A difficult conversation about sexual assault

“People think if you were so drunk you can’t remember then it’s not rape, but it is."

“People think if you were so drunk you can’t remember then it’s not rape, but it is." Photo: Getty

How many times have you hooked up with a new partner… while (relatively) sober?

Many of us rely on booze to meet people, but new results from the Global Drug Survey show it could have some scary unintended consequences.

Nearly a quarter of the 6600 Australians* who answered the survey said they have been taken advantage of sexually because they were vulnerable after consuming drugs or alcohol.

About 17 per cent said they had been deliberately given alcohol or drugs by someone who intended to take advantage of them.


And it doesn’t just happen to women. Of the people who were sexually active, about 6.5 per cent of women reported being taken advantage of in the past year, compared to 3.6 per cent of men.

Rates were almost double among gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex respondents.

When my article was published this week, a few people on Twitter accused me of “victim blaming”. Apparently, to talk about women being more at risk of unwanted sex when they drink alcohol is to blame them for rape.

I call bullsh1t on that. Just to report that fact does not mean you are blaming the person (by reporting the higher rates among queer people, am I saying they are more to blame?).

But I think the difference of opinion actually comes from differing ideas about what “being taken advantage of”, or unwanted sex, actually means.

Sometimes situations can be messy and unclear.

What if you felt pressure or expectations – real or imagined – that you were partially acting on? Or you have so many drinks that you change your mind about sex, only to regret it in the morning?

This type of “unwanted” sex is murky, and, in fact, the very idea of being “taken advantage of” could mean hugely different things to different people.

In the second half of the second season of the HBO TV series Girls this issue is played out in (apparently) graphic detail (I haven’t seen it yet, so, spoiler alert if you haven’t either). If you feel bullied into sex, feel like you aren’t enjoying it, but you say yes, what do we call that?

Despite such a large number of people in our survey saying they had been taken advantage of, a far smaller group said they had been raped (3 per cent said had sex without their consent after being drugged by someone, which is still scarily high).

Sandra Jones, the director of the Centre for Health Initiatives at the University of Wollongong, says in some cases women who have been raped can also feel it’s their fault if they were drunk.

“People think if you were so drunk you can’t remember then it’s not rape, but it is,” she told me.

Of course, the underlying problem here is not alcohol (or other drugs), the problem is our culture.

It’s a culture where the only socially accepted definition of “rape” involves an innocent, a-sexual woman violently attacked by a mad stranger.

Many people still think it’s just not rape if the woman was flirting with the person who raped her, or if she went home with him.

This victim-blaming and rape-apologism in completely black-and-white cases makes it incredibly difficult to have an open discussion around the murky edges of sexual encounters.

But despite all this awfulness and confusion, we still need to talk about the role alcohol plays.

People deserve to know that the vast majority of drink spiking cases actually turn out to be alcohol. They deserve to know that sometimes when someone keeps buying you drinks, they can’t be trusted, and that having awkward discussions about sex can be made all the more difficult when you are blind drunk.

And we need to acknowledge that people also like to lose their inhibitions, enjoy having sex while intoxicated. In our survey, about 70 per cent of people who had had sex in the past year had done so after drinking. About a quarter had smoked pot, and 15 per cent had had sex on ecstasy.

“Alcohol is both facilitating and compromising sexual relationships,” says Kypros Kypri, from the University of Newcastle.

And until we grow up and figure out how to have honest conversations about sex and sexual assault – what we want and don’t want, how rape happens and what to do about it – we need to acknowledge that our alcohol-fuelled culture is contributing to the problem.

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*This survey was one where people choose to answer, so that means it doesn’t show that these stats exist in the broader population. For more info about the drug patterns of Australians we found in the survey, you can check out my feature here.

Daily Life will be hosting a panel discussion of of Rape Culture at the All About Women Festival on April 7. For more information and to get your ticket, visit The Sydney Opera House.