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Alcohol and Sexual Violence in Ireland: Understanding the Scope of the Problem

Resource type: News

Rape Crisis Network Ireland | [ View Original Source (opens in new window) ]

For a short Fact Sheet on the information contained below please click here.

In 2009, Rape and Justice in Ireland (RAJI) revealed that 70% of victims of rape and 84% of those accused of rape[i] had been drinking at the time of the assault[ii]. These findings indicate that alcohol involvement in rape in Ireland is among the highest in the world and reveals the need for a greater understanding among the public, policy and service sectors about the link between alcohol and sexual violence. RCNI believe a greater understanding of this link and effective ways to address it can prevent sexual violence.

What is the evidence of the connection between alcohol use and sexual violence?

Since the 1990s the role of alcohol, and particularly binge drinking, in sexual violence has gained greater recognition. Reviews of national studies estimate that:

  • 34%-74% of sexual assault perpetrators consumed alcohol at the time of committing the assault.
  • 30%-70% of victims of sexual assault had consumed alcohol at the time of the assault.
  • In the majority of cases, where the perpetrator had been drinking so too had the victim.[iii],[iv],[v] 
  • On average, and in common with other violent crimes, approximately 50% of sexual assaults involved the use of alcohol.[vi]

Although a relationship between alcohol and sexual violence is evident[vii], we cannot say that alcohol causes sexual violence. What can be said is that alcohol is involved in a substantial number of sexual assaults globally and in some national contexts is present in the majority of sexual assaults and rape.

How does alcohol influence sexual violence?

The nature of the relationship between sexual violence and alcohol consumption is complex and is impacted by socio-cultural norms surrounding alcohol expectations and mediated by individual characteristics and experiences[viii]. However, alcohol also has physiological effects that may, in combination with socio-cultural factors, increase the likelihood of a sexual assault occurring. In general, alcohol impacts the situation in which a sexual assault occurs in three ways[ix]:

1. Socio-cultural expectations exist of alcohol’s effects on sexual behaviour and aggression. In some Western cultures alcohol has been associated with increased arousal, decreased inhibitions and increased aggression.

  • Studies indicate that men expect women who are drinking to be more sexually available[x],[xi].
  • Where men’s perception is compromised due to alcohol they may act on these expectations, regardless of the reality of the woman’s desires in ways that they would not if they were they not intoxicated.
  • Men’s expectations of their own behaviour when drinking may lead them to be more aggressive in seeking sex and less likely to ensure their partner’s consent.

2. Alcohol effects ability to comprehend and negotiate social interactions. Alcohol has an effect on our ability to understand social cues and to communicate effectively. While individuals are under the influence of alcohol:

  • they are more likely to misunderstand others’ sexual motives. Men and women may misinterpret casual interaction as a signal of sexual interest.
  • they are less capable of communication about sexual intentions. Both men and women may fail to be clear about their desire for involvement in sexual activity.
  • These effects can be increased by the influence of peers in social drinking situations[xii].

 3. Alcohol effects ability to recognise and/or halt an impending sexual assault. The impairment effects of alcohol, particularly when large amounts have been consumed,

  • reduce ability to recognise and rectify misperceptions. [xiii] In essence, men may be too drunk to recognise refusal or to recognise when their partner is incapable of forming consent due to intoxication. Men are also less likely to notice when their behaviour is being interpreted as aggressive and may interpret fearful submission as consent to sexual interaction.
  • diminishes the ability of the victim to physically or verbally resist.[xiv] Drinking excessively may lead to an incapacitated state where the victim is unable to express refusal.

However, alcohol may also be used to facilitate rape.[xv] 

  • Perpetrators may encourage victims’ drinking in order to incapacitate them or purposefully target women who have been drinking. Alcohol is an effective sedative and may be used to make a victim more vulnerable to sexual assault. Alcohol is in fact the most common ‘date-rape drug’ [xvi].
  • Because of our socio-cultural expectations of the effect of alcohol consumption on sexual behaviour, perpetrators may drink alcohol to excuse or justify their behaviour. Perpetrators may encourage victim drinking in order to blame [xvii] the incident on victims’ drinking, suggesting that in fact ‘she wanted it’ at the time, and only regretted it when sober.
  • Alcohol consumption may be used as ‘Dutch Courage’ by men who intend to commit rape.[xviii]

To what extent is alcohol implicated in rape in Ireland?

Evidence indicates that alcohol involvement is highly present within incidences of sexual violence. For instance,

  • 70% of women in the RAJI study reported drinking at the time they were raped. [xix] 
  • 76% of all rape defendants in the RAJI study had been drinking at the time of the alleged rape.[xx] 

However we lack research which assesses the impact of the level of alcohol consumption and the culture surrounding consumption, on the likelihood of sexual violence.

How do Irish drinking habits impact on sexual violence?

While alcohol consumption in Ireland is neither the most frequent nor the most common in Europe, alcohol consumption in Ireland reveals striking patterns in particular in relation to binge drinking.

  • Binge drinking in Ireland is common with 26% of those who had consumed alcohol in a 30 day period reporting that they had consumed five or more drinks. This compares to an EU average of 10%.[xxi]
  • The frequency of binge drinking in Ireland is the highest in Europe, with 44% of Irish respondents who had consumed alcohol in the past 12 months indicating that they had been binge drinking at least once a week.[xxii]
  • Patterns for youth alcohol consumption in Ireland similarly echo adult patterns with 42% of boys and 44% of girls in the 15-16 year age group reporting binge-drinking during the previous month.[xxiii]

In Ireland, the levels of binge drinking[xxiv] on the occasion of the rape are extraordinarily high compared to European and North American states.[xxv],[xxvi]  Rape and Justice in Ireland  identified that:

  • 88% of defendants on trial for rape[xxvii] had been binge drinking at the time of the rape.[xxviii]
  • 45% of complainants and 40% of suspects of reported rape between 2000 and 2005 in Ireland had been binge drinking on the occasion of the rape.[xxix]
  • As many as 10% of victims who reported rape to Gardaí were so intoxicated from alcohol as to be unable to offer physical or verbal resistance to the assault.[xxx]

It stands to reason that binge drinking will multiply many of the effects associated with alcohol that impair recognition, response and sense of responsibility by perpetrators in sexual violence incidents.

