Alcohol and Sexual Assault
Antonia Abbey, PhD; Tina Zawacki, MA; Philip O. Buck, MA;
A. Monique Clinton, MA; and Pam McAuslan, PhD
Source: National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA)
Alcohol Health and Research World
Volume 25, Number 1, 2001
Alcohol's Role in Sexual Assault
Sexual assault 1 of adolescent and adult women has been called a silent epidemic, because it occurs at high rates yet is rarely reported to the authorities (Koss 1988). Several reasons contribute to the underreporting of sexual assault cases. Many victims do not tell others about the assault, because they fear that they will not be believed or will be derogated, which, according to research findings, is a valid concern (Abbey et al. 1996b). Other victims
may not realize that they have actually experienced legally defined rape or sexual assault, because the incident does not fit the prototypic scenario of "stranger rape." For example, in a study by Abbey and colleagues (1996b), a woman wrote, "For years I believed it was my fault for
being too drunk. I never called it 'rape' until much more recently, even though I repeatedly told him 'no'."
This article summarizes current knowledge about alcohol's role in sexual assault and discusses questions that remain to be answered by future research. Alcohol's contribution to sexual assault
cannot be discussed without also describing the general characteristics of sexual assault; thus, this article alternates between providing information about sexual assault in general and contrasting this information with findings regarding alcohol-involved sexual assaults.
The Prevalence of Sexual Assault and Alcohol-Involved Sexual Assault
The prevalence of sexual assault, both involving and not involving alcohol use, cannot be accurately determined, because it is usually unreported. Estimates of sexual assault prevalence have been based on a variety of sources, including police reports, national random samples of crime victims, interviews with incarcerated rapists, interviews with victims who seek hospital treatment, general population surveys of women, and surveys of male and female college students (Crowell and Burgess 1996). In such studies, the estimates' adequacy varies with the sources of information used. Most researchers agree that the most reliable estimates derive from studies using multi-item scales-that is, measures containing several questions describing behaviors which constitute sexual assault in simple, nonlegal language (Koss 1988).
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Based on such measures, conservative estimates suggest that at least 25 percent of American women have been sexually assaulted in adolescence or adulthood and that 18 percent have been raped. Furthermore, at least 20 percent of American men report having perpetrated sexual assault and 5 percent report having committed rape (Crowell and Burgess 1996; Spitzberg 1999; Tjaden and Thoennes 2000). Due to their accessibility, college student surveys tend to employ the most thorough measures of sexual assault by including the largest number of behaviorally specific
questions. These studies suggest that approximately 50 percent of college women have been sexually assaulted, and 27 percent have experienced rape or attempted rape; in contrast, 25 percent of college men have committed sexual assault, and 8 percent have committed rape or attempted rape (Crowell and Burgess 1996; Koss 1988; Spitzberg 1999).
At least one-half of all violent crimes involve alcohol consumption by the perpetrator, the victim, or both (Collins and Messerschmidt 1993). Sexual assault fits this pattern. Thus, across the disparate populations studied, researchers consistently have found that approximately
one-half of all sexual assaults are committed by men who have been drinking alcohol. Depending on the sample studied and the measures used, the estimates for alcohol use among perpetrators have ranged from 34 to 74 percent (Abbey et al. 1994; Crowell and Burgess 1996). Similarly, approximately one-half of all sexual assault victims report that they were drinking alcohol at the time of the assault, with estimates ranging from 30 to 79 percent (Abbey et al. 1994; Crowell and Burgess 1996). It is important to emphasize, however, that although a woman's alcohol consumption may place her at increased risk of sexual assault, she is in no way responsible
for the assault. The perpetrators are legally and morally responsible for their behavior.
Finally, alcohol consumption by perpetrators and victims tends to co-occur--that is, when one of them is drinking, the other one is generally drinking as well (Abbey et al. 1998; Harrington
and Leitenberg 1994). Rarely is only the victim drinking alcohol. This finding is not surprising, because in social situations (e.g., in bars or at parties), drinking tends to be a shared activity. However, this finding complicates researchers' efforts to disentangle the unique effects of alcohol consumption on the perpetrators' versus the victims' behavior.
Common Characteristics of Non-Alcohol-Involved
and Alcohol-Involved Sexual Assaults
Sexual assault occurs most commonly among women in late adolescence and early adulthood, although infants, as well as women in their 80s, have been raped (Crowell and Burgess 1996). Most sexual assaults that are reported to the police occur between strangers. These assaults, however, represent only a small proportion of all sexual assaults. At least 80 percent of sexual assaults
occur among persons who know each other (Crowell and Burgess 1996).
