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Alcohol/ Drugs & Sexual Assault

Elena Hill, MD, MPH profile image
Medically Reviewed By Elena Hill, MD, MPH • Updated Oct 17, 2022 • 21 cited sources

Every year, more than 450,000 people 12 and older are raped or sexually assaulted in the United States.[1] Almost one undergraduate woman in four has experienced sexual assault. [2] It’s a staggering number. In almost half of all rapes, the perpetrator is an acquaintance of the victim.[8]

People ages 12 to 34 face the highest rates of rape and sexual assault.[1] Often, the attacks happen on college campuses. 

If you are assaulted and desire to report the incident, gathering evidence and reporting the attack is crucial. Aftercare is important too, as sexual assault can have a deep impact on your physical or mental health. 

What Is Drug-Facilitated Sexual Assault?

Perpetrators sometimes use substances to make the attack easier and the victims more compliant.

What Is Drug-Facilitated Sexual Assault?

  • It involves alcohol or another drug. 
  • Victims may take the substance willingly, or it may be given secretly without the victim being aware. 
  • When the victim is inebriated, the assault begins.
  • Even if the victim willingly takes the drug, this is still an assault.

Alcohol & Sexual Assault

Alcohol is one of the most widely used substances available to attackers and their victims. Researchers say alcohol is the most commonly used date-rape drug, and about half of all sexual assaults involve alcohol use. [3]

It’s not uncommon for an assault victim to willingly drink alcohol before the attack begins. In 81% to 91% of assaults, either the victim or the perpetrator have consumed alcohol.[3] Of note, this does not delegitimize the assault – sexual assault is ALWAYS illegal, whether or not substances were involved.

At high doses, alcohol causes extreme sedation combined with memory loss. A person can be assaulted after a night of heavy drinking and awaken later with no memory of the event. During the episode, impaired inhibition may make it harder for a victim to physically resist attack. 

Alcohol & Sexual Coercion

Sexual coercion is defined as sexual activity happening when a person feels any of the following:[4]

  • Pressured
  • Tricked
  • Threatened
  • Forced (either emotionally or physically)

A power balance can be a form of coercion: A mentor or teacher asks a student on a date, and the student feels compelled to say yes due to the power dynamic in the relationship, for example.

Alcohol can also be considered coercive. Alcohol is the most commonly used form of sexual coercion.[5] A perpetrator gives a victim drinks to “loosen them up”. Since alcohol loosens inhibitions and reduces executive functioning abilities, it’s an effective coercion tool. Alcohol-facilitated assaults may happen at parties or public spaces, or in private homes. [9]

Date-Rape Drugs

Any substance could be used to facilitate a sexual assault, including these:[6]

  • Marijuana
  • Cocaine
  • Painkillers
  • Sleeping aids
  • Tranquilizers

Specifically, drugs like GHB and Rohypnol are  known as date rape drugs. These substances cause both sedation and memory loss, so they’re effective in making a potential victim compliant. These drugs are typically odorless, tasteless, and dissolvable. They are often added to a victim’s drink or food without their knowledge.

Despite the fact that there are other drugs known as the “date rape” drugs, by the numbers, alcohol actually still remains by far the most commonly used date-rape drug. [7] 

Sexual Assault & Your Mental Health 

A sexual assault may only last for a few moments. But for the victim, the scars can linger for a long time. You may have physical signs (like bruises or soreness), but you may also have mental health symptoms as well, for days, weeks, months or even years after the event.

In a study of college students assaulted in their first semester of school, most had symptoms of anxiety and depression at the end of that semester.[10] A student like this may do the following:

  • Withdraw from social engagements
  • Require more sleep 
  • Fail classes 
  • Feel isolated

About 20% of assault victims develop symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).[11] They may experience any of these:

  • Vivid flashbacks of the event 
  • Feelings of anxiety or edginess
  • Distress in environments similar to the one in which the rape occurred

These feelings are strongest in the immediate aftermath of the attack, but some people continue to display PTSD signs for months or years, particularly when the individual is not able to properly express or process the event. [12]

Sometimes, victims use substances like alcohol or drugs to ease their anxiety or block out memories and intrusive thoughts.

