According to a new study published in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, drinking alcohol doesn’t make men more likely to make inappropriate advances toward women. Researchers found that men aren’t pushing the boundaries because they’re drunk and can’t tell where the lines are. Instead, sexually aggressive men are consciously seeking out women who may be easy targets.
Researchers observed young people’s interactions in bars and cataloged nearly 260 “aggressive incidents” — like grabbing a woman’s breasts, making inappropriate comments about a woman’s body, refusing to leave a woman alone, and reaching up a woman’s dress. The research paper describes mainly gendered dynamics because women were the victims of sexual aggression in 90 percent of recorded incidents. In most cases, third parties like the man’s friends or staff members at the bar did not intervene; sometimes, the aggressor’s friends actually egged him on.
The study didn’t uncover any relationship between aggressors’ level of intoxication and their behavior toward victims, suggesting that sexual aggression is not a result of miscommunication or a misinterpretation of a woman’s interest. The researchers ultimately concluded that unwanted sexual advances were intentional. And they found that men were more likely to prey on drunk women, “possibly stemming from a perception by initiators that more intoxicated targets will be less able to resist their advances and be more available.”
Kate Graham, the study’s lead researcher and a senior scientist at the Center for Addiction and Mental Health at the University of Toronto, told NPR the data indicates that “people should stop believing that song. The lines really aren’t that blurred.”
Graham is referring to Robin Thicke’s chart topper, which has been widely criticized for including lyrics like “I hate these blurred lines, I know you want it” and “the way you grab me, must wanna get nasty.” Critics point out that these lines help fuel rape culture by suggesting that women don’t actually mean it when they say no, and that men have a right to push the boundaries.
Thicke has brushed off the criticism of his pop song, but he’s not the only one furthering this line of thought about nonconsensual sex. The conversation about alcohol’s relationship to sexual assault frequently rests on the argument that young people are getting too drunk to effectively navigate sexual experiences, and young people of both genders have a responsibility to consume less alcohol. Last month, a Wall Street Journal columnist suggested that victims of sexual assault should be considered just as guilty as their assailants if they were both drunk at the time.
But alcohol is not exactly the root cause of sexual assault, from what researchers can tell. Just like Graham’s new study, the previous research in this area has found that sexual predators are intentionally violating their victims’ consent. Alcohol is a convenient tool to accomplish this goal — but it’s ultimately just one tool at rapists’ disposal. Men aren’t actually “slipping up” after too many drinks and accidentally crossing the line.
Although Graham’s research focused solely on interactions in public places, and didn’t follow the subjects home to track potential sexual assaults, there are still some relevant takeaways for effective rape prevention. Considering the fact that so few bystanders intervened, the researchers note that a culture shift toward calling out aggressive masculine behavior — particularly in places like bars, that often reinforce traditional gender roles — could help protect victims.
“Prevention needs to focus on addressing masculinity norms of male patrons and staff who support sexual aggression, and better management of the highly sexualized and sexist environments of most bars,” the researchers conclude.
That’s not actually so far-fetched. The Navy is already experimenting with more regulations in bars in an effort to address the military’s sexual assault crisis. Arizona’s Department of Health Services has also developed a “Bar Bystander Program” to create an environment of “zero tolerance” for sexual aggression, and hopes to expand the program to other states.