Home » Doing Drugs with Paul Dillon » “But that’s what happens when you get drunk”: Changing the culture around alcohol and sexual assault by talking about ‘consent’

“But that’s what happens when you get drunk”: Changing the culture around alcohol and sexual assault by talking about ‘consent’

This year I have met, or heard from, more young women who have been sexually assaulted when they were drunk than ever before. I have written about this topic many times, often highlighting stories that young women have sent me via email or have bravely chosen to divulge after hearing me speak. Sexual assault is a crime and, as I say to all students, if I am told about a crime I cannot keep it a secret – but to be quite honest, if they’re going to approach me and tell me their story, they’re usually ready to go the next step. Sadly, however, we know most never report what has happened to them. When I have asked girls why they choose not to say anything, it’s always the same story – “But that’s what happens when you get drunk, it’s just part of the alcohol experience!”

Earlier this year I had a girl approach me and tell me that she had been assaulted when drunk. The school was well aware of what had happened and the crime had been reported, mainly due to the incident being photographed and the images subsequently circulated via social media. She was 15-years-old. I asked how she was feeling and if things were getting better and she told me that she had no memory of the night at all. It was then that I saw this beautiful young woman literally ‘melt’ in front of me – her face dropped and her whole body started shaking. She started to cry and said that she had only just found out that someone had ‘tagged’ her name on one of the photos. “My children will be able to see those photos and maybe even my grandchildren – they will never go away …” she said. Absolutely heartbreaking …

Many of the sexual assault cases I have been told about recently often also involve the sharing of videos or images of the actual assault via social media. Frighteningly, in most of these cases, it is young women who appear to be more likely to share these … When I first heard this I found it extremely hard to believe, why in heavens would girls want to do this? But at one school I visited this year it was what the principal told me about the parents response to this issue that really floored me … When the parents of the girls who had been caught sharing videos of a sexual assault were told what their children had done, instead of being shocked and expressing concern about the young woman who had been assaulted, they apparently defended their daughters’ actions, telling the principal “She was a slut, she went to the room with the boys!” and “What did she expect, she’s always getting drunk!”

It is extremely difficult to determine rates of sexual assault and most of the data we have are estimates based on police reports, national survey samples and hospital admissions. In the US, it has been estimated that 25% of women have been sexually assaulted at some time in their life and 18% have been raped. According to the latest Australian Bureau of Statistics data, 18% of women and around 5% of men have ever experienced sexual violence. So where does alcohol fit into the picture? Well, as with other violent crimes, around half of all sexual assaults are committed by men who have drunk alcohol. Similarly, half of all sexual assault victims reported drinking alcohol at the time of the assault … Research shows that alcohol consumption by both the perpetrator and victim tends to co-occur (i.e., it is rarely only the victim drinking). This is not a surprise, as drinking tends to occur in social situations (e.g., parties or bars) but trying to disentangle so-called ‘drunken sex’ from sexual assault has proven to be difficult and could be another reason why many young women do not come forward and report this crime.

With the #metoo campaign continuing to encourage more and more women to come forward and tell their stories about sexual assault and harassment, it is a perfect time for parents to take this opportunity to discuss this issue with their children. Most importantly, our young people need to have a greater understanding of what ‘consent’ means (and that they can’t legally give it until they are a certain age) and the difficulties around negotiating consent when they or their partner has been drinking … If you haven’t already had this discussion and you know (or even think) your child could be drinking on a Saturday night, it’s a talk you have to have! I’m sure even thinking that your teen could be having sex must be pretty confronting, let alone having to talk about it with them but sticking your head in the sand about this isn’t going to help anyone …

In recent years there have been an increasing number of campaigns aimed at raising awareness of what consent means. An often used definition is as follows: “Consent is informed, and is freely and actively given. Consent is communicated through mutually understood words which indicate willingness by all of the involved parties to engage in sexual activity.” One American college campaign uses four distinct headings to describe the term:

  • clear – consent is active – silence is not consent
  • coherent – people impaired by drugs or alcohol or are asleep or unconscious cannot consent
  • consistent – consent is never given under pressure
  • ongoing – consent must be granted every time

On top of all of this, of course, is the legal age of consent. Depending on where you live in Australia, you must be either 16 or 17 years of age (SA and Queensland being the two states where you must be a year older) before you can legally give permission to have sex. Until they reach that age, even though they may agree to have sex with someone, that person can still be charged with sexual assault.