Misconceptions about Substance Use/ Sexual Assault and “Victim Blaming”

When an assault involves the use of drugs or alcohol, victims unfortunately can receive negative or inappropriate messages about their partial responsibility from friends, family, medical providers or law enforcement officials. This is often called “victim blaming”.

Researcher shows that people who faced negative or unsupportive reactions from others upon disclosing their attack face even worse mental health outcomes than those who receive positive support. [13]

For example, individuals who disclose the attack to a friend or family member and are then told that they were partially or entirely at fault can actually face worse mental health consequences.  These statements can be extremely counterproductive in helping a victim process and heal.

If someone you know or love discloses an assault to you, make sure your initial reactions are supportive. Victim blaming is never correct or helpful, and can actually worsen outcomes for your friend or loved one. 

Have You Been a Victim? Spot the Signs

After a substance-facilitated sexual assault, individuals may have limited memory of the event. This can make it hard for the individual to identify what happened, making it harder both to recover emotionally and/or pursue legal action against the perpetrator. Oftentimes, individuals can look for physical injury after the event. They can also immediately report to their doctor or emergency room where physical evidence can be collected off the body. However, many victims may be so upset after an event that they do not think to immediately do this, and physical evidence may be lost or unobtainable.

A few things to remember if you have experienced sexual assault:

It’s still a sexual assault, even if any of the following is true:[15]

  • You used to date the person. A pre-existing relationship doesn’t allow someone to have sex with you without your consent.
  • You can’t remember all of the details. Your foggy memory doesn’t invalidate the experience. 
  • You were unconscious. If you’re not awake, you can’t give consent.

You’ve Been Assaulted: Do This to Preserve Evidence

The sexual assault experience is highly personal and some victims decide either for or against taking legal action against the perpetrator. This is a very individualized choice. A person should never be forced or pressured to pursue legal action against a perpetrator unless they desire to do so.

On the other hand, some individuals feel very motivated to press charges. If you do desire to take legal action, there are some important immediate steps to take to best preserve physical evidence immediately after an attack.

First, here are some tips right after an assault: [16]

  • Do not Bathe: A shower or bath may wash off critical evidence. 
  • Do not Groom: Don’t brush your hair, scrub your teeth, or wash your face. 
  • Do not Change: Wear the clothes you were wearing during the assault until someone can collect them for you in an evidence bag. If you must change, put the clothes in a paper bag. It’s very tempting to tear off all of your clothes and wash yourself clean. But a delay of a few hours now can give you more options later. 
  • Do not Consume: Don’t eat, drink, or take any drugs. 
  • Report immediately to an emergency department: EDs are accustomed to collecting evidence for patients who experience sexual assault and documenting that evidence for you to have later.

Where to Report Your Assault 

Many people feel nervous or stressed about reporting a serious crime like an assault. You might benefit from talking with someone first.

RAINN maintains a hotline (800.656.HOPE) staffed by trained counselors.[17] They can talk to you about your assault and explain your next steps. They can also direct you to law enforcement agents and doctors equipped to assist assault survivors. Call them if you’re not sure what to do next.

Some assault survivors say seeking justice gives them a sense of control, making recovery easier.[18] If you know you want to press charges, you can take that step immediately.

  • If you are in immediate danger, call 911. Explain what just happened, and tell the operator where you are. 
  • If you are medically injured, go to a hospital or medical center for help, and tell the admitting nurse that you’ve been assaulted. The team can coordinate with law enforcement. 
  • If you are safe, call your local police department, and explain that you’d like to file a rape report. The operator will tell you where to go next. 

4 Ways to Protect Yourself From Assault

The bottom line is: You’re never “responsible” or at fault for your sexual assault, even if you were drinking or using substances before it happened. Your perpetrator never has a right to assault you no matter what your behavior was prior to an attack. That being said, there are some steps we can all take to minimize the risk of assault.

