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Thursday, April 29, 2010

Putting the Drunken Hookup to Bed

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Sexual Assault Awareness Month, which is observed across the country each April, is winding to a close. Over the past few weeks, I’ve led trainings, screened films and participated in programs about sexual violence prevention. I’m optimistic because, finally, links are being made between sex-positivity and violence prevention—that is, that being able to openly discuss and celebrate our sexuality instead of feeling shame about it helps us set clear sexual boundaries, enthusiastically consent to the types of sexual activities we enjoy and reduce social acceptance of sexual violence and victim-blaming. For proof, check out The Line Campaign, a new documentary and group blog, or the anthology Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power & a World Without Rape (my favorite essay in this book is, of course, “A Love Letter From an Anti-Rape Activist to Her Feminist Sex-Toy Store” by Lee Jacobs Riggs).

However, during my trainings and conversations with students or customers, there is still one disturbing trend that I’d like to put to bed: the use of alcohol to either facilitate sexual assault or to gain social “permission” for sexual activity. Both are, in my mind, evidence that sexual shame is still alive and well and that sexual aggression is still tacitly condoned.

When I do workshops or trainings with college students about alcohol and sexual assault, we discuss the fact that legally, intoxicated people cannot consent to sexual activity; therefore, if you have sex with someone who’s drunk, you may be committing sexual assault. There are some people (and not just college students) who will deliberately get a person drunk so that they can “have sex” with that person or will predatorily seek out the most wasted girl at a bar or party to take home. Most people think of sexual assault as a crime that involves physical violence, but here alcohol is used as a weapon to incapacitate someone as surely as a gun or a fist would do—except that the victim is administering that weapon herself, making it very easy to blame her and absolve the person who assaulted her.

Inevitably, students in these workshops will start asking, “Well, how drunk does someone have to be in order for it to be sexual assault?” or “What if both people are drunk?” It saddens me that, immediately, their minds leap toward the technicalities of the situation, rather than seeing the broader picture that, in fact, alcohol not only facilitates sexual assault, but impairs our ability to actually have good sex.

Someone once called the store to ask about purchasing wrist and ankle cuffs to use with his girlfriend. As the conversation unfolded, it became clear that this person’s plan was to buy the cuffs and some other kinky gear, then get his girlfriend drunk so that she would be “into it.” I literally wanted to scream when I heard this, first because it’s dangerous and stupid to try any kind of bondage with an intoxicated person who can’t clearly communicate to you what their boundaries are and when they might be feeling pain, and second because alcohol was being used in this situation to make it acceptable for a couple to try something new that might be considered taboo. The woman in this situation could have loved being restrained, could have had the best orgasms in the world while being spanked, but for some reason was unwilling to attempt these things unless alcohol was also involved.

At a research presentation I attended last week, a fraternity member was anonymously quoted as saying that he would not go down on a woman unless he was drunk. In The Line, a man at a beach party says, “75% of the bitches out here are using alcohol as an excuse to fuck.” Much ink has been spilled in the past few years about the phenomenon of the “drunken hookup,” which seems to me to give women much more social permission to have sex outside of a committed relationship than they otherwise would be given.

I wish that we felt like we could express our sexual desires—whether these are experimenting with kink, oral sex, or so-called “casual” sex—without using alcohol as an intermediary. Until we are able to do this, we leave the door open for predators who use alcohol to commit sexual assault. We are setting the bar so low when we ask, “How drunk does someone have to be for it to be sexual assault?” Instead, we should be asking, “Why do I feel like I have to drink in order to have sex with a new person? Wouldn’t this be so much more pleasurable if we both had all of our senses involved and engaged?”

Want Laura to answer your questions in SEXpress? Send them to laura@shepex.com. Not all questions received will be answered in the column, and Laura cannot provide personal answers to questions that do not appear here. Questions sent to this address may be reproduced in this column, both in print and online, and may be edited for clarity and content.

Laura Anne Stuart has a master’s degree in public health and has worked as a sexuality educator for more than a decade. She owns the Tool Shed, an erotic boutique on Milwaukee’s East Side.