Is There A Double Standard With Alcohol And Consent?

Thanks to Wikimedia for the image.

This controversial essay addresses the question of whether the concept of date rape under the influence exists in a double standard with the notion that people under the influence of alcohol should be responsible for their own actions. Consent where alcohol is involved is a tangled issue, as I’ve discussed previously, because of how social pressures to drink interact with social pressures to have sex. Add in the altered state that alcohol induces, and it can be a recipe for disaster.

Consider this point from the essay:

If you’re blacked-out drunk, but still capable of talking, walking and doing things, you’re still responsible for your actions and your decisions. … in almost every aspect of life, being blacked-out, stumbling drunk does not relieve you of responsibility for the actions you take or the decisions you make; except in this ridiculous double standard of sexual consent.

On the one hand, this makes a lot of sense: why treat sex as its own sphere, as something different? How is choosing to have sex under the influence different than choosing to get into a car, or swim in a river, or do any number of spontaneous and possibly stupid things while drunk? From this point, one could argue that any decision to imbibe and then act is the responsibility of the person acting, and should not be seen in a questionable light the same way date rape is.

On the other hand, sex in our society is patterned; sexual assault is predominantly carried out by men against women, often with the use of intoxicants. To ignore this information is naive at best. Drinking behavior doesn’t happen in a vacuum: there’s often a gendered component to who is buying the drinks, who is pressuring the other one to drink, and who is initiating sex when one or both parties are drunk. Yes, it is possible to consent to sex while drunk… but that doesn’t meant that the social factors influencing the majority of these cases should be ignored.

The only other possibility, of course, is to say that a woman is never responsible for the sexual choices she makes while drunk, and hey, why not extend that to any choices she makes while drunk? In fact, why let women drink at all? As the author sarcastically writes, “If women aren’t to be held responsible for decisions they make while drunk, then they shouldn’t be allowed to reach that level of diminished responsibility in the first place. That’s an absolutely ridiculous notion — but one that highlights the double standard we have regarding women, alcohol and personal responsibility.”

Obviously, the debate on how alcohol affects consent, and whether the two concepts are at odds, will keep going. And it should. But we should acknowledge two things: that rape is rape, whether alcohol was involved or not, and that these discussions are not taking place in a vacuum. It’s not as though talking about alcohol and sex is happening in a culture where sexism isn’t present, where the majority of sexual violence isn’t male against female, and where intoxicants aren’t used to mute consent. If such a place existed, well, you’d find me there, probably with a piña colada.

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About Jeana

Jeana

Jeana Jorgensen, PhD recently completed her doctoral degree in folklore and gender studies at Indiana University. She studies fairy tales and other narratives, dance, body art, feminist theory, digital humanities, and gender identity.

  • http://bloketoys.co.uk Mens Sex Toys

    By getting into a car a drunk person is making that irresponsible decision themselves. They are responsible for that act.
    But sex takes at least two people, and most men cannot perform under the same state suggesting that they would have to be more sober and better in control of their faculties.
    Therefore, I see this as someone taking advantage of another because of that vulnerable state.
    It might be fair to judge the behavior of both parties and their own responsibility, but there is absolutely no excuse for those who have a greater understanding of the situation taking advantage of another who is less aware of their actions.

    I don’t think it is a double standard at all. It’s all about one person taking advantage of another person, and not considering the consequences of their actions.

    The same rule applies to underage sex. If the legal age is 17 (I’m just throwing that out there, it obviously changes depending on local law) and yet a person of 16 is fully in control of their faculties and wants to have sex with their partner of 18, that older partner is responsible under law because they are seen as the less vulnerable person.

    A moral man will not sleep with a woman who is clearly intoxicated. Unfortunately, there are plenty of men out there who choose to ignore their own responsibilities and don’t even have the basic moral foundation to recognize that they are acting in a highly dubious manner.

  • http://twitter.com/foxyfolklorist Jeana Jorgensen

    Yes, I think your example of underage sex helps illuminate the point: there’s often a more-vulnerable party and a less-vulnerable party, and the less-vulnerable party has an ethical obligation to behave in a way that does not cause harm to the more-vulnerable party.

    I think that when both parties are drunk, though, issues of consent can become obscured, and that’s where people run into difficulties. There should be better education regarding how to give and assess consent, but as with any social change, it’ll take a while to sink in.

  • http://twitter.com/foxyfolklorist Jeana Jorgensen

    That’s quite true; there is a double standard regarding sex in general. A lot of states still have outdated laws about sex (such as trying to punish infidelity or sodomy, regardless of whether it’s consensual).