1. Go With Friends 

Identify a friend to be a party buddy, and remain in physical contact. Make sure you have each others contact information, or even make a plan to check in at the end of the night to make sure your partner gets home safely.

2.  Stay in Public Places 

Mix and mingle, but don’t go anywhere with someone you just met or don’t know well alone. [19]

3. Monitor your substance intake 

College parties often involve binge drinking or use of other drugs. [20] If you are consuming, make sure you are paying attention to your body’s signs and cut off drinking or other substance use once you start to feel significantly disinhibited or impaired. 

3. Practice Consent

College students often assume that common situations, such as crashing on someone’s couch, mean consenting to sexual activity.[21] That’s not true. Practice active, constant consent. Ask before engaging in any physical contact, Withdraw if your consent isn’t immediate and enthusiastic. 

Alcohol/Drugs & Sexual Assault FAQs 

What percentage of sexual assaults are related to alcohol?

Victims of assaults facilitated by alcohol may be unlikely to report the crime, as they may feel partially responsible for drinking before the attack. Thus these numbers may be under-reported. Even so, it is estimated that about half of all sexual assaults involve alcohol.[3]

What are the dangers of alcohol and sexual assault?

Alcohol makes sexual assault more likely, and alcohol can make it hard for survivors to remember important details. One of the easiest ways to ensure that you don’t become an aggressor or victim is to limit alcohol intake. 

What drug is most commonly used to incapacitate victims?

While so date rape drugs like GHB grab headlines, alcohol is still by far the most commonly used substance in sexual assaults.[3]

Medically Reviewed By Elena Hill, MD, MPH

Elena Hill, MD; MPH received her MD and Masters of Public Health degrees at Tufts Medical School and completed her family medicine residency at Boston Medical Center. She is currently an attending physician at Bronxcare Health Systems in the Bronx, NY where ... Read More

  1. Victims of Sexual Violence: Statistics. RAINN. Accessed September 2022.
  2. Statistics. National Sexual Violence Resource Center. Accessed September 2022.
  3. Alcohol-Related Sexual Assault. Augusta University. Accessed September 2022.
  4. Sexual Coercion. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. February 2021. Accessed September 2022.
  5. Sexual Coercion. Schriever Space Force Base. Accessed September 2022.
  6. Date Rape Drugs. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. February 2021. Accessed September 2022.
  7. Alcohol Most Common Date Rape Drug, Law Enforcement Officials Say. Partnership to End Addiction. October 2013. Accessed September 2022.
  8. Statistics. National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Accessed September 2022.
  9. Alcohol and Sexual Assault. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. 2001. Accessed September 2022.
  10. Mental Health Consequences of Sexual Assault Among First-Year College Women. Journal of American College Health. February 2018. Accessed September 2022.
  11. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Associated with Sexual Assault Among Women in the WHO World Mental Health Surveys. Psychological Medicine. June 2017. Accessed September 2022.
  12. A Systematic Review of Short- and Medium-Term Mental Health Outcomes in Young People Following Sexual Assault. Journal of Child and Adolescent Mental Health. December 2019. Accessed September 2022.
  13. Relationship Between Negative Social Reactions to Sexual Assault Disclosure and Outcomes of Black and White Female Survivors. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy. 2018. Accessed September 2022.
  14. Dr. Ford, Alcohol, and Remembering Sexual Assault: What Do We Know? The British Psychological Society. (2018, October 9). Accessed September 2022.
  15. Was I Raped? Wright University. Accessed September 2022.
  16. What Should I Do If I or Someone I Know was Sexually Assaulted? Planned Parenthood. Accessed September 2022.
  17. About the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline. RAINN. Accessed September 2022.
  18. Reporting to Law Enforcement. RAINN. Accessed September 2022.
  19. Date Rape Prevention. West Virginia University. Accessed September 2022.
  20. Binge Drinking. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. January 2022. Accessed September 2022. 
  21. Researchers Found What Consent Looks Like Isn't Always Straightforward on College Campuses. Teen Vogue. January 2020. Accessed September 2022.

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