When it comes to sexual violence and alcohol, we need to focus on the perpetrator

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Bianca Fileborn

When it comes to alcohol-facilitated sexual violence, the focus often lies on how much the victim has had to drink.

When it comes to alcohol-facilitated sexual violence, the focus often lies on how much the victim has had to drink. Photo: Stocksy

The association between alcohol and sexual violence has reared its head again in a spate of recent cases and subsequent public discussion. 

Most prominently, the Brock Turner case has brought our attention to alcohol consumption by both the victim and the perpetrator, while the Hunting Ground documentary has put a spotlight on the pervasive occurrence of sexual violence in alcohol-fueled university settings.

Unsurprisingly, when it comes to alcohol-facilitated sexual violence, the focus often lies on how much the victim (usually, but not always, a woman) has had to drink – as demonstrated in a recent charming headline from The Sun in the UK.

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Women are frequently told not to drink or to drink less to avoid being sexually assaulted. No doubt many of us can list off a wide range of supposedly 'protective' routines we've been taught about 'preventing' sexual assault that involve our consumption of alcohol: always keep an eye on your drink, watch drinks being poured, don't accept drinks from strangers, wear the right nail polish.

Many women use these strategies routinely, and when we don't it's usually because we're in a situation where we trust the people around us, who also happen to be statistically the most likely to perpetrate sexual assault against us. Or, heaven forbid, maybe we just feel like having some fun without being hampered by these restrictive routines.

To be sure, there is some association between sexual violence and alcohol. International research suggests that up to 60% of sexual assaults involve alcohol.

The apparent association between alcohol and sexual violence makes advice such as that mentioned above seem like common sense. Yet, it is problematic for a number of reasons. At best, encouraging women not to drink to 'prevent' sexual assault has a displacement effect: someone else becomes the target. At worst, telling women not to drink reinforces a culture of victim blaming. It implies that women's alcohol consumption, rather than perpetrators' choices and actions, are to blame for sexual violence. It shifts the onus for prevention onto victims, rather than on perpetrators where it belongs.

Focusing on how much women have had to drink or simply telling us to drink less also fails to take into account how alcohol is used in sexual offending.

If we want to truly prevent sexual violence, we must look at how perpetrators use alcohol as a tool to facilitate their offending, and at the social norms that minimise and excuse their actions when alcohol is involved.

The role that alcohol plays in sexual assault is a somewhat murky one. Alcohol is part of the backdrop of Australian social life. When drinking is akin to a national sport, it's unsurprising that alcohol is associated with sexual assaults. Of course, many of us drink routinely without being sexually assaulted or assaulting someone else. Many sexual assaults occur in the absence of any alcohol consumption. Alcohol doesn't always play a direct role in sexual assault, but it certainly can.

Australian research, including some of my own work on sexual violence in licensed venues, tells us that some perpetrators use alcohol strategically in a number of ways.

Some perpetrators use alcohol to reduce responsibility for their actions by getting drunk. Research suggests that we often view perpetrators as less culpable if they're drunk, and are more likely to excuse their behaviour as misguided rather than intentional.

In contrast, others will purposefully stay sober in order to maintain control – particularly if their intended victim is drunk. There's also evidence to suggest that some perpetrators use alcohol intentionally to incapacitate their victim. This might involve targeting someone who is already really drunk, or purposefully getting them drunk.

Our social and cultural beliefs about women and alcohol also mean that women who are sexually assaulted when drunk are more likely to be blamed for what happened, and less likely to be believed. For example, women who have consumed alcohol are often seen as being sexually 'promiscuous', or as getting what they 'deserve' if they're sexually assaulted. We are also more likely to interpret a woman's actions as having sexual intent if we think she has drunk alcohol.

Many of our sexual scripts revolve around alcohol. For example, buying someone a drink is often a routine part of the lead up to sex. This isn't inherently problematic in itself, but these types of norms can make it more likely that a sexual assault will be excused as consensual, 'drunken' sex. It may also engender a sense of entitlement, that the acceptance of a drink means the recipient now 'owes' the person who bought it their attention, if not sex.

Drunk victims of sexual assault are seen as less credible or trustworthy – including by those within the criminal justice system – making it less likely that their perpetrator will be brought to account for their actions.

Together, this creates a perfect storm in which the intoxicated victim's actions are demonised and her account of sexual violence discredited, while the perpetrator's actions are excused, downplayed, or ignored.

This is despite the fact that, legally, an intoxicated victim cannot give consent – although just how intoxicated one has to be to no longer be capable of giving consent is unclear. Even for cases that fall outside of the remit of the law, having sex with someone who is clearly intoxicated and who has not enthusiastically consented is highly unethical.

Rather than focusing on how much she had to drink, we need to ask how the perpetrator might have used alcohol to facilitate their actions. How was this enabled by the social or cultural setting they were in? It is only by changing our focus to the actions of perpetrators, and working to challenge and dismantle our dominant beliefs about sexual violence and alcohol that we can work towards prevention.

And, above all else, it's important to remember that getting drunk is not illegal: sexual assault is.

If you need help or support please contact 1800Respect: 1880 737 732

Dr Bianca Fileborn is a Research Fellow at the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health & Society, La Trobe University. She tweets from @snappyalligator