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Several studies in various populations have attempted to identify "typical" characteristics of sexual assault. Among college students, a typical sexual assault occurs on a date, at either the man's or the woman's home, and is preceded by consensual kissing. In addition, the assault involves a single assailant who uses no weapon, but twists the woman's arm or holds her down. The woman, who believes that she has clearly emphasized her nonconsent, tries to resist through reasoning and by physically struggling (Koss 1988).
In a representative community sample, the typical sexual assault scenario involved a woman who was assaulted by a single assailant who was either an acquaintance or a friend and who used both verbal and physical pressure, which the woman tried to resist (Sorenson et al. 1987).
Although alcohol-involved and non-alcohol-involved sexual assaults share many characteristics, some differences exist. For example, sexual assaults involving alcohol consumption are more likely than other sexual assaults to occur between men and women who do not know each other well (e.g., strangers, acquaintances, or casual dates as opposed to steady dates or spouses). Furthermore, alcohol-involved sexual assaults tend to occur at parties or in bars, rather than in either person's home (Abbey et al. 1996a).
RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN ALCOHOL COMSUMPTION AND SEXUAL ASSAULT
Investigating the Relationship Between Alcohol Consumption and Sexual Assault
Although alcohol consumption and sexual assault frequently co-occur, this phenomenon does not prove that alcohol use causes sexual assault. Thus, in some cases, the desire to commit a sexual
assault may actually cause alcohol consumption (e.g., when a man drinks alcohol before committing a sexual assault in order to justify his behavior). Moreover, certain factors may lead to both alcohol consumption and sexual assault. For example, some fraternities encourage both heavy drinking and sexual exploitation of women (Abbey et al. 1996b). In fact, many pathways can prompt a man to commit sexual assault, and not all perpetrators are motivated by the same factors (Seto and Barbaree 1997). This article, therefore, describes several different ways in which alcohol consumption by the perpetrator and the victim can encourage sexual assault.
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Methods for Investigating Alcohol's Role in Sexual Assault
Researchers have used two main approaches to examine alcohol's role in sexual assault:
(1) Surveys of victims and perpetrators of sexual assault, and
Each approach has its strengths and limitations.
(2) Laboratory studies that examine alcohol's effects on human behavior.
Sexual assault is a particularly private, personal crime, and it is impossible for researchers to observe or fully simulate sexual assault. Thus, interviews with victims and perpetrators serve as the primary source of information regarding the circumstances under which the sexual assault occurred. Even the best-constructed surveys, however, have some limitations. When studies are conducted years after the sexual assault occurred, a person's recall may be inaccurate, especially when the person was intoxicated at the time of the assault. Moreover, some participants may provide a somewhat distorted account of the events in order to avoid personal embarrassment. Finally, the surveys conducted to date vary in quality (e.g., sample size and
validity of measures). This article focuses on only the findings of surveys that used large, representative samples and measures with established reliability and validity.
- Laboratory Studies
Laboratory studies are investigations in which participants consume either an alcoholic or a nonalcoholic beverage before their sexual or aggressive behavior is measured. The primary strength of this methodology is that it allows researchers to establish cause and effect for a certain behavior, because the participants are randomly assigned to the alcohol or nonalcohol condition. The major disadvantage of these studies is that for obvious ethical reasons, researchers cannot study directly the variable of interest (i.e., sexual assault). Instead, they must use proxy measures that may not accurately represent sexual assault experiences. For example, some investigators have used the participants' responses to pornography as a proxy for
sexual assault. Other researchers have asked participants to read and respond to stories about sexual assault. Although it is important to understand how people react to sexual assault victims and perpetrators, responses to a story may not reflect how people would behave if actually in a sexual assault situation.
In summary, surveys of victims and perpetrators cannot unequivocally demonstrate a cause-effect relationship between alcohol consumption and sexual assault, whereas laboratory studies cannot measure actual responses to sexual assault. Consequently, researchers must conduct both types of studies. Similar results obtained with both approaches increase confidence in the studies' conclusions. The explanations of alcohol's role in sexual assault reviewed in the following section have been examined in studies using such complementary methodologies. Much more research
on this topic is needed, however, and specific suggestions for future research are presented at the end of the article.
