enthusiastic consent is a non-negotiable prerequisite for having sex. Yes means yes, you guys. You should always know what your partner wants, and if you're not sure, it's a simple matter of asking, "Are you into this?"; and if you are into it, you should make that abundantly clear. Therein lies good communication. (Not to mention much better and more enjoyable dancing of the horizontal and naked variety.) And it goes without saying that having sex with an incoherent, passed out, or otherwise incapacitated individual is a hideous thing to do—and that if this happens to someone you know, it would be inappropriate and asinine to tell her that it was her fault.
However: if you enthusiastically consent to sex with someone while drunk, wake up the next morning feeling embarrassed, and—as some commenters were urging this letter-writer to do—accuse your partner of rape rather than owning that decision and learning something from your regrets? That's pretty freaking terrible.
Our dialogue about sex and alcohol deserves more nuance than "DRUNK SEX = RAPE"; the mere presence of booze in someone's bloodstream doesn't automatically render them incapable of consenting to and enjoying sex. (There's an ongoing debate about how drunk is too drunk to consent, but legally, the line tends to be drawn at serious impairment—intoxication to the point of being unable to resist or communicate clearly.) Also, it's worth noting that to label all drunken hookups as inherently non-consensual flies in the face of the way we treat every other decision a person might make while intoxicated. If someone eats an entire Oreo cheesecake, or kisses her best friend's boyfriend, or does backflips into the Lincoln Center fountain, or performs a naked cha-cha with a lampshade on her head, she's held socially and legally accountable for those choices—and their consequences—no matter how much she's had to drink. Even if she regrets them, even if she gets hurt.
So it seems odd, then, to tell women that they're responsible for literally any and every choice they make while under the influence... except the choice to have sex.
Also a problem? We only tell this to women. We don't expect or encourage men to feel like victims when they wake up next to someone they seriously regret sleeping with and/or don't remember taking to bed. For better or for worse, it's assumed that they retain their sexual agency at all times, even if they end up making regrettable decisions. Which is not to say that it's a great idea to HND while you're blackout drunk, or if you can tell that your partner is. But the way we define consent shouldn't be sustained by such a gross double standard—and there is something valuable in the idea that a regrettable hookup is just a mistake, like any other, and that you can wish it hadn't happened without it being somebody else's fault. That's part of having the freedom to choose when, how, and with whom you have sex; sometimes, you choose poorly. And that's okay.
Which is why I encourage you, all of you, to examine and take responsibility for the choices you make while drinking, sexual and otherwise—not in lieu of the conversation about consent, but in concert with it. And yes, people who drink themselves into oblivion should be encouraged... well, not to, and particularly not in situations where there's nobody to protect them from being victimized.
And that's not because they deserve to be victimized; nobody does, and in a perfect world, nobody ever would be. There's nothing a person could do for which rape is a fair or reasonable consequence. It's always wrong, and always terrible. But while we're all working to create a world where that doesn't happen, we still live in this one, where being wasted makes you vulnerable: to theft, to injury, to humiliation, and to violation by monstrous human beings. It's an awful thing when it happens, and if it happens, you aren't to blame. But as long as it can happen—as long as the world is like this—I want you all to be safe, be smart, and be wary of putting your fate in the hands of whomever happens to be standing nearest at the bar.
Your turn! Got something to add? Get in the comments and talk it out (and this is a hot topic, y'all, so remain chill and be respectful.) And to get advice from Auntie, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.