Targeting harmful alcohol use as a means of reducing sexual violence: the possibilities:

The fact of alcohol’s involvement in sexual violence in Ireland is beyond question. However, multiple socio-cultural, individual and physiological factors are involved in determining behaviour while drinking alcohol and no direct causal link exists between alcohol consumption, at any level, and the perpetration of sexual violence.

Therefore addressing the role of alcohol in sexual violence in Ireland is not a simple matter and there are no clear solutions. Nevertheless, alcohol use can and should be targeted as part of the response in reducing rates of sexual violence in Ireland.  Recognising the extent of the problem and the complex interaction of cultural expectations, toxicology and social and individual behaviours implicated in both patterns of alcohol consumption and sexual violence are but first steps in the process of identifying the means of reducing sexual violence in Ireland.

Further research is required that investigates how programmes that limit access to alcohol and target binge drinking consumption patterns can impact on sexual violence facilitative situations and thus effect a reduction in sexual violence.

Awareness and educational programmes targeting cultural perceptions that associate sexual aggression in men, and increasingly women, and sexual receptivity in women are necessary to counter attitudes that excuse the behaviour of intoxicated perpetrators and blame intoxicated victims of sexual violence. A key message is that drinking does not absolve a person of their normal responsibilities for their actions particularly with regards sexual practice.

Therefore, RCNI has committed to engaging with the issues of alcohol consumption and alcohol associated behaviour and expectations as a means of preventing and addressing sexual violence in Ireland. This blog will host briefings looking at the evidence (particularly from the RAJI report), models of intervention and solutions. We will also be exploring the  recommendations as set out in public health approaches adopted by the WHO and the Steering Group Report on a National Substance Misuse Strategy (February 2012). We hope this information supports you in pursuing our shared objective of a safer Ireland.

Rape Crisis Network Ireland (RCNI) is an Atlantic grantee.

i As identified by victim and whose alcohol consumption was known.

ii Hanly, C., Healy, D., and Scriver, S. 2009. Rape and Justice in Ireland:  A National Study of Survivor, Prosecutor and Court Responses to Rape. Dublin: Liffey: 137-138.

iii Abbey, A.; MCauslan, P.; and Ross, L.T.  1998. Sexual assault perpetration by college men: The role of alcohol, misperception of sexual intent, and sexual beliefs and experiences. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 17:167-195.

iv Crowell, N.A., and Burgess, A.W.  1996. Understanding Violence Against Women. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

v Harrington, N.T., and Leitenberg, H.  1994. Relationship between alcohol consumption and victim behaviours immediately preceding sexual aggression by an acquaintance. Violence and Victims 9:315-324.

vi Abbey, A., Zawacki, T., Buck, P.O., Clinton, M. and McAuslan, P. 2001. Alcohol and Sexual Assault National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) Alcohol Health and Research World, 25(1).

vii Parkhill, M.R. and Abbey, A. 2008. Does Alcohol contribute to the confluence model of sexual assault perpetration? Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 27:529-554

 viii Zawacki, T., Abbey, A., Buck, P.O., McAuslan, P. and Clinto-Sherrod, A.M. 2003. Perpetrators of Alcohol-Involved Sexual Assaults: How Do They Differ From Other Sexual Assault Perpetrators and Nonperpetrators? AGGRESSIVE BEHAVIOR, 29: 366–380.

xix Abbey, A. 2002. Alcohol-Related Sexual Assault: A Common Problem among College Studetns. Journal of Studies of Alcohol, Supp. No.. 14: 118-128.

xi George, W. H., Cue, K. L., Lopez, P. A., Crowe, L. C., & Norris, J. (1995). Self-reported alcohol expectancies and postdrinking sexual inferences about women. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 25, 164–86.

xii Mosher DL, Anderson RD. 1986. Macho personality, sexual aggression, and reactions to guided imagery of realistic rape. J Res Pers 20:77–94.

xiii Abbey, et. al. 2002.

xiv ibid.

xiv ibid.

xv Abbey 2002.

xvi Bellis,M.A., Hughes, K., Calafat., A., Juan, M., Ramon, A., Rodriguez, J.A., Mendes, F., Schnitzer, S., and Phillips-Howard, P. 2008. Sexual Uses of Alcohol and Drugs and the Associated Health Rixks: A Cross-Sectional Study of Young People in Nine European Cities. BMC Public Health, 8:155.

xvii Abbey, et. al. 2002.

xviii Abbey 2001.

xix Hanly 2009:137.

xx ibid.: 273.

xxi ibid.: 24

xxii ibid.: 27.

xxiii Morgan, M. and Brand, K. 2009. ESPAD 2007: Results for Ireland. Department of Health and Children. Available at: espad-2009-results-for-Ireland-dept-of-healthchildren-2009.pdf (accessed February 3, 2012): 5.

xxiv The definition of binge drinking used by the European Commission and DHS is currently: 5 or more units of alcohol consumed on a single occasion (DHS, 2008:3).

xxv Finney, A. 2004. Alcohol and Sexual Violence; Key Findings from the Research. London: Home Office:2.

xxvi Eurobarometer 331. 2010.

xxvii whose alcohol consumption was known

xxviii Hanly, 2009: 255.

xxix ibid.

xxx ibid.:229.

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