Trump’s second SCOTUS pick Brett Kavanaugh reminds me a lot of my own college rapist. My assailant loved drinking. He’d brag about intentionally getting blackout drunk—“for the stories,” he told me. Our conversation about his drinking happened almost a decade ago, but it still sits with me.
Another conversation I had on campus that year about sexual assault, consent, and alcohol at the Women’s Center. I was still struggling with the notion of holding my rapist fully accountable for his actions until a fellow peer educator—a student slightly younger than me—framed the situation differently.
“You’re not suddenly going to do something you’re completely incapable of doing just because you’re intoxicated,” she said during a meeting. “When you’re super drunk you don’t suddenly think it’s okay to directly stab a fork into your eye when you’d never do that sober.”
And that’s when it really came into focus. Sexual assailants, including rapists, are not created by alcohol. No one suddenly thinks rape is a good idea because they had a few beers.
Brett Kavanaugh's intoxicated state doesn’t make him any less responsible for his actions. Do we find it appropriate to be lenient on people who drive while drunk because they broke the law while intoxicated? Of course not. So why shouldn't we have this approach to sexual assault?
Alcohol is the number one preferred drug used by sexual assailants—about half of all sexual assaults involve at least one party being drunk. A study found that about 50 percent of convicted rapists consumed alcohol at the time of the assault, which is comparable to other violent crimes. Yet it’s only when women are being victimized does alcohol make assailants less culpable.
Research shows that the idea of drunk rapists being less culpable actually encourages rapists to drink heavily before an attack. ”Some men may consciously or unconsciously drink alcohol prior to committing sexual assault in order to justify their behavior,” a 2004 study notes. “In these cases, the desire to commit sexual assault would be the cause of the perpetrator’s alcohol consumption.”
So alcohol doesn’t make a rapist, but it definitely gives them cover to lie because people are so quick to believe victims are liars. An article in the Journal of Forensic Sciences & Criminal Investigation argues that intoxicated rapists totally know what they’re doing and remember it.
Sex related offenses involve specific behavior that requires thinking (e.g., to counter victim resistance, to engage in specific sexual or other behavior on the victim, and to remove any evidence, and to escape the situation). Even with an unconscious victim, the perpetrator has to make contact without others seeing, remove any clothing, deal with any victim resistance should the victim awake, and escape without detection.
It's really about the combination of alcohol with the personality of someone prone to be a sexual assailant. Believing in traditional gender roles, hostility towards women, and a history of heavy alcohol consumption are just a few of the characteristics that perpetrators—and Kavanaugh—hold.
Rapists drink before raping because it helps them escape accountability. Jurors often find assailants less responsible when they were drunk at the time of the attack.
Alcohol doesn’t make the rapist, but it does make it easier for the rapist to escape accountability because of our own incorrect, twisted ideas about sexual violence.