Alcohol and Sexual Assault - It's Time to Stop Sex Bias

Alcohol and Sexual Assault - It's Time to Stop Sex Bias

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Alcohol and Sexual Assault - It's Time to Stop Sex Bias


If we are serious about sexual assault, we should reject principles that perplex us when honestly applied to the problem. Some are now advising us to accept, as a guide to personal responsibility and the prevention of sexual assault, the intoxication principle: an intoxicated person cannot consent to sex. So should we accept it? If so, how shall we apply it to Jack and Jill, who had sex while both were intoxicated? According to this principle, neither Jack nor Jill consented to sex, which is perplexing about which, if either, has been assaulted. If Jill has, so has Jack, and if Jack has not, neither has Jill.

Consider a replacement: the has-been-drinking principle: a person who has been drinking cannot consent to sex. But what if Jack and Jill have sex after drinking but neither is intoxicated? The issue of sexual assault is no less baffling here than before: if Jill has been assaulted, so has Jack, and if Jack has not, neither has Jill.

Moreover, the has-been-drinking principle excuses too much. Surely responsibility for resisting the non-intoxicating effects of alcohol applies to men and women alike. Should we then reconsider the intoxication principle? What if Jack and Jill have sex while Jack has been drinking and Jill is intoxicated? On the intoxication principle, Jack is responsible for having sex but Jill is not, which undoubtedly is sometimes sexual assault.

There are two nagging difficulties, however. Suppose when Jill sobers she sincerely denies being sexually assaulted because she wanted to have sex while intoxicated. Must we conclude that a sober, intelligent woman cannot know whether she was assaulted? What, then, are we to think when she says that she was? Also, what if Jack and Jill have sex when he is intoxicated and she has simply been drinking? An even-handed, honest application of the intoxication principle should conclude that Jill sexually assaulted Jack. But many do not find this sexual assault at all, even if Jack sincerely objects when sober that he never consented to sex.


In charging men with assault, universities sometimes evoke principles that hold men, but not women, responsible for sex when alcohol is involved. For well thought-out reasons, our legal system rejects such principles, prompting universities to devise legal systems all their own. They sometimes implement a gender-differentiated drinking principle: if a woman has been drinking, she cannot consent to sex, but a man consents to all his sexual behavior whether he is fully sober, has been drinking or is intoxicated.

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This principle recognizes men as fully responsible sexual agents and reduces women to truncated facsimiles.

The perplexing thing here is not about how to apply this principle, but why, given the sexist view it so repugnantly promotes. Seeing women in this way may very well motivate the desire to protect them, but the desire to protect helpless women from powerful men is plausibly the most persistent, gender-shared source of sexism ever known. Notoriously, it does anything but protect. Rather it cripples by endorsing a central thought behind most sexual assaults involving alcohol: men, whatever their condition, are in control, and women, under the slightest encumbrance, need someone else to control events for them.

We would all do better to accept the fact that universities can take little more responsibility to protect those with the legal right to drink than society can. To insist that they do is to invite and even pressure universities to subvert the law. To what end? Providing an utterly safe environment for an extended adolescence to which no one has a right? It is that irresponsible expectation that feeds the difficult issues of sexual assault on college campuses, and we should give it up, along with the sentimentalized view that universities are families. Nurturing that sentimentality will only nurture the culture of sexual behavior we are allegedly trying to change.

Finally, with civil liberties now so precarious, we must be especially cautious of the impulse to overprotect. More cautious still should we be of wonderful men crusading at great speeds on white horses. Their protection, whether from terrorism or sexual assault, may trade doubtful security for precious choice and a clean conscience.
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