Negotiating consensual sexual activity can be difficult for sober adults in long-term relationships! It’s a potential minefield for drunk teens at a party – when you mix ‘raging hormones’, alcohol and an adolescent brain, it’s a recipe for disaster so it’s important to arm our teens with as much information as possible … This is not going to be an easy conversation to have but it boils down to three simple points that all young people need to understand:

  • ‘no means no’
  • if  someone is drunk they are unable to give consent, and
  • sex or sexual contact without consent is a crime and needs to be reported 

In recent years, we have seen a real shift in the messages that are disseminated around alcohol-related sexual assault. Where once the message targeted potential victims, i.e., ‘Don’t get
drunk’, ‘Don’t lose control’ – we are now far more likely to target the potential perpetrator, shifting the onus away from the person avoiding assault or turning down an
advance, to promoting the idea of ‘enthusiastic consent’. As one female academic wrote in an article I recently read – “When kids are little, we don’t teach them how not to get hit, we teach them not to
When it comes to sexual assault, we shouldn’t have to teach young women how to avoid being assaulted, instead, let’s make sure we have a society where it is not acceptable for men to commit that crime …

With that in mind, in addition to beginning a positive dialogue about consent with their teen, I believe parents should also consider the following to help ensure their child has positive and healthy attitudes and values in this area:

Parents of young men
  • as well as being taught that it is not acceptable to have sex or sexual contact with someone who is too drunk to consent, they also need to be empowered to not sit back and ignore other young men who commit the crime or even joke about such behaviour. That could be their sister, their girlfriend or someone else they care about that is being assaulted or spoken about
  • ensure they have positive male role models, particularly around drinking and attitudes towards women. Research shows that young men who are brought up in homes where traditional gender beliefs are present and hostility towards women is regarded as acceptable are more likely to commit this crime
  • watch what you say – off-the-cuff comments (e.g., “Look what she’s wearing?”, “What does she expect when she’s drunk”) reinforce
    negative attitudes towards women and a victim blaming culture
  • provide advice on how to protect themselves – as already discussed, talk through how consent can be negotiated, but very importantly, alert them to the risks of being alone with a drunk girl and the possibility of them being accused of
    inappropriate behaviour

Parents of young women
  • it is vital that young women look after and support each other. ‘Victim blaming’ and so-called ‘slut-shaming’ is not acceptable and is a form of bullying that is extremely damaging
  • as with the young men, watch what you say – be wary of reinforcing shaming culture
  • make others aware when they say ‘the wrong thing’. Don’t just let this behaviour slip by unaddressed – make it clear that it’s not okay to say those things
  • discuss simple safety strategies for young women when they are socializing, these could include the following: looking after your mates – stick together and don’t let friends go off
    on their own or leave them behind; adapt the ‘designated driver’ model driver for situations when no-one is driving, simply making sure there is
    at least one sober person in the group at all times, just in case’; and encourage young women to discuss expectations of friends – i.e., when should a friend step in and help
    and when is it inappropriate

This is not an easy area to deal with from a parenting perspective. We are currently in the midst of a cultural change in regards to what is regarded as acceptable behaviour and what is not – but we have an awfully long way to go yet … We must make sure that we are raising young men who know that it is unacceptable (and illegal) to have sex with someone who is too drunk to consent and empower them to stand up to those who think that behaviour is okay. At the same time, however, it is vital that we ensure our young women look after and support each other. Victim blaming is one of the most destructive forms of bullying and, in my experience, is rife in our schools. Sadly, this is often supported by parents and the only way we’re going to ever really achieve change is if we take a long hard look at our own behaviour and what we say and do …
Abbey, A., Zawacki, T., Buck, P., Clinton, M., &
McAuslan, P.
(2001). Alcohol and sexual assault. Alcohol Research and Health
, 43-51
Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) (2017). 2016 Personal
Safety Survey (PSS): Key findings
accessed 11 November, 2017.

Looking for information or support services on alcohol or drugs?

If you or a friend or family member needs assistance in this area, Alcohol and Drug Information Services (ADIS) are available in every state and territory. Each of these are each staffed by trained professionals who can help with your query and provide confidential advice or refer you to an appropriate service in your area.

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