Sex Related Alcohol Expectancies: mediating rape and alcohol consumption

31 May

Across European countries there are notable differences in the behaviours of individuals who consume equal amounts of alcohol.[i] Culture plays a role in how we behave when we consume alcohol. Studies have shown that how an individual responds to alcohol depends on what effects they expect to experience.[ii],[iii] These are called ‘Alcohol expectancies’. Individuals will consume alcohol in order to experience what they believe are the desirable effects of alcohol as understood within their culture.[iv]

Alcohol expectancies may include the expectation of feeling uninhibited enough to dance or sing , of being able to talk more openly than usual about something, being able to say what you really want to say, or being free to behave uncharacteristically. They can also lead to an increased expectation of, and tolerance for, violent behaviour. Sex-related alcohol expectancies can include expectations of increased sexual arousal, sexual inhibition, sexual aggressiveness among men and sexual risk-taking.[v] The effects of alcohol expectations in relation to sex are such that individuals who think they are drinking alcohol will express similar responses, including reduced recognition of sexual refusal, as intoxicated individuals.[vi] Thus, the expectations of alcohol’s effects are a powerful predictor of behaviour .[vii],[viii], [ix]

How do alcohol expectancies relate to sexual violence?

Evidence from Rape and Justice in Ireland (RAJI) suggests that there is a strong connection between alcohol consumption and sexual violence.[x] This finding is in line with research from outside of Ireland which indicates an association between alcohol consumption and sexually aggressive behaviour in men.[xi]

Aggression and sexual behaviour are both elements of sexual assault.[xii]  Studies indicate that sex-related alcohol expectancies include the expectation that intoxicated men will experience strong aggressive and sexual urges. Intoxicated women are expected to have more romantic feelings, be more promiscuous and be more vulnerable to sexual coercion. .[xiii]

These factors may increase the risk of sexual violence as men may perceive themselves as incapable of controlling their desires while intoxicated, and perceive intoxicated women as legitimate targets for coercive and forced sexual encounters.

Alcohol-expectancies and acquaintance rape

The psychological effects of alcohol expectancies interact with the pharmacological effects of alcohol consumption in such a way that intoxicated individuals are more likely to interpret ambiguous behaviour according to their expectations.[xiv] Therefore, intoxicated men may interpret ‘friendly’ behaviour by a woman as an indication of a desire for sex. Intoxicated men may also interpret a woman’s alcohol consumption as expressing her desire for sex. Further, whether intoxicated or not, men may perceive another’s intoxication as a ‘carte blanche’ to engage in unwanted sexual activities with them, as they are seen as vulnerable to coercion and force due to the expected effects of alcohol.

The combined pharmacological effects of alcohol consumption and alcohol-expectancies are particularly relevant to situations of acquaintance rape and sexual violence. Abbey has evaluated experimental research and concluded that in social situations with a potential sexual partner men will look for cues that indicate the level of a woman’s sexual interest. Alcohol consumption and intoxication exacerbate the tendency for men to interpret friendly/polite behaviour as a sign of sexual interest while also reducing cognitive functions, resulting in the disregarding or minimising of signals and cues which disconfirm sexual interest.[xv]

A second point at which alcohol expectancies interact with acquaintance rape occurs at the time when sexual refusal occurs. Intoxicated men may feel ‘led on’ due to their false interpretation of preceding behaviour and feel justified in forcing sexual activity.[xvi]  Thus alcohol expectancies have the potential to lead to false interpretations of behaviours and verbal signals.   Men may project sexual interest onto women, overlooking indications of non-consent, and become aggressive and coercive in their sexual behaviour. Additionally they may become coercive even where non-consent is recognised.

While evidence remains limited and focussed primarily on the experiences of American college students, some research has pointed towards women engaging in similarly coercive sexual behaviour while intoxicated as men.[xvii] The experience of male victims of sexual violence in relation to alcohol-expectancies held by women is an important area of further research.

Do sex-related alcohol-expectancies interact with other factors in incidents of sexual violence?

Alcohol expectancies interact with other factors that increase the risk of committing sexual violence, including personality and previous alcohol-related and sexual experiences, particularly experience of sexual violence as victim or perpetrator. Alcohol expectancies have been shown to be higher among heavier drinkers, while men who exhibit traits including anger, irritability, antisocial personal characteristics and lack of empathy were more likely to express aggression when intoxicated.[xviii],[xix]

Assessment of perpetrators of sexual violence in assaults that involved alcohol, and assaults that did not involve alcohol, indicate that among both groups of men, aggression, delinquency, hostility towards women and sexual dominance were more prominent personality traits than among non-perpetrating men.[xx]  However, those who committed alcohol-involved sexual assaults tended to have stronger beliefs regarding the effect of alcohol on their sex drive and on women’s interest in having sex. They also consumed the most alcohol.[xxi] This evidence suggests that alcohol expectancies interact with other factors to facilitate the commission of sexual violence.

Notably, the expectation of alcohol’s effects appears to influence sexual attitudes among all men. Studies using placebos indicate that men who thought they were consuming alcohol took longer to recognise a women’s refusal than those who knew they were not consuming alcohol. Further, when assessing the responses of men who exhibit coercive sexual attitudes when sober and those that do not exhibit coercive sexual attitudes when sober in relation to alcohol expectancies, it was found that attitudinal differences between these groups of men decreased when non-coercive men consumed alcohol or believed they had consumed alcohol.[xxii] This suggests that tolerance for coercive sexual behaviour increases with the expectation of alcohol’s effects.

