A Rape in Every Drink?

Though a manhunt always garners publicity, the media enthusiasm for the grisly murder of Emily Sander, aka “Zoey Zane”, the aspiring Internet porn star and college student, has dwindled significantly. Israel Mireles, the prime suspect whose blood-soaked hotel room bedding was found with Sander’s body near a highway outside of El Dorado, unknowingly bought himself a bit of time with this red herring, and frustrated police complain of a “crippled” investigation. Indeed, if Internet porn is rampant, so is the media fetish for online, underage sexual exploitation, probably because it indulges the fantasy that, prior to the 1990s, this kind of victimization was rare. While it’s undeniable that the Web has transformed pornography distribution and consumption patterns, indifference to Ms. Sander coincided with the revelation that she met a more prosaic demise than one capping off a night of lesbian fondling. Like most murder victims, Ms. Sander died after having a drink.

In the early spring of 2006, I was finishing my Masters degree at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. I was pregnant, working fulltime, and struggling to complete my term papers before going into labor. When I thought nothing could snap me from my love affair with self-pity, something awful happened: one of my classmates, Imette St. Guillen, was raped and tortured to death. Face wrapped in duct tape, nude, her mutilated body was found near the Belt Parkway. Her alleged murderer was the bouncer at the bar where she had stopped to have a birthday drink.

Despite the obvious dissimilarities between these women, reading about Sander, I thought of St. Guillen and of Natalie Holloway, the Alabama high school senior, whose disappearance hijacked the airwaves during the summer of 2005. She recently resurfaced in the news as her alleged killer faces another round of questioning in Aruba. Despite the prurient and sometimes absurd speculations about the case in the media, one thing is certain: Holloway, as well as many other young men and women on the school field trip, consumed copious amounts of alcohol during that fateful week in Aruba. An employee of the hotel where the teenagers lodged told Vanity Fair:

This group of students was a very—I don’t want to demonize them—but the group really went far, very far, in terms of having a good time….Wild partying, a lot of drinking, lots of room switching every night. We know the Holiday Inn told them they weren’t welcome next year. Natalee, we know, she drank all day every day. We have statements she started every morning with cocktails—so much drinking that Natalee didn’t show up for breakfast two mornings.

It also seems apparent that Holloway was sexually assaulted – her alleged murderers admitted as much in a taped interview and to the police – while intoxicated.
A few months later, a similarly sensational story of an affluent honeymooner meeting a dark end on a Royal Caribbean cruise captured public consciousness and dented cruise sales. A botched police investigation obfuscated many of the details of George Smith’s disappearance, but again one thing is clear: the night after Smith’s death, several of the young men who were partying with Smith immediately prior to his disappearance stood accused of sexually assaulting a drunk women, and, in the wake of the controversy surrounding this incident, were asked, with their families, to vacate the ship.

Holloway’s disappearance – marked by the special convergence of her race, youth, virginity and the aggressive cooperation of her parents with the media – was afforded “story of the summer” status by several major cable news channels; by comparison, the Royal Caribbean cruise rape was treated like an afterthought to a more important crime, another embarrassing blight on the reputation of a travel and tourism company that failed to ensure the safety of even its wealthy, white, male patrons. Imette St. Guillen is remembered in New York as an angelic honor student savaged by a demonic killer. Emily Sander, meanwhile, was nearly a great poster girl for the “if you’re not a slut, you’re safe” campaign, whose propaganda can be observed in most rape laws prior to 1970 and nearly every Hollywood thriller.

Celebration of sexualized violence aside, there exist non-negligible similarities between these cases, and many others: each incident involves a night of drinking leading to allegations of rape, and sometimes homicide. From a criminological perspective, murder is an easy crime to study – and studies of murder prove that victims and offenders are usually under the influence of some intoxicating substance at the time of the attack. Although I’ve often heard women, especially young women, say, “If someone is going to rape me, he might as well kill me,” raped women consistently report their intense commitment to surviving the attack, their desire to live. It is why women, oftentimes, don’t fight back. And, as rape affects far more women than homicide does, sexual exploitation is a relatively normal part of life for women in America.

