Making space

Talking about alcohol and sex is hard. Talking about alcohol in the context of sexual assault makes it even harder. And having this conversation on a campus where sex and alcohol often coincide is hardest of all. How do we intervene to make sure that we and our friends not only stay safe, but also thrive in social and sexual settings? Sherry Lee explores this and other questions in her recent op-ed about the Bystander Intervention Workshop, “De Vino Veritas” (Sept. 27, 2016). As Communication and Consent Educators, we have had many conversations about these issues, both within and beyond this workshop, and would like to clarify a few points.

Lee correctly notes that alcohol and sexual assault are correlated. However, correlation is not causation. Sexual assault doesn’t come out of nowhere; it emerges from normalized patterns of disrespect and pressure built into a broader sexual culture. Most casual consensual sex on college campuses involves alcohol, in part because people often rely on it to signal sexual availability. It is thus unsurprising that many sexual assaults also involve alcohol. Lee’s call for the workshop to focus on the correlation between sex and alcohol seems to assume that sexual assault would not occur in the absence of alcohol, and that mixing sex and alcohol is always harmful. Yet some sexual assaults happen without any alcohol present, and many people engage in consensual sex while drinking.

Although alcohol plays a role in many sexual assaults, the core problem is sexual disrespect. As we state in the workshop, alcohol does not create new personalities — it amplifies existing predispositions. For example, an individual with aggressive tendencies might be more willing to act on them when drunk, thinking alcohol provides an excuse to engage in behaviors they usually control. Framing alcohol as the causal factor for sexual assault thus obscures perpetrators’ willful disregard of their partners’ wishes.

Lee also argues that the workshop should focus on the correlation between alcohol and assault “regardless of whether or not such methods work.” But the effectiveness of sexual violence prevention programs should not be a throwaway question — it’s the most important question. Research does not show that warning people not to drink will make them less likely to be assaulted. Rather, it shows that feeling vulnerable to sexual violence can actually increase risk. Since many students choose to drink, we give them the tools to navigate that choice and respect their agency while drinking. This is why the workshop reiterates that sex and alcohol are complex, and that if you choose to combine them, you take on an extra layer of responsibility.

The goal of intervention is to create space for others to make their own thoughtful decisions, not to impose your wishes upon them. More often than not, people in uncomfortable situations will take an offered opportunity to extricate themselves. And if it turns out they aren’t uncomfortable, making space won’t prevent them from pursuing the experience they want. Most of the time, you will trust someone’s judgement — either they will extricate themselves from the situation with your help or make it clear they’re okay. Occasionally, you may doubt someone’s judgement, especially with a close friend. You may feel strongly that they are making a choice that is unsafe, out of line with their values or that they may regret. The workshop scenario Lee describes helps us consider what we might do in these circumstances. And because it’s complex and context-specific, the workshop doesn’t offer a single answer. Instead, it lets people consider intervention in the context of their own values, relationships and experiences.

As CCEs, we focus on fostering a campus culture that empowers people to make the sexual choices that feel right for them, whether that means abstaining from sex, engaging in casual hookups or pursuing long-term relationships. Some choices may involve alcohol; others may not. Creating a positive sexual climate means making space for a variety of choices and looking out for each other’s right to make those choices.

Charlotte Ferenbach and Lucia Baca, Communication and Consent Educators