ALCOHOL'S CONTRIBUTION TO SEXUAL ASSAULT
Pathways Through Which Alcohol Contributes to Sexual Assault
Distal and Proximal Influences
Theoretical explanations of sexual assault and of alcohol's role in sexual assault consider both distal and proximal influences. Distal factors are influences that are temporally far removed from the assault; in contrast, proximal factors are influences that are temporally close to the assault.
Distal predictors of sexual assault include personality characteristics, attitudes, and general life experiences of both the perpetrator and the victim. When examining alcohol as a distal factor, researchers focus on the relationship between the perpetrator's and the victim's long-term alcohol consumption patterns (e.g., regular heavy drinking) and sexual assault history as well as on beliefs about alcohol's effects (i.e., expectancies) that may encourage alcohol-involved sexual assault.
Proximal models of sexual assault focus on characteristics of the specific situations in which sexual assault occurs, such as whether alcohol consumption occurs, whether the setting is in an isolated area, and what the relationship is between the perpetrator and the victim. This section discusses both of these approaches (also see table).
Perpetrators' Personality Characteristics, Attitudes, and Experiences
Several studies that compared the characteristics of men who had committed sexual assault with those who had not noted the following differences (Seto and Barbaree 1997):
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- With respect to personality traits, men who had committed sexual assault were more hostile toward women and lower in empathy compared with other men.
- With respect to attitudes, men who had committed sexual assault were more likely than other men to endorse traditional stereotypes about gender roles--for example, that men are responsible for initiating sex and women are responsible for setting the limits.
Perpetrators of sexual assault also were more likely to endorse statements that have been used to justify rape--for example, "women say 'no' when they mean 'yes'" and "women enjoy forced sex."
Finally, men who had committed sexual assaults were more likely to hold adversarial beliefs about relationships between men and women (e.g., "all's fair in love and war") and to consider the use of force in interpersonal relationships acceptable.
- With respect to their personal experiences, sexual assaulters were more likely than other men to have experienced abuse or violence as a child, to have been delinquent in adolescence, to have peers who viewed forced sex as acceptable, and to have had early and frequent dating and sexual experiences.
Heavy alcohol consumption also has been linked to sexual assault perpetration. In studies involving two different subject groups (i.e., incarcerated rapists and college students), men who reported that they drank heavily 2 were more likely than other men to report having
committed sexual assault (Abbey et al. 1994; Koss and Dinero 1988). General alcohol consumption could be related to sexual assault through multiple pathways.
Certain alcohol expectancies have also been linked to sexual assault. For example, alcohol is commonly viewed as an aphrodisiac that increases sexual desire and capacity (Crowe and George
1989). Many men expect to feel more powerful, disinhibited, and aggressive after drinking alcohol. To assess the influence of such expectancies on perceptions of sexual behavior, Norris and Kerr (1993) asked sober college men to read a story about a man forcing a date to have sex. Study participants reported that they would be more likely to behave like the man in the story when they were drunk, rather than when they were sober, suggesting that they could imagine
forcing sex when intoxicated. Furthermore, college men who had perpetrated sexual assault when intoxicated expected alcohol to increase male and female sexuality more than did college men
who perpetrated sexual assault when sober (Abbey et al. 1996b). Men with these expectancies may feel more comfortable forcing sex when they are drinking, because they can later justify to themselves that the alcohol made them act accordingly (Kanin 1984).
- First, men who often drink heavily also likely do so in social situations that frequently lead to sexual assault (e.g., on a casual or spontaneous date at a party or bar).
- Second, heavy drinkers may routinely use intoxication as an excuse for engaging in socially unacceptable behavior, including sexual assault (Abbey et al. 1996b).
- Third, certain personality characteristics (e.g., impulsivity and antisocial behavior) may
increase men's propensity both to drink heavily and to commit sexual assault (Seto and Barbaree 1997).
Attitudes about women's alcohol consumption also influence a perpetrator's actions and may be used to excuse sexual assaults of intoxicated women. Despite the liberalization of gender roles during the past few decades, most people do not readily approve of alcohol consumption and sexual behavior among women, yet view these same behaviors among men with far more leniency (Norris 1994). Thus, women who drink alcohol are frequently perceived as being more sexually available and promiscuous compared with women who do not drink (Abbey et al. 1996b). Sexually assaultive men often describe women who drink in bars as "loose," immoral women who are appropriate targets for sexual aggression (Kanin 1984; Scully 1991). In fact, date rapists frequently report intentionally getting the woman drunk in order to have sexual intercourse with her (Abbey et al. 1996b).
