man grabbing woman from behind

To prevent sexual assault, forget affirmative consent. Focus on binge drinking. Since the turn of the current century, the media have spotlighted epidemic levels of college and military sexual assaults, everything from uninvited groping to gang rapes. To prevent them, many rape-prevention activists have advocated “affirmative consent,” the idea that sexual initiators must obtain specific permission for every erotic escalation. Many college campuses have incorporated affirmative consent into student handbooks and have applied it in disciplinary actions. “Did she give you clear permission to remove her panties?”

Affirmative Action: Great for Consensual Sex But Not for Rape Prevention

I’m all for affirmative consent. It’s a great boon to consensual lovemaking. Affirmative consent:

  • Builds mutual trust, which allows lovers, especially women, to relax, focus on erotic pleasure, and work up to sexual responsiveness.
  • Slows the pace, which provides the warm-up time most women (and many men) need to become sexually aroused and responsive.
  • Encourages mutual coaching, which enhances couple intimacy, boosts pleasure, and encourages discussion of contraception and prevention of sexual infections.
  • And because of all the above, affirmative consent helps prevent sex problems—erection difficulties and premature ejaculation in men and orgasms problems in all genders.

However, when it comes to preventing sexual assault, affirmative consent is of little, if any value. Affirmative consent implies mutual rationality. But most sexual assaults occur when both parties are drunk and considerably less than rational. Once the smashed spider captures the blotto fly, it’s too late for “Is this okay?”

Sexual Assault Almost Always Includes Binging on Alcohol

A substantial research literature documents the consistent, undeniable connection between alcohol intoxication and sexual assault. Some recent findings:

  • Emory University researchers reviewed emergency room records of several hundred sexual assaults. Three-quarters of victims admitted alcohol intoxication at the time of the assault.
  • An analysis of college rapes from 2005 to 2010 by United Educators, and insurance consortium of 1,200 colleges, showed that 60 percent of victims were so drunk they had no clear memory of the assault.
  • University of Washington scientists analyzed the experiences of 660 women college students. As their alcohol consumption increased, they became less able to discern potentially assaultive actions, and less likely to extricate themselves from them.
  • An analysis of sexual assaults at Columbia University and Barnard College showed that perpetrators’ main strategy for ensnaring victims was to incapacitate them using alcohol.
  • Kent State University researchers analyzed 29 studies of the link between alcohol and casual sex, including unwanted sex. Booze was integral to casual/unwanted sex in every age group, but especially among teens and young adults—the very age group whose women are at greatest risk of sexual assault.
  • Investigators surveyed 8,154 Australians (4,279 women, 3,875 men) age 16 to 69 about their experience of unwanted sex due to alcohol. Among women over 50, alcohol played a small but statistically significant role in unwanted sex. But among young women age 16 to 29, getting drunk almost tripled their risk of rape.

Want To Have Sex in an Altered State? Consider Cannabis

Successful rape-prevention programs don’t rely on affirmative consent. Instead, inspired by Mothers Against Drunk Driving, they encourage one friend to remain sober at parties, circulate, and intervene assertively if that person sees friends getting into trouble. Several studies have shown that this strategy has quickly reduced college and military sexual assaults by more than half. For more on this, see the chapter on sexual assault prevention in my book Sizzling Sex for Life.

However, many if not most young people (and older lovers as well) enjoy having sex intoxicated. Canadian researchers at St. Mary’s University in Halifax asked hundreds of college students about their sobriety or inebriation during their most recent sexual encounter (consensual or not). Only one-quarter (27 percent) said they’d been totally sober. Almost half (44 percent) said they’d been very intoxicated to passing-out drunk.

How can young people have sex high but not risk rape? Here’s a modest proposal. Instead of drinking, consider cannabis. It’s easily available to most young adults and increasingly legal. More than two-thirds of the U.S. population lives in the 35 states with legal medical marijuana, and recreational cannabis is now totally legal for adults in a dozen states and the District of Columbia. While some don’t care to mix weed and sex, several studies show that most users call cannabis sex-enhancing. And no study I’m aware of has linked marijuana use to increased risk of sexual assault.

I’m not advocating sex while intoxicated. I’m just recognizing that many people prefer to have sex that way. If you’re among them, cannabis offers a high much less likely to trigger sexual assault.

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