Drunk sex: always a bad idea?

While reading the Echo’s Valentine’s Day issue, I started thinking more about the college hook-up scene. As someone in a monogamous relationship, I don’t think about the hook-up culture as much as I did before I met Jake. And since communication is paramount in a relationship, I’ve never worried about a questionable encounter between us. To be entirely honest, before thinking about writing this article, I had never actually read the “Overview of Policy Expectations with Respect to Physical Sexual Misconduct” section of the Colby College Student Handbook.

Then Jake sent me an article from Slate.com: “How Drunk is Too Drunk to Have Sex?” I definitely recommend reading it, as it goes into incredible detail about a real encounter (as opposed to my ramblings here). In sum—and I am really, quite frankly, oversimplifying here—a female student and a male student from Occidental College were both extremely intoxicated and had sex. A week later, the female student filed a complaint to the school against the male student, and he was expelled. He then filed suit against the College for applying its sexual misconduct policies unfairly based on gender.

The real issue in this case does not revolve around the facts; everyone involved in the encounter agrees on the events of that night. The real issue in this case is that both parties were extremely intoxicated, leading to the ever-present issue of consent.

We talk about it, define it, have shirts with it pasted on them(“Don’t know if it’s consensual? Just ask!”) and hold forums and events on it—all of which are valid. The more we talk about it, the better. And I am all for having events centered around it. On a college campus, it really is essential for all students’ safety. But my question, and I am not even going to begin to pretend that I have an inkling of an answer to it, is: what about drunk consent? This topic isn’t new, but I think that when it comes to drunken consent, the only option is to keep talking about it, because we don’t have answers.

If a student claims they don’t want to have sex and then moments later changes their mind (of their own volition rather than by coercion), does their level of intoxication invalidate that consent? At that point, how many times should the partner ask to make sure that person does, in fact, want to have sex? What if that person’s judgment is equally impaired by alcohol and they do not check twice, three times, four times, or more? The next day, when one person wakes up and feels that they have made a mistake, how should they proceed?

Personally—as this is an opinion piece—I am of the mind that if both individuals are intoxicated, you cannot hold one person to a higher standard of judgment than the other.

I am a feminist. And as a feminist, I hold the value of equality extremely high. I understand that women between the ages eighteen to twenty-four are most likely to experience sexual assault. I was originally researching the statistic that 1 in 5 women experience sexual assault, only to find out that there is much debate over the numbers (if we debate numbers, how can we even begin to debate something you can’t quantify? That’s an issue for a different piece). When I look at my niece, I am so excited to see the woman she will become, but I am also terrified for her to grow up in a world where women have to think about where they walk, park, or live based on the fact that they are women.

That being said, I also do not think that someone should be expelled for a drunken mistake that, according to all accounts (including a witness, trained in sexual assault during orientation who saw the Occidental students having sex and closed the door because, as he told investigators, “This didn’t look like [a sexual assault] to me”) was consensual at that time.

Instead, I think we need to target the fact that women are more likely to be regarded as [insert equivalent to “sluts” here]. If both parties are drunk, but the next day one person wakes up and feels dirty or guilty because they had sex, I feel as if at least some part of the reason they might report that incident is to—and this may sound disgusting and terrible, but I’m going to say it—feel a little less guilty by placing the agency on someone else. Let me be clear: what I am talking about is not a situation in which someone coerced or forced someone to have sex. I am strictly talking about the grey area where both parties (while intoxicated) consent in the moment and then one person wakes up the next day and feels that they should not have consented.

Feel free to disagree with me, but if a man wakes up after having sex the night before, he is less likely to feel a deep sense of shame than a woman. Maybe his friends will give him a high-five, or if he is willing to admit that he regrets the decision, they might even say “so what? You got laid.” I admit that I am making a huge generalization here. But I feel that from my personal experiences and from witnessing other women’s experiences, a woman is more likely to wake up then next day and feel ashamed or guilty or bad. And that is not her fault. Society, religion, ect. has essentially always engrained in women false virtues that tell them to keep their chastity belts on so that they can be desirable. At Colby, that statement goes a little overboard. But I had a friend who, after telling her mom she wanted to go on birth control because she was scared she might get sexually assaulted at college, her mom told her, “Well, you just shouldn’t let that happen.” Right. Because it should be the woman’s job to make sure she doesn’t get raped. Of course, how could I forget?

Getting back to my original point here, I think that consent is always important. It should not fall on one party or another to read someone’s mind, so verbal consent is always optimal. Colby’s policy on consent (the portion specifically regarding intoxication and consent) is as follows: “When alcohol or other drugs are being used, a person will be considered unable to give valid consent if they cannot fully understand the details of a sexual interaction (who, what, when, where, why, or how) because they lack the capacity to reasonably understand the situation.”

The question remains: what if both parties fulfill that criteria in the moment, or give the appearance of fulfilling that criteria? Alcohol, at least for the time being, will always weave itself into Colby’s hook-up culture. But when will shame untangle itself from sex?

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