How stereotypes can create misperception of sexual interest.
- Alcohol consumption is linked with consensual as well as nonconsensual sex.
- False beliefs about women who drink increase the likelihood of sexual aggression.
- The “casual sex–drinking nexus” may cause some men to believe that women who are drinking are interested in hooking up.
As a career sex crimes prosecutor, I know too well that many incidents of sexual assault involve alcohol consumption by both parties. One doesn’t need to work in the criminal justice arena to recognize the risks that come with compromised perception and judgment. But can the mere fact that a woman is or appears to have been drinking make her more vulnerable? Apparently, it can depend on who is paying attention and the stereotypes they hold.
Targeting the Vulnerable
Fact: The vast majority of men do not commit sexual assault. When faced with a woman who is chemically compromised, whether on a date or in a social situation, most would affirmatively take steps to ensure her safety like calling an Uber or finding her friends to assist. Unfortunately, however, not everyone behaves appropriately. Research explains.
Sheri E. Pegram et al. (2018) investigated the difference between men who sexually assault women who have been drinking versus women who are sober.1 They begin by recognizing that, unfortunately, alcohol consumption is linked with both consensual as well as nonconsensual sex, as multiple studies have found that both perpetrators and victims report having indulged in drinking in approximately half of all sexual assaults. That means most likely that if one party is drinking, both parties are. The question then becomes, how does that lead to sexual assault?
Pegram et al. studied beliefs about how alcohol influences perceptions and behavior, and how it could potentially increase the likelihood of sexual aggression. They discuss confirmation bias, for example, where men who believe alcohol will enhance their sex drive are more apt to behave in a manner consistent with this expectation, and may be more motivated to drink when they are looking for sexual activity. They also note that men’s beliefs about women who drink, such as perceiving them as “sexually loose,” may influence the way they interact with women who are drinking, focusing on information that confirms their beliefs and minimizing information that doesn’t.
Pegram et al. note that if men assume a drinking woman is looking for sex, they are more likely to misperceive friendliness as sexual interest. As compared to nondrinking counterparts, Pegram et al. note that numerous vignette studies have found that people assume a woman who is drinking is more interested in having sex with her male companion than a woman who is not.
Misperceiving Indulgence as Sexual Interest
In their own research, Pegram et al. found that 35 percent of the young, single men in their study reported having committed at least one sexually aggressive act since they were 14 years old, which they note is consistent with other research. They also found that half of the sexual assaults involved alcohol consumption by the victim or perpetrator. They note that their findings support the premise that “the casual sex–drinking nexus” may cause some men to believe that women who are drinking are interested in hooking up, and consequently misperceive the woman’s sexual interest in them—a misconception that is particularly true when they have “strong sex-related alcohol expectancies” and stereotypes about women who drink.
The takeaway seems to be that recognizing stereotypes, respecting boundaries, and engaging in good communication are ways to ensure socializing is appropriate and safe. Drink and socialize responsibly.
This article was originally on Psychology Today.
Wendy L. Patrick, J.D., Ph.D. is a career prosecutor, international public speaker, author, and media commentator.
1. Pegram, Sheri E., Antonia Abbey, Breanne R. Helmers, Massil Benbouriche, Zunaira Jilani, and Jacqueline Woerner. 2018. “Men Who Sexually Assault Drinking Women: Similarities and Differences with Men Who Sexually Assault Sober Women and Nonperpetrators.” Violence Against Women 24 (11): 1327–48. doi:10.1177/1077801218787927.