In response to early feminist inquiries and consciousness raising efforts, rape theorists have rightly avoided critical analysis of victim behavior that could be construed as the same kind of “victim-blaming”, which characterized the formal investigation and adjudication of rape cases prior to the late 1970’s. Indeed, data indicate that rape, like most violent crime, cuts across age, class, and race demographics, and that, contrary to formerly held, sexist notions, neither physical appearance, nor sartorial choices affect patterns of victimization. The deeper understanding of rape as a crime of violence, not passion, and as a systematic mechanism for subjugating women has led to the dismantling, in most states, of troubling corroboration standards and irrelevant investigations into victims’ sexual practices. In most states today, rape laws are designed to protect a woman’s right to consent to sexual intercourse, and, in more progressive states, recognize both men’s and women’s right to consent to any form of sexual interaction.
In spite of these improvements, rape, unlike homicide, remains a rampant, largely unreported crime. Apart from Sander, St. Guillen, and Holloway, I think about other women, women I’ve known, lucky ones whose intoxicated sexual exploitation episodes did not land them on the front pages of the New York Times or the New York Post or CNN, but who cautiously admitted being traumatized by a forced sexual encounter after a few too many drinks. Victimization studies confirm lackluster reporting of sexual violence: despite the broader definition of rape and attempts by rape crisis centers and police departments to increasingly ensure sensitivity to victims, major victimization surveys suggest that most sexual assaults go unreported, and that 14.8 per cent of women have been raped during her their lifetimes.

Why is rape nearly epidemic in some communities? Why don’t many victims report this life-altering trauma? If every woman is a potential victim, what are the real risk factors? As much as the media hastens to portray each sensational case as a scintillating aberration, the alcohol variable figures more importantly than any other in answering these questions.

Amid the moral panic caused by the “date rape drug”, Rohypnol, in the 1990s, researchers quietly began investigating the effects of another drug whose consumption rates among young people continue to grow unabated: alcohol. Ubiquitous and legal, alcohol had already been correlated with crime from murder and domestic violence to petty theft. Prior to the 90’s, most formal analysis of alcohol’s relationship to rape tended to focus on the offender, and incorporated the assumption that sexual assault trends vary widely depending on circumstantial context. Because research tends to be cumulative and complementary, inquiries into victim alcohol use fixate on the university milieu.

Employing a variety of methodological tactics, including examination of National Crime Victimization Survey Data and information collected using self-report instruments on university campuses and in high schools, all studies of rape and alcohol note a high correlation between pre-assault victim alcohol use and sex abuse victimization patterns.

Administering a self-report questionnaire to a random sample of national college students, Sarah Ullman and her research team explored the complex interaction between victims’ general alcohol habits and the characteristics of assault. Half of the 3,187 women polled experienced some form of sexual victimization. Of those victims, 42 per cent were using alcohol prior to the assault. Connecting both victim and offender alcohol use to sex abuse patterns, Ullman made the surprising finding that “victim drinking was related to less offender aggression, possibly because force was not needed to complete rape of a victim.” So, it is practical for rapists to rape women under the influence because alcohol’s acceptable incapacitating effects are similar to those of far less ubiquitous rape drugs.

While Ullman’s work is the most comprehensive in terms of variables tested and research methodology employed, rape researchers linked sexual victimization and alcohol on college campuses prior to her studies. Other researchers analyzed both victimized and non-victimized women in order to test their hypotheses about victims’ attitudes toward sex, alcohol, and sexual experience. Using Koss’ reliable Sexual Experience Survey, William Corbin confirmed “alcohol consumption [as] a general risk factor for sexual victimization” and similarly affirmed what psychologists have known for decades: in the wake of trauma, victims frequently rely on alcohol and other substances to numb intrusive trauma response phenomena. Corbin is joined in his findings by other researchers, like Bonnie Fisher, who identified victim pre-assault alcohol use as a defining contextual characteristic, both for rape and the failure by the victim to report it. If, indeed, women are more likely to be victimized when consuming alcohol and less likely to report these attacks, then there likely exists a large class of victims ignored by the criminal justice and our social safety net. And the mystery of spotty reporting patterns is more comprehensible.

