It’s a Saturday night in a crowded bar. Jane is drinking, dancing and singing along to “Piano Man”– a typical collegiate scene. Around 2 a.m. when things wind down, Jane notices her friends have left. She knows it’s too late for her to walk home alone safely, so she asks a male friend to escort her. He does, and in a series of alcohol-blurred events, Jane lets him in her room. He tries to get her to have sex, and Jane says no– she says it multiple times, but he won’t back off. She tries to physically restrain him, but the alcohol has made him aggressive and entitled, while it’s made her exhausted. Eventually, she gives in with a defeated “whatever”.
This happened to a friend of mine (she gave me permission to share the story here) and it is disturbing for many reasons– one of them being the number of women who will nod their heads in recognition while reading it. This kind of thing happens far too often in college towns and beyond, and factors leading up to the assault are fairly formulaic:
- Feelings of entitlement to sex
- An imbalance of physical strength
- Questionable consent
And, of course, these are compounded by the big one:
When alcohol is a factor in sexual assault, the situation can become a convoluted, finger-pointing mess. It often renders consent nebulous and hazy– in Jane’s story, her lack of consent is pretty clear, but in other cases, the victim is often blacked out, passed out, or too drunk to resist. And on the other side– if the assaulter is drunk, his ability to recognize the lack of consent is impaired (to Jane’s assaulter, her “whatever” might have sounded like an enthusiastic “yes!”). Sometimes the assaulter is oblivious to the fact that he’s doing something wrong.
Alcohol takes situations that are often presented as black-and-white (no means no! consent is sexy!) and warps them into shades of gray. Years after her assault, Jane still doesn’t quite know how to feel. Was she raped? Should she have taken action against her assaulter? Would anyone have taken her seriously if she had?
All of this might make a college-aged woman wonder if she should even drink at all. No woman wants to put herself in a situation where this sort of thing can happen, right?
Let’s stop right there. What’s wrong with that idea? One: alcohol is a part of life in college, and it can be hard to avoid. And it’s likely that one night you’ll end up drinking more than maybe you planned to– it happens. Two: no matter how drunk you are (accidentally or not), that does not mean you’ve “put yourself” in the position to be assaulted. Maybe you put yourself in the position to be drunk by drinking, but that never means you put yourself in the position to be a victim.
So if the solution is not to stop drinking, then what is it?
To solve a problem, one must find the root cause. In the list of factors leading to sexual assault I noted above, I mentioned entitlement, which I think is the most deeply rooted cause of sexual assault. There are plenty reasons why a man could feel entitled to sex– in Jane’s case, her assaulter felt she owed him something in return for walking her home. In other cases, maybe the victim had been flirting with the assaulter, or the victim let the assaulter in her room (as Jane did), or perhaps she’d consented to sex with him before. Or maybe society has told the assaulter in a myriad of ways that sexual “conquest” is the ultimate masculine goal.
Of course, none of these “reasons” are reasonable, but they undeniably exist in some peoples’ minds. And alcohol only magnifies feelings of entitlement, making it harder to see past them and recognize any lack of consent coming from the other side of the equation. So, to stop people from feeling more entitled when they’re drunk, we must stop them from feeling entitled at all.
This might seem like a lofty goal, but if you look around the internet, you’ll see that the movement has already begun. A great example is this genius video that likens the idea of consent to offering someone tea: Consent: not actually that complicated ¹ (warning – strong language). The video simplifies the idea of consent and makes it internet accessible– a definite step in the right direction for society as a whole.
Of course, it’s not easy or simple to enact change at the societal level. But still, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to teach everyone that no one is entitled to sex– that it happens only through mutual trust and consent. I think once this idea is embraced and celebrated, alcohol will no longer be a dangerous, complicating factor that results in nearly one-half of all sexual assault cases. Instead, it will just be another part of college life, something you can chose to partake in or not– a factor that results in the entire bar joining in a rousing chorus of “Piano Man”.
I don’t know about you, but that sounds pretty simple to me.