Is Drunk Sex Considered Rape?

Original article published here

“People use alcohol like a date rape drug.”

Trigger Warning: This post contains language about sexual assault that some readers may find disturbing. This piece is part of Not Your Fault, a Teen Vogue campaign that aims to educate people about the epidemic of sexual assault. For more on this series, click here.

Welcome to “Ask a Sex Educator,” a weekly series where renowned sex educator Lena Solow will be answering all of your questions about the tough stuff — sexuality, gender, bodies, STDs, pregnancy, consent, pleasure, and more.

My friend was at a party and got really drunk and had sex with this guy. She said she doesn’t really remember what happened and she’s been acting kind of weird and withdrawn since then. Was she raped?

I’m so sorry your friend had a difficult experience, and I’m so glad you want to support her. From what you’re saying, it sounds to me like your friend’s boundaries were crossed. Before I talk about what that means and how to best support her, I want to talk a little bit about alcohol and consent.

When someone is so drunk that they don’t remember what happens the next day, they were too drunk to fully consent — that is, to fully and excitedly say yes to having sex. When someone doesn’t consent, that’s sexual assault. I hear confusion about this sometimes. People will ask me things like — don’t lots of people have drunk sex? How can you know the difference between a little tipsy and too drunk to consent? If both people are wasted, how can one person be assaulting another?

There are a few things people are missing when they ask these questions. First, there are differences between tipsy and incapacitated by alcohol. Of course if you’re at all unsure it’s best to wait until everyone’s sober. But in general, someone who is slurring their words, stumbling, unable to be coherent, or obviously passed out, is too drunk to consent. Additionally, we often mistake issues of alcohol and consent for being about not knowing how drunk someone is. The reality is that people can use alcohol like a date rape drug. That means someone will either push alcohol on someone or seek out an extremely intoxicated person with the intention of taking advantage of that intoxication to cross boundaries. It’s very common for someone to use alcohol as a way to lower someone’s boundaries or ability to consent. Pushing alcohol on someone to the point where they’re incapacitated (slurring words, stumbling, don’t remember what happens the next day) is particularly insidious because it leads to victim blaming people who were drunk when they were assaulted.

Now that you know this, you might reevaluate some things. Do you ever hear people joke about looking for the drunkest girl or person to take home or getting someone really drunk so they can have sex? That’s rapey. Shut it down. What do you do if you see a seemingly sober or less drunk person touching or walking off with a really drunk person? From now on, make it a point to check in — ask the drunk person where their friends are and how they’re getting home, and tell the sober person that they shouldn’t be taking that person home with them. Do you ever leave friends alone when they’re really wasted? Time to have a new system. One of the only things that gives me hope when it comes to sexual assault prevention is bystander intervention (intervening when you see something that looks dangerous, even if you don’t know the person) and friends looking out for each other, so talk to your friends about how you’ll look out for each other.

Now let’s get back to your friend. It feels awful to not know exactly what happened but to know that something wasn’t quite right. When alcohol is involved, people tend to blame themselves. Start by just checking in with your friend. You can tell her you noticed she seems upset since that night, and you’re wondering if she wants to talk. You can tell your friend that she didn’t do anything wrong — that guy shouldn’t have had sex with her if she was that drunk. Period. If your friend doesn’t want to call this rape you shouldn’t push it, but you can tell her that you believe her, that she didn’t do anything wrong, and that it’s not her fault. And if she does call it rape, she’s right, and you should affirm that. Make sure you’re not the only one helping out, keep checking in, and give her a list of resources that she can reach out to for medical, legal, and emotional help if/when she’s ready.

If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, you can seek help by calling the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673). For more resources on sexual assault, visit RAINN, End Rape on Campus, Know Your IX, and the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.

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Emily Wilding

Hi! I’m Emily. I’m 23, I live in Perth, and I’m currently studying a Diploma of Community Services at North Metro TAFE. I have a strong passion for equality, justice, and providing advocacy for disadvantaged groups, and I’m looking forward to being able to use my qualification to achieve those things where I can.

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