You can't consent to sex when you've been drinking.
This seems to be a constant refrain in conversations about sexual assault, especially on college campuses. There's good reason for the repetition: Researchers estimate alcohol is involved in about one-half of sexual assaults in the United States.
The thing that complicates the situation, however, is reality: People get drunk and have sex all the time. Especially young people.
As the 64% of adults who consume alcohol would likely agree, having a few drinks before having sex typically isn't a problem — except for when it is. We know alcohol contributes to incidences of sexual assault; we also know sexual assault isn't the inevitable outcome of all intoxicated hookups, and that sometimes, sex is desired, even delightful, after a few drinks.
But it is, indeed, a grey area, which leaves many young adults concerned about the drunken sexual encounters they might have, whether with long-term partners or one-night stands. Women are often pressed to consider the risks of their own alcohol consumption (or flat-out told they should just stop drinking if they don't want to be raped); but men, too, have their own apprehensions about sex under the influence.
Many young men also have questions that haven't quite been answered in the public conversation about alcohol, consent and sexual assault; they simply want to know how to be sure they haven't violated a partner's consent. But there's a lot of confusion, to say the least.
Mic asked more than 30 millennial men about their experiences with drunk sex, how they navigate consent while drinking and the concerns they still have about heading straight to the bedroom from the bar. Here's what they had to say.
Have you had sex with a drunk partner before?
"I've had a situation where I had a significantly drunk partner (if we can use the 10 scale, perhaps a 7 or 8) actively requesting sex. Was that unethical? Her judgment was certainly impaired, but the lights were still on, so to speak. I felt unsure of myself in the morning when this has occurred." — William*, 27
"No idea what to do if we are both drunk. Happens all the time." — Miles*, 30
"I have honestly never had a conversation about alcohol and sex... A few times I have taken a girl home from the bar and she has passed out in the Uber or as soon as we get home. I have no interest in having sex with someone who is not awake. Just get them to bed safely." — Brett*, 25
"I do not have sex with people when inebriated unless they are a partner of mine. In the early stages of forming a relationship of any kind with someone I will not have sex with them if we are not at similar levels of intoxication." — Adrian, 26
"I've always avoided hooking up with someone who's too far gone, especially if I was sober. Too much risk there. I've had drunk sex where we'd both had a lot to drink, but with rare exception, those have tended to be with a partner whom I was actually dating." — Mike, 27
"If she looks like she's not longer just out to have fun, but now can't take care of herself, it's a no go." — Lawrence*, 28
How do you know if your partner is consenting to have sex if you're drunk?
"[There's] no particular conversation; body signals usually convey enough information. If she's into it, then yes; if she seems disoriented or unenthusiastic I drop my efforts because I'm not a fucking monster and have respect for my potential sexual partners." — Andrew*, 25
"I feel it would be uncomfortable for everyone involved to tell a woman, 'We're about to drink and I plan to have sex with you afterwards, do you consent to that?' Even if you did get consent [for sex] before drinking, what happens if the women changes her mind while drinking or right before the man wanted to have sex?" — Norman*, 25
"I prefer to err on the side of caution, so I always establish consent, though my approach might change depending on the situation. ... For me, consent needs to be established verbally before sex at all times when it's the first time, no matter what the situation. And whether alcohol is involved is certainly a factor: I won't consider consent valid if someone is acting too intoxicated. This is also why I won't have sex if I am too intoxicated." — Lucas*, 30
"It's the question that bedevils this whole issue: Where is the line drawn?" — William*, 27
"Consent is such a simple concept that becomes so complicated when alcohol is involved. I sometimes wonder if it is ever totally OK." — Tyler*, 24
What should men do to ensure that drunk sex is also consensual?
"I would encourage sexual assault education to be less binary than 'consent can or cannot be given when drunk.' ... [I would] encourage people to get to know each other sober. Then, hopefully, decisions made with alcohol are somewhat rooted in a knowledge of the person. [And] encourage men to be aware of and give pleasure to their partners. Being aware of the other person's experience not only makes for better sex all around, but it also trains men to quickly perceive if their partner is not enjoying what's going on. Checking in and then actually listening can help men with the right intentions [take] the right actions." — Jimmy, 27
"No idea what to do if we are both drunk. Happens all the time."
"I understand the desire for clear lines of consent, but I don't think you can solve the [alcohol] consent problem without also solving all of the other issues society has with sex. ... I also think that the prohibition on underage drinking does harm in this regard, because boys and girls don't get a chance to learn how to drink responsibly before being put out on their own. I think a lot of the problems occur not because the man is an a-hole, but because he is too drunk to accurately read body language and social context." — Cory*, 32
"[The law] sets a dangerous precedent for how women view their ownership and control over their own bodies and ignores the myriad kinds of sex that are not vanilla and heterosexual. It implies that women can't have judgement when impaired but men can — that they are not sexual beings, they can only be coerced into being sexual... This is not to say that the opposite of the law is true: that rape is impossible when both parties are drunk. That's obviously false. We need to protect women, there's no question. The statistics are disgusting. Men need to change — no if, ands or buts. That doesn't mean the law makes sense. Instead, the law when both parties are drunk, shuld be the same as when both parties are sober." — Joey*, 27
*First names have been changed to allow subjects to speak freely on private matters.