Drinking and Consent

Drinking and Consent

Given the news about Kevin Spacey and Anthony Rapp (take a minute to Google it, if you haven’t read; I’ll wait), I’d like to talk about alcohol and sexual assault. A few days ago, I posted screenshots of a tweet thread about drinking and sexual assault, and I’m going to expand on that.

Numerous people have already written about how Spacey’s statement is a terrible non-apology that conflates being gay with sexual assault and pedophilia, and that the way it is written works to invalidate Rapp’s emotions and trauma, and that it serves to allow Spacey to hide inside the gay community to escape from his own actions. There’s a lot to unpack about his statement, but I want to talk about just one small part of this situation.

Spacey says: “…if I did behave then as he describes I owe him the sincerest apology for what would have been deeply inappropriate drunken behavior, and I am sorry for the feelings he describes having carried with him all these years.”

I’m not even going to go into how using “describes” multiple times is seriously invalidating to Rapp’s story and experience. Again, other people have written about that; go read their stuff. What I want to pick at is “deeply inappropriate drunken behavior.”

Drinking lowers your inhibitions. It can help you feel more comfortable doing the things that you want to do, and this can be a good thing OR a bad thing. I have social anxiety (and general anxiety, and situation-specific anxiety), and sometimes I get to a party or event and realize that all I can do is try not to cry in the bathroom. A drink or two helps take the edge off that anxiety, and I find myself able to enjoy the company of others *the way I wanted to when I got there*. I had the existing intention of enjoying myself, I had inhibitions that kept me from enjoying myself, and alcohol helped me lower those inhibitions to allow me to do what I wanted to do the whole time.

Most adults have a number of quite appropriate inhibitions. We know it’s unacceptable to steal, lie, fight, rape, shout, etc, because we have carefully learned throughout our lives that those behaviors have negative consequences for someone. Sometimes for ourselves (if you get in a fight, you’re going to get hurt) and sometimes for others (if you steal, someone else has been stolen from). Some adults have inappropriate, or maladaptive inhibitions, that come from anxiety or other mental illness, or incorrect socialization/social education at a young age. Whatever these inhibitions are, they stop us from doing things.

Alcohol both allows IMPULSES (flashes of unplanned desire) and INTENTIONS (things we wanted the whole time) to turn into actions. Alcohol lowers inhibitions, and it also suppresses the part of our brain that quashes impulses. So when we get an impulse, we do it. If you are ever embarrassed after a night of drinking, it’s because the alcohol allowed you to do something that you wanted to do anyway. If you cheated on your boyfriend while drunk, I’m not saying that you went into the party planning to cheat, but you probably had a drunken impulse that you were able to follow up on, because the alcohol lowered what was probably a really reasonable inhibition.

We have horrible impulses and intrusive thoughts all of the time, and a healthy and balanced upbringing gave us the tools we need to suppress those thoughts. Sometimes, we have impulses that we don’t even register as a possible course of action, because we’re so good at dismissing unreasonable things. If you ever had the briefest flash of “What if I…?” and didn’t follow up because it was ridiculous – congats! You have successfully suppressed an inappropriate impulse!

Sometimes, those inappropriate impulses involve other human beings.

Occasionally when I see someone attractive, my first thought is “I want to touch that human.” Now, I am pretty obsessed with communication and consent, so I asses the social mores of the setting, weigh possible reactions and consequences, and then go up to the person and ask if I can touch them. I usually say “Hey, I haven’t seen you in a while – can I hug you?” or “gosh, I’m getting tired – do you mind if I rest my head on your shoulder” or even “I think you’re really cute – are you interested in making out at some point in the future?” All of these are pretty forward, but they involve getting feedback before I actually initiate contact. When I drink alcohol, all of those steps seem less important to me. To ME. Y’all KNOW I’m obsessed with consent and comfort and checking in. And I am sitting here at my computer, telling you that alcohol makes checking in with other people seem vastly less important. I see the thing I want, I do the thing I want. That’s what alcohol does.

If you’ve ever woken up the day after a party and thought “oh jeeze, I can’t believe I did that,” I’m talking directly to you. If you haven’t, I am ALSO talking directly to you, because you may have done something that violated another person’s consent without realizing it. Drinking makes it easier to misread other people’s intentions, and you may have hurt someone without even knowing it.

I am not saying that alcohol makes you rape people. I am not saying you shouldn’t drink, get drunk, or get extremely drunk, if those are things you want to do. I am not saying that drinking is wrong, or automatically causes consent violations.

I AM saying that alcohol contributes to sexual assault. I skimmed Google, and Google suggests that up to 50% of sexual assaults involve alcohol, and up to 80% of sexual assaults on college campuses involve alcohol. I AM saying that alcohol contributes to misreading social situations. Alcohol lowers inhibitions that may exist inside you for a reason.

If you like to drink, you need to do 3 things to make sure that your alcohol consumption doesn’t negatively affect other people:

1)      You need to make sure that asking for consent becomes a regular part of your existence*. It needs to be a habit. It needs to be so engrained in your personality that drunken you charmingly slurs, “hey cutie, can I kiss you?” and then backs off if the answer is “no”. It needs to be so consistent that other people know and trust that you are a person who asks before touching. It needs to be automatic.

2)      You need to use explicitly clear language to make sure you’re reading the room correctly**. If you think you’re correctly reading nonverbal communication while drunk, you’re probably wrong. Learn to say “hey, you winked at me and sat on my lap. Does that mean that I can put my hands on your ass?” Or even just “is this okay?” If you’re reading this, and it looks like it’s connected with #1, asking for consent, you’re right!

3)      Learn to apologize and make changes. I get punchy when I’m drunk – literally punchy – and one of my partners said “hey, I don’t like when you do that, it hurts when you keep poking me,” so the next time I drank alcohol and wanted to poke him, I literally sat on my hands until that impulse passed. If drinking means those changes don’t stick, drink less or don’t drink. Seriously. SERIOUSLY.

Please note that a lot of sexual assault does not stem from alcohol. It has to do with power and a lack of understanding about consent. But alcohol culture contributes heavily to rape culture. Drinking is an explanation, not an excuse, and it’s time to acknowledge that some of us act in Very Bad ways when we are drunk.

*if you want help making asking for consent a regular part of your communication, please ask me. That is work that I do professionally as a sexuality educator.

** see above. This is literally my job.

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