As the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court founders on allegations of drunken sexual assault, America is again reckoning with the loathsome and loutish frat boy culture of the 1980s. You know, the kind that was ushered into the mainstream of pop culture by movies like Animal House and only belatedly recognized as a breeding ground for sexual assault.
But the saga also demands a fresh look at how intoxication is used to simultaneously exonerate male sexual abusers while condemning the women accusing them of crimes—and how other aspects of American drug laws and the country's deeply entrenched cultural mores about substance use serve to enable violent perpetrators.
Many of Kavanaugh’s supporters were quick to diminish the significance of his alleged rape attempt on Dr. Christine Blasey Ford—arguing that even if he did hold her down and nearly suffocate her while attempting to take her clothes off at a high school party, it was merely “horseplay.” Besides, he was a drunk boy and shouldn’t have his whole life "ruined,” or something.
On the other hand, the fact that Ford said she’d had one beer has been used in pathetic attempts to discredit her. Her memory is viewed as suspect, but even moreso is her character. In a tweet that went viral, writer Chloe Angyal described the cultural paradigm applied to alcohol and sexual victimization succinctly: "She was drunk, this rape is her fault… He was drunk, this rape isn't his fault."
Men like Kavanaugh (and many others before him) have used alcohol or youth (usually both) to excuse, forget, or cover up selfish behavior—or at least distance themselves from it without taking accountability. He presumably no longer binges as he appeared to in the days of "FFFFFFFourth of July,” the high school yearbook abbreviation Kavanaugh allegedly used to mean, “Find them, French them, Feel them, Finger them, Fuck them, Forget them.” Which is to say we apparently shouldn't worry that he's denied all allegations of violence and misconduct of any kind while refusing to issue an apology and even calling the charges against him a "smear."
But Kavanaugh's allegedly toxic behavior came into even sharper focus when the New Yorker reported Sunday that, as part of a cruel drinking game, fellow Yale student Deborah Ramirez said the now-judge “exposed himself at a drunken dormitory party, thrust his penis in her face, and caused her to touch it without her consent as she pushed him away" in 1983 or 84. Ramirez told the magazine she did not report the incident—which Kavanaugh likewise has denied—previously because she'd been drinking and her memory was not perfect.
As the 1980s war on drugs morphed into the early 90s "zero tolerance" approach, however, society exerted even more pressure on survivors to stay silent. Under zero tolerance, getting caught with alcohol or other drugs was often punished just as severely as violent behavior in terms of school-related consequences. While teens of every gender always had to worry about being punished for drug use, witnesses and even victims now had even more reason to lie to protect themselves. And of course, that fear has always served to make discrediting claims of assault much easier.
Perhaps worst of all, it makes light of the severity of a predatory attack, while exaggerating the harm associated with getting high in any way: If you fear getting the same or a similar penalty for rape or assault as you do for taking drugs, it’s easy to lose perspective.
Meanwhile, intoxication by women has long been seen by men as an invitation in American life—the idea that a woman could seek and desire the bliss of a high just for herself somehow being inconceivable. We aren’t permitted such selfishness. A woman who is willing to alter her consciousness and make herself vulnerable must be “asking for it"—whereas a man is simply taking the selfish pleasure he is due.
Entrenched cultural beliefs about the effects of alcohol have a profound effect on how people act while drunk, too. With sexual behavior, the more someone believes that alcohol has a disinhibiting effect, the greater the likelihood that they will have risky sex (in terms of not avoiding STDs) while under the influence, according to one review of the research in the area.
Although alcohol can have the genuine pharmacological effect of making people less likely to restrain themselves from acting on impulse, studies have suggested that the more someone believes that it has this power, the greater effect that power has on their behavior.
Similarly, while alcohol’s pharmacological effect of disinhibiting behavior can increase violence, this, too, is affected by beliefs and personality. One study, for example, found that the more a man believed alcohol increased aggression, the more likely he was to become violent while drunk. The same research also suggested that for people who already tended to be hostile, more drinking led to more aggression, while this did not occur among those who weren’t previously looking for a fight.
Beliefs about what is acceptably “feminine” and “masculine” are also at play when people drink. While some “feminine” norms such as trying to be seen as nice and nurturing may have a protective effect against heavy drinking, others, like being especially concerned about appearance and looks, may increase risk. That may seem paradoxical, since drunkenness rarely makes anyone look particularly good. But researchers have suggested that heavy drinking by these women may sometimes be a self-medicating response to coping with the intense pressure to look perfect all the time.
As we come to terms with the unbelievably high prevalence of coercive sexual behavior (yes, #MeToo), we can't ignore the starring role of alcohol in violence against women—or anyone. It’s not acceptable for male drinking to be an excuse for men who rape (or attempt to rape), while female drinking is rendered an excuse for male perpetrators.
Most people who drink never engage in that sort of behavior, and if there’s one thing that is clear about alcohol, it is that it releases impulses and exaggerates traits that already exist—it doesn’t create them from whole cloth. There is actually a whole literature about how belief in rape myths—such as the idea that women who say no really mean to say yes—increases the odds that men will rape or commit sexual assault)
Meanwhile, sexual trauma among women is often central to their addiction risk—being sexually abused as a child roughly triples the odds that someone will eventually inject opioids, according to one study. That, sadly, is then often used to discredit women as well, because people with addiction are stereotyped as liars.
No matter what happens to Kavanaugh's bid for a lifetime gig on the most powerful court in the world, it's disturbing that so much of the country has responded to alcohol-infused allegations of sexual violence against him as if Ronald Reagan were still president.
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