Why Alcohol Education Can Play A Bigger Role In Ending Sexual Assault

by Caitlin Padgett

Trigger warning: This article or pages it links to contains information about sexual assault and/or violence, which may be triggering to survivors.

Bang, bang, bang. That's all I really remember. I was coming to consciousness because my head was banging against the wall. He was on top of me, and I could hear the party downstairs. Bang, bang, bang.

I was 16, and it was my first time at a cabin party up at the lake. It was a new scene for me. Everyone seemed a bit cooler and more experienced than I was. An older guy bought me and my friend a 26-ounce bottle of Bacardi, which we drank with Coca-Cola, and he gave us a ride to the party in his boat. The drinks went down easy and soothed my nerves. I have no idea how much I ended up drinking, though I do know we polished off most of the bottle.

After it all went down, one of my friends said, “Don't you regret what you did? Cause you know, the guy who bought you the alcohol really liked you. But, you didn't have sex with him. You had sex with his friend instead.”

Or, was it his friend? I don't even know. I don't know how any of it happened, how it began or how I ended upstairs with the friend of the guy. I do remember trying to have a conversation with the perpetrator. I told him I didn't know what had happened the night before. He kind of smirked and said something along the lines of, “How about round two for a refresher?”

There you have it. I drank too much rum. I had sex with the wrong guy. I had no memory of it happening, and the remedy that was suggested was to do it all (whatever it was) again. I declined, buried the experience, built the wall around me a little higher and shut up about it.

When I was 19, I went on my first big trip overseas. My cousin and I were backpacking through Vietnam, and it was our last night in Nha Trang. We went to a little beach side bar to have a drink. My cousin was ready to call it a night after one, so I decided to stay for with a group we'd met for another drink.

I knew we had an early morning bus to take, and I wasn't planning on partying. My cousin waved goodbye after a second round of drinks was poured. That's the last thing I remember before waking up with my head pressed against the hairy chest of a rugged and tan blonde dude I had zero recollection of seeing before that moment.

I quickly stumbled into the adjacent bathroom. My mouth felt bruised, and as I peered into the mirror, I saw that my lip was split. I wasn't wearing any underwear, but I found them stuffed in the pocket of the skirt that was bunched around my waist, along with enough crumpled money for cab fare. I ran barefoot into the street, jumped in a taxi and arrived back at the hostel just as my cousin was waking up.

We had to grab our things and head for the bus. It wasn't until we were well on our way south toward Saigon that I burst into tears and told my cousin how my night had ended. Thankfully, his was a more sympathetic response. It was of total concern and disbelief, as he'd only seen me drink one drink, and we were partying with people who'd hung out with me.

It's taken me years to be able to talk about these experiences. I have battled with shame and the belief that it was my fault for putting myself in these situations. My lack of awareness only increased my sense of anxiety, and since I couldn't fill in the blanks, my brain tried to erase everything altogether.

I didn't want to feel my body being touched while I was unconscious. I didn't want conjure the mental picture associated with the memory of my head banging against the wall. I didn't want to try to imagine how my lip was split. So, I shoved those experiences and my shame as far away as I could.

But, it didn't go away. The pain and trauma still lived inside of me and affected the way I felt about my body and myself for many years. On a deep level, I believed I was damaged goods and therefore unworthy of love. As such, I was unable to love myself, and I continued the cycle of abusing my own body with alcohol, drugs and work for many years.

I recently shared some of these experiences with a private group I am facilitating, called the "Drink Less Be More" masterclass. The focus of the eight-week class is for women to learn moderation techniques and strategies, so they can set intentions to have healthier relationships with alcohol. When I shared my sexual assault story and the shame that had lived inside me for years, I was overwhelmed by the responses. More than half the group had similar stories to share.

I guess it's not surprising, considering 25 percent of women in the United States have experienced sexual assault, and at least half of all of those incidences involved alcohol. Yes, you read that correctly. In half of all sexual assault cases, either the perpetrator, victim or both are under the influence of alcohol.

Clearly, a conversation needs to happen here. I consider myself a pretty confident woman now, and I have done a lot of healing over the years. Yet, it still took me until almost the end of this month dedicated to sexual assault awareness to muster the courage to write this. It was actually the private responses of the women taking my class — thanking me for sharing my story so they didn't feel so alone in theirs — that convinced me I can't stay quiet on this issue any longer.

As a society, we need to shift our attitudes about the relationship between alcohol and sex. Instead of an all-or-nothing approach to alcohol and sex education like the one I received, what if we teach teenagers strategies for drinking without getting too drunk? What if we tell them, "No means no?"

What if we begin to place value on communication and interaction that doesn't revolve around alcohol? What if we start to teach the importance and utter necessity of consent, instead of accepting the excuse, “I was drunk?"

What if we learn about sexuality in a more empowered way, based on respect and consent. If neither of those things are present, then it should be a culturally accepted no-go situation. What if we teach young men that buying a girl a drink (or a bottle) in no way obligates her to have sex with him?

What if my rapist had only said to me, "I'm so sorry. I didn't know how drunk you were. Are you OK? Is there anything I can do here to help you feel better?" It obviously wouldn't have made the whole situation OK, but it certainly wouldn't have placed the burden of shame on a 16-year-old girl.

What if we lived in a society where women didn't have to fear having drugs or extra alcohol slipped into their drinks? It would be a society where we knew that no matter what part of the world we are visiting, and no matter how much we've had to drink, we'd be safe from rape or violation.

What if we grew up knowing, without a shadow of a doubt, that we are worthy and deserving of respect and love? Let's be the generation that changes this for the next. Let's make consent and consciousness sexy and mutual respect a turn-on. Let's make the need for Sexual Assault Awareness Month obsolete.