Home > Young people, alcohol and sex: what’s consent got to do with it? Exploring how attitudes to alcohol impact on judgements about consent to sexual activity: a qualitative study of university students.

MacNeela, Padraig and Conway, Thomas and Kavanagh, Siobhan and Kennedy, Lisa Ann and McCaffrey, John (2014) Young people, alcohol and sex: what’s consent got to do with it? Exploring how attitudes to alcohol impact on judgements about consent to sexual activity: a qualitative study of university students. Galway: Rape Crisis Network Ireland.

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This qualitative study explores the intersection of university students’ attitudes to alcohol use and consent to engage in sexual activity. The study was carried out by researchers at the School of Psychology, National University of Ireland, Galway, commissioned by Rape Crisis Network Ireland (RCNI), between March and December, 2013. This report describes:
• The background to the study
• The two qualitative methodologies used to collect and analyse data
• The findings that arose from student reactions to hypothetical scenarios of non-consenting sexual activity, and
• Discusses the findings in respect of the scope to support change in attitudes to alcohol use and consent.

One of the key findings in the extensive RCNI Rape and Justice in Ireland report (Hanley et al., 2009) was the high rate of co-occurrence of heavy drinking with rape, by perpetrators and / or victims. This finding led RCNI to develop a year-long campaign in 2012, titled Calling Time on Sexual Violence and Alcohol. The current study builds on this work to address the links that exist between sexual violence and alcohol use. Internationally, it is recognised that extreme intoxication is a component of how the public understand sexual coercion and rape. For instance, this link underpins a ‘double standard’ attitude, whereby victims are attributed more responsibility if they had been drinking while perpetrators are often perceived as less responsible (Abbey, 2008).

Studies of university student attitudes to alcohol use and non-consenting sexual encounters are not available in the Irish context, so relevant work from other countries will be cited in introducing this study. One reference point in the existing research literature is that of stereotypical rape myths (Ryan, 2011). These myths rely on attitudes and social scripts that support a network of fixed, false beliefs about sexual violence. Such rape myths are linked to the stigmatisation of victims by others. They are also associated with self-stigma, as many women who have been forced to have sex do not label the experience of rape, due to their own internalised expectations for what rape entails (Littleton et al., 2006). Thus, a victim who has been drinking may be less likely to label sexual violence as rape, in the mistaken belief that he or she shares responsibility for the assault.

It is not just through rape-specific expectations that preconceptions and stereotypes inform attitudes to non-consenting sex. Berntson et al. (2013) take a broader view on how college students use scripts and pre-existing expectations to make sense of their relationship experiences. For them, relationships and sexual activity are interpreted through interpersonal sexual scripts that are shared among peers. Berntson et al. suggest that women are more likely to view their sexual activity within a communicative, relationship-based script. They contrast this with the traditional male preference for a recreational script for ‘no strings’ sex. This picture reflects long-standing cultural norms, in which men and women may be pursuing different, potentially conflicting objectives through sexual activity. It should be noted that gender role differences in expectations for sexual activity may now be changing. According to U.S. research, recreational sexual scripts have gained traction among young adults as an acceptable option for both sexes. This has been seen in the emergence of the ‘hook up’ culture. Hooking up refers to engaging in sexual behaviours without a pre-existing romantic relationship (Downing-Matibag & Geisinger, 2009). This might include sexual intercourse, but a hook up can also include or be restricted to oral sex, sexual touching, or masturbation.

It is at this point that it becomes essential to consider the intersection between attitudes to sex and the impact that alcohol use has for sexual expression among young adults. Alcohol use has been identified as a critical issue for the well-being of young adults who take part in hook ups. In one recent survey of U.S. students, Thomson Ross et al. (2011) found that non-consenting sex was strongly associated with binge drinking and reports of harms arising from alcohol consumption.

The link between drinking and non-consenting sex is especially relevant in an Irish context, as, quite apart from the emergence of a hook up culture, alcohol use is a dominant feature of socialising among young adults. For instance, a comparative study of 21 countries established that Irish university students exhibited one of the highest rate of drinking internationally (94%) (Dantzer et al., 2006). Dantzer et al. found no gender difference in the rate of non-drinking among Irish students, whereas in most countries rates of non-drinking are substantially higher among females than males. Ireland is one of several European countries with particularly high rates of alcohol consumption, along with Denmark, England, Scotland, Wales, and the Netherlands (Dantzer et al., 2006). All of these countries have high rates of binge drinking as well, a style of drinking that involves the consumption of large amounts of alcohol within a short period. There is by now little doubt that binge drinking is associated with considerably elevated risks of exposure to alcohol-related harms. These span the physical domain (e.g., injury, blackouts), psychological harms (e.g., lower quality of life, alcohol dependence), and social harms (e.g., higher rates of public disorder convictions, lower academic performance) (Kypri et al., 2009). Following repeated exposure to harms among peer networks, negative events such as a memory blackout or interpersonal conflict may become normalised.

It may be the case that these adverse outcomes become accepted as the cost of accommodating heavy drinking as an integral part of the university experience. The degree to which alcohol-related harms such as non-consenting sex, rape, and sexual assault have been normalised is as yet unstudied in the Irish context.

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