Sexual assault: adherence to “rape culture” has more influence than alcohol use

Despite the partner’s refusal, almost a third of the men (30%) indicated that they would have gone as far as forcing sex if they were certain the woman would not report it.

Despite the partner’s refusal, almost a third of the men (30%) indicated that they would have gone as far as forcing sex if they were certain the woman would not report it.

Credit: Thinkstock

In 5 seconds

The more a man adheres to rape culture, the more he is likely to use coercive measures to have sex with a woman, whether or not he has consumed alcohol.

Alcohol cannot be used as an excuse for a man who resorts to coercive measures – even to the point of assault – to have sex with a woman. In fact, such behaviour is primarily a function of his cognition distortion level, namely, his inclination to adhere to "rape culture."

This is evidenced in an experimental study in which 50% of the participants said that, to have sex with a female partner who has not expressly refused their advances, they would use coercive measures not necessarily involving violence (threats, manipulation, intoxication), even though they themselves had not previously consumed alcohol.

Furthermore, whether or not they had consumed alcohol, 30% of the participants said they would commit rape if they were certain their victim would not report it…

This is what Massil Benbouriche has concluded in his doctoral thesis completed at the University of Renne’s Research Centre for Psychology, under direction of professor Jean-Pierre Guay.

To reach his conclusion, Benbouriche recruited 150 men aged 21-35 from the general population: 60% were born in Quebec and 30% were French. The majority (51%) were employed or studying at university (38%), while the remaining were unemployed (9%) or shared their time between work and studies (3%).

Subjects first responded to various questionnaires measuring their degree of cognition distortion in their perceptions about sexual relations between men and women.

Alcohol and the perception of (non-)consent

Subsequently, half the participants drank an amount of vodka corresponding to their weight in order to reach a blood alcohol level of 0.08%, while the others remained sober.

They then listened to an audio recording of a man and a woman kissing on a couch after a night of drinking out. At first the woman consents but then resists after the man starts groping her breasts and tries to undress her. Another exchange of kisses follows after the woman has clearly stated that she does not want to have sex.

From this scenario the participants were asked to determine at what point the woman no longer wanted to have sex. They were then asked, on a scale from 0 to 100, if they would have used non-violent coercive measures to achieve their ends. Whether they had consumed alcohol or not, half of the respondents did not exclude this possibility.

In addition, despite the partner’s refusal, almost a third of the men (30%) indicated that they would have gone as far as forcing sex if they were certain the woman would not report it. More specifically, the rate fluctuated between 8% and 20% in men who had not consumed alcohol and between 20% and 60% of men who had. These differences depended on their degree of adherence to rape culture: the more they adhered to it, the more they were likely to use force to have sex.

These results, which are “difficult to generalize to the population,” underscore the crucial role of cognitive distortions in sexual coercion, according to Benbouriche.

“The vast majority of bar patrons do not become potential rapists after drinking,” said Benbouriche. "They are able to recognize sexual non-consent even after consuming alcohol. However, those who presented a high cognitive distortion level more clearly expressed their intentions to use coercive measures to have sex.”

In other words, despite their perception of non-consent, these individuals were more likely to use non-violent coercion even if they had not consumed alcohol, “and they were more at risk for committing rape when they had.”

Upstream prevention

While working as a prison clinical psychologist, Benbouriche assessed and treated men convicted of sexual crimes.

“That’s where I got the idea to redirect my thesis, which originally focused on sex offenders,” said the UdeM graduate. “Since most acts of sexual assault are not prosecuted, the assumption regarding only those with criminal records has obscured the role of rape culture and the fact that the majority of assaults are never punished or even reported to the authorities.”

The usefulness of his research is that it suggests that alcohol is not an excuse for non-perception of non-consent. “In the short term, we must tell men that alcohol use cannot be invoked to explain their actions, and that refusal, even subtly expressed, is as valid as a clearly stated no,” he said.

According to Benbouriche, it is also important to train students "to intervene in real time rather than close their eyes, by defusing situations of potential assault they may witness."

“To prevent unwanted sexual advances, we must tackle rape culture, and to do so, we must act earlier, even at the elementary level, by teaching students about gender equality,” concluded the post-doctoral student at Wayne State University (USA).