Victims' Personality Characteristics,
Attitudes, and Experiences
Parallel to research on perpetrators, numerous studies have compared the personality characteristics, attitudes, and life experiences of women who were sexually assaulted with those of other women. Overall, those analyses found only few significant effects and explain only small amounts of variance, indicating that women's personal characteristics are not strong predictors of victimization.
Some differences exist, however, among women who have been victims of sexual assault and those who have not. Women who have been sexually assaulted are more likely than are other women to have experienced childhood sexual abuse, to have frequent sexual relationships, and to be heavy drinkers (Abbey et al. 1996a; Koss and Dinero 1989). Explanations of these findings focus on the long-term effects of childhood victimization (Wilsnack et al. 1997).
Some victims of childhood sexual abuse cope with the resulting stress and negative emotions through early and frequent sexual relations and heavy drinking. These women may also be more likely to drink alcohol in potential sexual situations as a means of coping with their ambivalent feelings about sex. In turn, drinking in potential sexual situations increases women's risk of being sexually assaulted, both because sexually assaultive men may view them as easy targets and because the women may be less able to resist effectively.
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Sexual assault involves both sexual behavior and aggression; accordingly, researchers must consider situational influences (i.e., cues) relevant to both behaviors, such as the location or social situation in which the assault occurs. These cues may differ somewhat depending on the type of sexual assault (i.e., stranger sexual assault versus date sexual assault). In the case of sexual assaults that occur among strangers or people who have just met, men who drink heavily may frequent settings, such as bars and parties, where women also tend to drink heavily and where a man can easily find an intoxicated woman to target for a possible sexual assault. In these
situations, alcohol may give men the "liquid courage" required to act on their desires and may reinforce their stereotypes about drinking women. For example, an incarcerated rapist interviewed by Scully (1991) stated that, "Straight, I don't have the guts to rape. I could fight a man but not that." (p. 124)
Alcohol consumption is also used by date rapists to excuse their behavior. For example, 62 percent of the college date rapists interviewed by Kanin (1984) felt that they had committed rape
because of their alcohol consumption. These rapists did not see themselves as "real criminals," because real criminals used weapons to assault strangers. In fact, some men may purposely get drunk when they want to act sexually aggres-ive, knowing that intoxication will provide them with an excuse for their socially inappropriate behavior.
As described earlier, at least 80 percent of all sexual assaults occur during social interaction, typically on a date. The fact that sexual assault often happens in situations in which consensual
sex is a possible outcome means that a man's interpretation of the situation can influence his responses. Consequently, additional situational factors are relevant to these types of sexual assaults. For example, American men are socialized to be the initiators of sexual interactions.
Consequently, if a man is interested in having sex with a woman, he is likely to feel that he should make the first move. Initial sexual moves are usually subtle in order to reduce the
embarrassment associated with potential rejection. Both men and women are used to this indirect form of establishing sexual interest and usually manage to make their intentions clear and save
face if the other person is not interested (Abbey et al. 1996b). However, because the cues are subtle and sometimes vague, miscommunication can occur, particularly if communication skills are impaired by alcohol use.
As male-female interaction progresses, a woman who has been misperceived as being interested in sex may realize that her companion is reading more into her friendliness than she intended. However, she may not feel comfortable giving a direct message of sexual disinterest, because traditional female gender roles emphasize the importance of being nice and "letting men down easy." The man, in turn, may not take an indirect approach to expressing sexual disinterest seriously. Research on the power of stereotypes, expectancies, and self-fulfilling prophecies demonstrate that when people have an expectation about a situation or another person, they tend to observe and recall primarily the cues that fit their hypothesis and to minimize or ignore the cues that contradict their hypothesis. Consequently, when a man hopes that a woman is interested in having sex with him, he will pay most attention to the cues that fit his expectation and disregard cues that do not support his expectation. Studies with both perpetrators and victims
have confirmed that the man's misperception of the woman's degree of sexual interest is a significant predictor of sexual assault (Abbey et al. 1996a, 1998).
The process just described can occur even in the absence of alcohol use. However, alcohol consumption can exacerbate the likelihood of misperception, thereby increasing the chances of sexual assault. Before describing these dynamics, the laboratory research findings on alcohol's effects on aggressive and sexual behavior should be reviewed.
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