By David Lee on December 14, 2009 · tagged as , , , , , ,

Can reducing women's drinking prevent rape?

A new article “Alcohol consumption and women’s vulnerability to sexual victimization: can reducing women’s drinking prevent rape?” in the journal Substance Use and Misuse addresses the thorny issue of the relationship between potential victim’s alcohol use and sexual assault.  While I am pleased to see that the purpose of this analysis is to explore the existing literature on these subjects to inform prevention practices, I do have concerns.

This article raises several interesting questions. The first concern I have regards the problematic nature of focusing on victim behavior, not perpetration behaviors. Should we expect women to prevent themselves from “getting raped?” This risk-reduction approach was creatively challenged in the recent blog postings shifting common “safety hints” for women to not get abused, to focus instead on the perpetrators behavior.

Indeed the authors, did discuss this issue:

We do not mean to suggest that women who consume alcohol are responsible for their own victimization. Few would dispute that it is the perpetrator, nearly always male, who is responsible for sexual victimization and that it is imperative that prevention efforts target male perpetration. Nonetheless, without in any way blaming the victim, it is also responsible to help women to reduce their risk of sexual victimization by altering the behaviors that increase their vulnerability….

Because victimization is something that happens to a person, rather than something that one does, women’s drinking cannot be said to directly cause victimization. A woman who drinks to the point of incapacitation is arguably at no greater risk of victimization than a sober woman as long as she drinks alone in her home. Rather, a woman’s drinking increases her vulnerability by virtue of her drinking in settings in which there is a potential perpetrator in proximity.

Two conclusions by the authors have important implications for prevention efforts

  • It appears that a substantial proportion of alcohol consumption-involved sexual assaults are actually instances of incapacitated rape that occurred as a direct result of the victim’s heavy drinking
  • It appears that most incidents of incapacitated rape follow voluntary consumption of large amounts of alcohol as opposed to deliberate intoxication of the woman by a perpetrator. “Date rape drugs” appear to play a role in only a very small proportion of incidents of incapacitated rape.

Based on these conclusions, the authors suggest that sexual assault prevention “…should focus on reducing women’s voluntary heavy consumption of alcohol.”

The implications for rape prevention force use to consider how substance abuse prevention and sexual assault prevention efforts are coordinated and perhaps integrated.

How doe your prevention program address these issues?

Here is the full abstract and citation to the article:

Alcohol consumption and women’s vulnerability to sexual victimization: can reducing women’s drinking prevent rape?

Testa M, Livingston JA. Substance Abuse and Misuse 2009; 44(9-10): 1349-76.

Click here for a link to the article at the journal’s web site.

(Copyright © 2009, Taylor and Francis Group)

Before effective prevention interventions can be developed, it is necessary to identify the mechanisms that contribute to the targeted negative outcomes. A review of the literature on women’s substance use and sexual victimization points to women’s heavy episodic drinking as a proximal risk factor, particularly among college samples. At least half of sexual victimization incidents involve alcohol use and the majority of rapes of college women occur when the victim is too intoxicated to resist (“incapacitated rape”). Despite the importance of women’s heavy episodic drinking as being a risk factor, existing rape prevention programs have rarely addressed women’s alcohol use and have shown little success in reducing rates of sexual victimization. We argue that given the strength of the association between heavy episodic drinking and sexual victimization among young women, prevention programs targeting drinking may prove more efficacious than programs targeting sexual vulnerability. Applications of existing drinking prevention strategies to reducing women’s sexual victimization are discussed.

David Lee

More Posts by David Lee

David S. Lee, MPH, is the Director of Prevention Services at the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault where he provides training and technical assistance on prevention. David manages the national project PreventConnect, an online community of violence against women prevention practitioners, funders, researchers and activists. For over 27 years David has worked in efforts to end domestic violence and sexual assault.

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