As many as 1 in 5 American women have experience sexual assault including rape at one point in their lives. While this data is incomplete and lacks input from rape survivors, includes a range of sexual assault such as touching and groping, and does not include men who have been assaulted, the data still shows that rape is extremely common. Millions of men and women experience rape, which goes on to affect their lives, their ability to cope, and their future.
Drugs and alcohol are also closely linked to rape, with individuals more likely to commit sex-related crimes while drunk or high, survivors more-likely to resort to drugs or alcohol as a coping mechanism, and persons who are drunk or high more likely to become victims of sexual assault. This creates a complex relationship between drugs, alcohol, and rape, and one that cannot be fully explored, simply because we don’t have all the data.
How Drugs and Alcohol Influence Sexual Aggression
In one anonymous study (self-reported) across college campuses, men were interviewed to determine whether they had participated in sexual assault. Nearly 20% of study participants (male, college-age) admitted to committing sexual assault, with nearly 8% reporting conditions that could be classified as rape. In each case, the willingness of the male perpetrator to engage in sexual assault was greatly increased by alcohol or drugs, with drug use contributing to frequency, severity, and violence of the assault.
Numerous studies link drug and alcohol use to increased sexual aggression, with research suggesting that 50-74% of sexual assaults are carried out by individuals who have recently used drugs or alcohol. Men who committed sexual assaults were as much as 90% likely to have been drinking before the assault. And, men who endorsed (encouraged) sexual assault to friends, but who did not themselves participate, were as much as 94% more likely to have been drinking before the assault. This data correlates with information from female survivors, who report a significant statistical likelihood for men to have been drinking or drunk before the assault took place.
Drinking and many drugs directly lower inhibitions, increase feelings of sexuality and power, and increase self-esteem. This can lead to an increase in sexual urges with a simultaneous decrease in feelings of personal responsibility. However, drug and alcohol use does not show any likelihood of increasing an individual’s likelihood of committing rape regardless of personal disposition. Instead, it increases the likelihood that a person with tendencies towards rape will rape. This was noted by a statistical ability to predict individuals capable of perpetrating rape based on emotional attitudes towards women, social ability, aggression, and sexual behavior.
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Sexual Victimization of Substance Abusers
Both men and women are significantly more likely to be victims of rape when drunk or high than when sober. While rape victims are significantly less likely to be injured during an assault when sober (substance abuse reduces the victim’s ability to fight back), rapes are statistically significantly more likely to happen when the victim has been drinking or using drugs. This is true in both short-term environments such as at parties and bars and in cases of long-term substance abuse and addiction. The primary difference is that individuals who are raped while drinking or using drugs are more likely to be raped by a casual acquaintance or a stranger while individuals who are raped when sober are more likely to be raped by someone they know.
Drugs and alcohol contribute to an increase in the likelihood of rape through both situational and distal factors.
- The victim’s inhibitions are lowered and he/she becomes more vulnerable
- The victim is less likely to be aware of threats
- The victim is more likely to be overpowered/unable to run away
- The victim may be comatose or heavily incapacitated because of drugs or alcohol
- The victim may be more easily coerced into a rape situation through an addiction and manipulation of their person
- Persons who are drinking or using drugs are more likely to be in high-risk situations
- Individuals tend to drink or use drugs at parties or in bars, around larger numbers of people and casual acquaintances
- Drugs and alcohol can cause a person to pass out, especially during substance abuse
- Motor impairments can reduce an individual’s ability to effectively navigate out of a risk situation
Drugs and alcohol significantly impair the user’s ability to think, analyze a situation, and respond appropriately to a threat. This can result in a very drunk or high person simply not noticing an aggressor until it’s too late, the aggressor being able to manipulate or control them, or the victim putting themselves in a high-risk situation by accident.
Individuals struggling with substance use disorder are more at risk, simply because they frequently expose themselves to high-risk situations, may have uncertain or no housing, and may be vulnerable to manipulation or threats. Persons who are very impaired by drug or alcohol use are also less able to say no, even if they would say no when clean or sober. This can result in cases of rape, where the perpetrator purposely gets the victim drunk or high.
Drugs and Alcohol as a Coping Mechanism for Rape Trauma
While drugs and alcohol are a significant contributing factor to the likelihood of rape, rape survivors are also more likely to become users themselves. Many rape victims experience severe trauma, sometimes resulting in PTSD. With many failing to even report rape to the police, they have no way to deal with or handle trauma.
This can lead to increasing usage of drugs and alcohol to self-medicate and reduce stress, resulting in potential substance use disorder. Some studies suggest that victims of sexual assault are 13 times more likely to abuse alcohol and 26 times more likely to abuse drugs than an individual who had not experienced sexual assault. For this and other reasons, many rehabilitation and treatment centers offer comorbid or dual-diagnosis addiction treatment, designed to help patients suffering from trauma to overcome trauma as part of their recovery.
Victims of sexual assault are vulnerable to substance abuse and addiction, which also puts them at a higher risk of becoming a victim again, further exacerbating the problem.
Drugs and alcohol have a very complex relationship with rape and sexual assault. Depending on the situation, inebriation can contribute to the likelihood of a person committing sexual assault, can increase the likelihood of a person being assaulted, and the likelihood of a person abusing drugs or alcohol is increased by sexual assault. While the link between intoxication and rape is the best-understood of these processes, data is increasingly pointing to the fact that substance abuse is directly used as a reason to rape and as an escape from the trauma of rape.
More than 80% of Americans use drugs and alcohol and as many as 1 in 10 will have a substance use disorder during their lifetime. This number is even larger among students who use drugs. This substance abuse is largely normalized, but will greatly impact an individual’s health, mental health, finances, and life. Drug and alcohol use directly contribute to violence, including rape, and direct harm to friends, family, and relationships. If you or a loved one is struggling with drugs or alcohol, it’s important to get help.