Alcohol and sex—shifting the question from, “How much is too much?” to, “Why is drinking important to you anyway?”
When I worked as a peer sexual health counselor, my most controversial workshop was on drinking and consent. The workshop was a prerequisite to attend an annual, college-wide, clothing-optional party celebrating safer sex. (Whatever you’re thinking here, I understand. I, too, have many feelings about the Safer Sex Party.) Unfortunately, the drinking and consent workshop was mandatory because so many people came to the party drunk or high with the intention of hooking up. As you might imagine, some of these folks disagreed with the idea that you shouldn’t have sex while intoxicated, and trying to start a discussion on the topic was like playing with matches. The phrases “alcohol negates consent” and “you can’t give consent if you’re drunk” ignited a fireworks display of hands and hostile questions shooting into the air:
“But what if they’ve only had a couple of drinks?”
“How am I supposed to tell if my partner is too drunk to give consent?”
“What if it’s my long-term partner, who loves and trusts me?”
“What if we make an agreement before drinking about having sex later?”
“If two straight people have sex and they’re both drunk, why is it always the man who gets in trouble?”
Although there are some clear-cut guidelines for knowing how much alcohol is too much—if someone is passed out or incoherent, for example—alcohol’s effects vary from person to person and across situations. For this reason, it is difficult to give advice for figuring out how many drinks is too many. So I don’t have clear answers for many of the questions people have asked me about alcohol and consent. This post gives excellent advice, in my opinion, on how to navigate consent in situations where one or both partners have been drinking.
Although I don't have concrete answers to questions about how much alcohol before sex is too much, there is an important question that nobody has ever asked me, but that I think is just as important as the questions raised above. In addition to asking how much alcohol before sex is too much, we need to ask why it’s so important to some people that they/their partner can drink before sex? It’s not simply a coincidence that people have sex after drinking. People drink alcohol before sex for lots of different reasons, and some of those reasons can be signs that a sexual encounter will be at best unfulfilling and at worst harmful to oneself or one’s partner.
In the past few weeks, I’ve been thinking about the #metoo movement. Or, rather, the whole country and I have been thinking about #metoo for considerably longer than a few weeks. But one story in particular caught my attention as an example of how the complexities of casual sex can mean that women lose out. A young woman, “Grace,” shared her story of a date with Aziz Ansari in which she felt pressured by his persistent sexual advances. Despite his saying that he didn’t want her to feel uncomfortable, and her verbal and nonverbal cues that she wanted to disengage, he continued to initiate sex until she reciprocated.
What happened to Grace was terrible. We can agree that it’s terrible, I hope. It’s awful to have a nonconsensual sexual experience because your consent wasn’t freely given and fully embodied. Coaxing someone into doing something sexual they’re not excited about is wrong, even if it doesn’t rise to the level of the egregious offenses of serial predators like Harvey Weinsten or Larry Nassar.
A classic story of casual sex gone wrong is that one person involved in the relationship develops unreciprocated romantic feelings, leading to distress and disappointment. In contrast, pop culture tells us that the best ending to a casual sexual relationship is for it to blossom into a loving, committed partnership. Take, for example, three movies that hit theaters in 2011: No Strings Attached, Friends with Benefits, and Crazy, Stupid Love. Each of these movies follows two attractive young adults who discover that their uncommitted sexual encounters give rise to romantic feelings, ultimately resulting in a happily committed romantic relationship. These movies suggest that, for all of the fuss we make about keeping it casual and not looking for anything serious, what people really want is love, and having casual sex is a common way of finding love.
Although we receive plenty of messages telling us that casual sex can turn into happy, committed romantic relationships, and that this outcome is preferable to maintaining or ending a casual relationship, these messages are guided by what sells, not what works. What does research say about transitioning from a casual sexual relationship to a committed relationship? Is it common to want a committed relationship from a casual relationship? Is it common for hookups, one-night stands and friends with benefits to turn into romantic relationships? Are romantic relationships that started out as casual sex as healthy and emotionally fulfilling as relationships that were romantic from the start?
The occurrence of sexual assault on college campuses gets a lot of attention because, frankly, it’s a big problem. It’s a problem because of its prevalence. It’s a problem because of universities’ responses. It’s a problem because college traditions around drinking and sex create abundant opportunities for people to misbehave. All of these problems are symptomatic of rape culture, in which sexual violence is normalized and condoned.
In discussing how to put an end to rape culture on college campuses, fraternities take a lot of blame for objectifying women, practicing shoddy consent, and facilitating and defending rape. Examples like the recent scandal involving the Penn State chapter of Kappa Delta Rho demonstrate that fraternities can create an environment that dehumanizes, degrades, and violates women. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Fraternities have the potential to be organizations that empower and protect women. Scientists have tried their hand at using fraternities as tools in the fight against sexual assault, with promising results.
I am a developmental researcher focusing on relationships and health in adolescence and young adulthood. My goal is to enable people to have healthy, fulfilling sexual relationships.