Imagine this: You’re at a party. You’re there with one of your suitemates who has been drinking throughout the night. By now, your friend is clearly intoxicated and expresses strong interest in hooking up with someone at the party with whom they hooked up previously but had an unenjoyable experience. Ask yourself: Would you let your drunk suitemate do it? Or would you encourage them to hold off and reconsider when sober?
Over the past week, members of Yale’s sophomore class navigated this hypothetical scenario as part of the mandatory Bystander Intervention workshop engineered to prepare students to intervene in troubling sexual situations. When I attended this workshop last year, the above scenario seemed like one of the most open-and-shut cases I could envision. Your friend is intoxicated. Their decision-making ability is compromised. Take them home and discuss casual sex later. End of story.
However, my answer provoked disorienting and wholly insufficient objections from the Communication and Consent Educators leading the workshop — namely that you can still tell whether a drunk person consents to sex and that alcohol does not fundamentally change one’s desires. Rather, it merely “reduces inhibitions,” a fact that they treated with complacency, rather than caution. Throughout the workshop, the CCEs failed to engage with the reality that alcohol can cause temporary physical desire to obscure longer-term personal values. Similarly, they did not discuss how alcohol can dangerously amplify both sexual aggression and willingness, choosing to emphasize the claim that alcohol does not make you a different person. This reluctance to identify alcohol as a critical factor in most unwanted or risky sexual encounters betrayed an unsettling myopia in our campus dialogue about sexual assault.
Judging from the responses of current sophomores to the workshop, this tenuous exculpation of alcohol in sexual situations continues to confuse and frustrate. One sophomore pointed out that alcohol often facilitates unsafe sexual behavior, citing difficulties in negotiating condom use or communicating that the encounter is progressing beyond one’s comfort level. The CCEs protested: “It is important to remember that regrettable sex is not sexual assault,” a recurrent theme of the workshop discussions this year. While an obviously true statement, it unfortunately overlooked the fact that preserving a hard line between “regrettable sex” and “sexual assault” tacitly enables the former. We have an obligation to look out for our friends and protect them from situations they might be ill-equipped to manage — precisely the sort of intervention that this workshop should promote.
However, the CCE website claims that it doesn’t “tell women to rely on ‘safety tips,’ or tell men not to get drunk in case they rape someone by mistake” because “latest research … shows those methods don’t work.” Yet one of the footnotes to this statement is a study (“The Role of Alcohol Policy in Sexual Violence Protection,” published in 2013) claiming that “students’ alcohol use was a predictor of rates of rape.” Regardless of whether or not such methods “work,” it is imperative that the CCE program not downplay or misrepresent the correlation of alcohol to sexual assault simply because it doesn’t “make you a different person.”
The hesitation to talk explicitly about alcohol is understandable. Discussions about alcohol and sexual assault have had a long history of defaulting to victim blaming. But if such a fear prevents the CCEs from exposing the correlation between alcohol and sexual assault, then they are doing campus culture a disservice. As the central organization of sex education on this campus, it is precisely the duty of the CCEs to fully equip and empower students with the knowledge they need to preempt potentially vulnerable situations. The CCEs cannot afford to gloss over the realities of alcohol in sexual assault, especially on a college campus where alcohol is easily accessible and consumption enjoys the privilege of a tolerant eye. Their workshops need to help initiate and contribute to difficult but necessary conversations about alcohol and assault, rather than permitting a dangerous drift toward its normalization — and even worse, exoneration — in sex. Otherwise, their promises to “revise sexual scripts” ring sadly hollow.
The CCEs’ goal of “respect, mutuality and mindfulness” cannot be realized in a culture of implicit complacency toward sexual encounters under the influence of alcohol, which necessarily inhibits mindfulness as much as it disinhibits desire. Although “in vino veritas” might be a true axiom, honesty might not always be the best policy — lest the sobering reality hang over us a little too heavily.