Concerned with the convergence of rape myths, fraternity membership, and alcohol use, Martin Schwartz tested claims of past studies indicating that “fraternity men are said to learn that forced sex with a drunken woman is not wrong,” despite its illegality in every state. From using alcohol to incapacitate and avoid forcible rape, to employing it as a “tool… to ‘work out a yes’ of unwilling women,” attitudes and behaviors in the fraternity context seem to exemplify the dangerousness of victim pre-assault alcohol use.

What if you’re not drinking at the frat house? Contrary to established research, Schwartz found that fraternity men do not subscribe disproportionately to rape myths and do not drink more frequently than other men in the university population. In this way, Schwartz’s findings substantiate alcohol use, and its interaction with “peer culture,” as instrumental in sexual assaults. But his key finding “that other groups on campus may be just as likely as fraternities to provide the extensive male peer support for the sexual objectification of women, and the access to alcohol, that encourages some men to engage in victimizing behaviors” won’t surprise many women. We experience firsthand the extent to which sexism and violence are not relegated to their bastions.

What of the “binge drinking” trend? Testing their theory that “drinkers are more likely to be victimized because of their association with motivated offenders,” and that “their routine activities and differential associations put them at greater risk of victimization regardless of whether they are drinking,” Felson and Burchfield explored National Violence Against Women Survey data from 1995 and 1996. The researchers did not relegate their work to sexual victimization, instead broadly investigating victimization of both sexes and testing a number of variables and crimes.

They concluded that “victims of sexual assaults are more likely to be drinking than victims of physical assault.” More generally, however, Felson and Burchfield disproved the “routine activities” hypothesis they put forth, showing that “frequent and heavy drinkers are at a much greater risk of assault when they are drinking, but that drinking is unrelated to the risk of victimization while sober.” Helping to contextualize situations rather than patterns, this powerful finding nullifies the impulse to blame women’s “lifestyles” when trying to understand risk factors for rape.
Journalists offer anecdotal evidence to bolster the argument that pre-assault alcohol use by rape victims is as common as rape itself. Responding to concerns about the recent liberalization of pub hours two years ago, the British media focused heavily on the correlation between alcohol use and sexual victimization. Citing one study conducted by the Forensic Science Service in London of 1,014 alleged rape victims, where “significant levels of alcohol were found” in 46 per cent of all rape cases, journalists report concerns of judges who “[warn] that binge drinking will lead to more rapes…[because] pubs and bars [are allowed] to open round the clock.” Estimating that “47,000 rapes occur each year,” and citing a second study stating that neither Rohypnol nor GHB was ever detected in victims’ systems but that “in 50 per cent of all reported rapes the victim was seriously drunk,” some journalists and criminologists are declaring a rape epidemic in the UK, calling “alcohol the most common factor in drug-assisted rape.” Similar figures were released by “the drink industry’s own watchdog, the Portman Group,” stating that “one in three drunken girls is the victim of a sex attack.” To illustrate the statistics, the Daily Mail published a victim’s account: “through a haze of alcohol, almost as if I was looking down at myself from a great distance, I realized I had been stripped of my clothes and two men were raping me as a third held my hands tightly above my head.” Both the studies, and anecdotal evidence from UK victims dramatize the statistics U.S. researchers are systematically uncovering on college campuses.

In the U.S., the national media won’t make a peep, but local reporters detail how fears of drug-induced rape spawned the introduction of drug detection kits into university “welcome” bags. An opponent of this arguably cynical policy cited the predominance of pre-assault alcohol use at the University of Syracuse, where she was a rape counselor, stating, “Alcohol is the No. 1 date rape drug…And you know alcohol is in your drink.”

Cases abound of authorities confounding date-rape drugs with drinking practices. For example, a 2005 fraternity rape drug incident at the University of Colorado resulted in tension between the university and the fraternity house when a lab inaccurately reported positive GHB findings in alleged victims’ blood. In fact, “the woman had blood-alcohol levels ranging from .128 to .292…The legal limit to drive in Colorado is .08.”

While the news reporting in the U.S. has not latched onto the relevance of pre-assault alcohol use as a defining theme of its most recent celebrated criminal justice cases, ample evidence provides a foundation for this argument. At the convergence of any set of variables, there is the potential for risk or control. Rather than identifying rape as a consequence of victim behavior, these statistically significant correlations of victimization with pre-incident alcohol use provide lifestyle information relevant to critically conceptualizing personal safety. Just as domestic violence research in the 1980’s helped to dispel the myth of “stranger-danger,” whose politics were seductive to a society invested in restricting women’s movements outside of the home, research about alcohol and rape can teach us, and our children, about how to behave based on the way things really are.

Of course, the relationship between alcohol and rape is a bitter pill to swallow. On top of already shouldering all kinds of disproportionate social burdens, do women and girls have to revive the temperance movement in order to avoid sexual exploitation? The answer, according to the research, is: kind of. Instead of a movement aimed at cleaning up society imposed by condescending liberal elites, however, women’s decision to drink less would likely increase their safety far more than impractical prescriptions to restrict their movements or associations.

The most complex, national studies of rape and alcohol associate drinking with one- to two-thirds of sexual assaults. Although no woman is responsible for being raped, no matter what the circumstances, the implications of ignoring victim behavior can be just as grave as victim-blaming. While limiting alcohol consumption is no solution to the principles of male domination and misogyny that underlie our society and give rise to the troubling ubiquity of sexual violence, it is as subversive weapon as any in the arsenal of young women who believe that this reality can change.

R.F. Blader can be reached at rfblader@gmail.com


Ullman, Sarah E., George Karabatsos, Mary P. Koss, “Alcohol and Sexual Assault in a National Sample of College Women.” Journal of Interpersonal Violence, Vol. 14 No. 6, June 1999: 603-625 Corbin, William R., Jeffrey A. Bernat, Karen S. Calhoun, Lily D. McNair, Kari L. Seals, “The Role of Alcohol Expectancies and Alcohol Consumption Among Sexually Victimized and Nonvictimized College Women”, Journal of Interpersonal Violence, Vol. 16 No. 4, April 2001: 297-311

Fisher, Bonnie S., Leah E. Daigle, Francis T. Cullen, Michael G. Turner, “Reporting Sexual Victimization to the Police and Others: Results From a National-Level Study of College Women”, Criminal Justice and Behavior, Vol. 30 No. 1, February 2003: 6-38. Schwartz, Martin D., Carol Nogrady, “Fraternity Membership, Sexual Aggression and Rape Myths on a College Campus”, Violence Against Women, Vol. 2, No. 2, June 1996: 148 – 162. Felson, Richard B., Keri B. Burchfield, “Alcohol and the Risk of Physical and Sexual Assault Victimization”, Criminology.Vol. 42, Iss. 4, April 2001: p. 837

Hickley, Matthew. “The Drunken Victims,”, Daily Mail, September 26, 2005: p. 9 ; Wheldon, Julie. “The Date-Rape Risk for Women Who Binge Drink”, Daily Mail, August 1, 2005: p. 4

Cochrane, Kira. “Are all men rapists after all?: British rape figures, already shocking, peak in the heavy-drinking party season”, New Statesman, September 26, 2005.

Nisbet, Jenny, “Too Drunk to Say No”, Daily Mail, October 1, 2005: Pg. 28-29

Maddelena, Christine, “Syracuse officials say new date rape drug test not the answer”, University Newswire. September 23, 2005

Trujillo, Melissa, “Police now say women did not have ‘date-rape’ drug in system”, Associated Press. November 10, 2005

Brecklin, Leanne R., Sarah E. Ullman, “The Role of Offender Alcohol Use in Rape Attacks: An Analysis of National Crime Victimization Survey Data”, Journal of Interpersonal Violence, Vol. 16 No. 1, January 2001: 3-21