How does this information apply to the Irish case?

Rape and Justice in Ireland revealed that, in acquaintance rape cases, both perpetrator and victim were likely to have been drinking alcohol.[xxiii] Analysis of data gathered by RAJI  revealed that men accused of rape who had been drinking on the occasion of the alleged rape were more likely to claim that sex had been consensual than men who had not been drinking alcohol. While not conclusive, these facts may point towards the effects of alcohol expectancies where non-consent is disregarded and a women’s consent is more likely to be assumed if she had been drinking.

Despite the high involvement of alcohol in social situations in Ireland and more recent evidence coming from RAJI in relation to the involvement of alcohol in rape, there is little research about the specific alcohol expectancies at play in Ireland. Such information is vital to redress alcohol expectancies that may increase the likelihood of sexual violence perpetration.

What can be done?

Alcohol expectancies are cultural and can be altered.  Recognition of their contribution to the prevalence of alcohol-influenced sexual violence demands a greater understanding of alcohol expectancies’ role in mediating between alcohol consumption, sexual attitudes, and the commission of sexual violence.

Further research on the sex-related alcohol expectancies that prevail in Ireland and how these expectancies interact with sexual violence, particularly acquaintance rape, is required to deepen knowledge and develop practical strategies to address this issue.

Building on the knowledge gained, broad educational campaigns that target and dispel inaccurate alcohol expectancies may lead to a reduction in aggressive sexual behaviour while intoxicated for some men, and better recognition of sexual disinterest and refusal. It will also importantly have the impact of removing the excuse/belief that sexually aggressive behaviour is caused by alcohol consumption.

Education on alcohol consumption should increase recognition that intoxicated behaviour is not outside of individual control. As such, alcohol consumption is never a justification for coercing or forcing sex on an unwilling partner

Later fact sheets will look at how alcohol expectancies shape how perpetrators, victims, society and the law assesses and judges sexual violence when alcohol was consumed.


[i] Hibell, B., Andersson, B., Bjamason, T., Ahlstrom, S., Balakireva, O., Kokkevi, A., Morgan, M. 2004. The

ESPAD Report: Alcohol and Other Drug Use Among Students in 35 European Countries, 2003. The Swedish Council for Information on Alcohol and Other Drugs (CAN),The Pompidou Group at the Council of Europe and the authors: 160; Kuntsche,E, Rehm, F, and Gmel, G. 2004. Characteristics of Binge Drinkers in Europe. Social Science and Medicine, 59(1): 113-127.

[ii] Fillmore MT, Vogel-Sprott M. Expectancies about alcohol-induced motor impairment predict individual differences in responses to alcohol and placebo. J Stud Alcohol. 1995;56:90–98.

[iii] Fillmore MT, Vogel-Sprott M. An alcohol model of impaired inhibitory control and its treatment in humans. Exper Clin Psychopharmol. 1999;7:49–55

[iv] George, W.H. and Stoner, S.A. 2000. Understanding acute alcohol effects on sexual behaviour. Annual Review of Sex Researrch, Vol. 11: 92-123: 94.

[v] Abbey, A. 2011. Alcohol’s role in sexual violence perpetration: Theoretical explanations, existing evidence and future directions. Drug and Alcohol Review, 20; 481-489.482.

[vi] Gross A.M., Bennet T., Sloan, L. Marx, B.P. Juergens, J. 2001. The impact of alcohol and alcohol expectancies on male perception of female sexual arousal in a date rape analog. Exp Clin Psychopharmacol; 9: 380-88; 381

[vii] Fillmore and Vogel-Sprott,1995. ibid.

[viii] Fillmore and Vogel-Sprott 1999;ibid.

[ix] Hibell, B., Andersson, B., Bjamason, T., Ahlstrom, S., Balakireva, O., Kokkevi, A., Morgan, M. 2004. The

ESPAD Report: Alcohol and Other Drug Use Among Students in 35 European Countries, 2003. The Swedish Council for Information on Alcohol and Other Drugs (CAN),The Pompidou Group at the Council of Europe and the authors: 160.

[x] Hanly, C., Healy, D., and Scriver, S. 2009. Rape and Justice in Ireland:  A National Study of Survivor, Prosecutor and Court Responses to Rape. Dublin: Liffey

[xi] Marx, B.P., Gross, A.M.,  Juergen, J. 1997. Alcohol expectancies and perceived token resistance: an analysis of two variables related to date rape. Journal of Psychopathology and behavioural Assessment, 19:281-302.

[xii] Dermen, K.H., Coorper, M.L. Agocha, V.B. 1998. Sex-related alcohol expectancies as moderators of the relationship between alcohol use and risky sex in adolescents. J Stud Alcohol. 59(1):71-7.

[xiii] George, W.H., Cue, K.L., Lopez, P.A., Crowe, L.C., Norris, J. 1995. Self-reported alcohol expectancies and postdrinking sexual inferences about women. Journal of Applied Social Psychology; 25: 164-186.

[xiv] Abbey,ibid.

[xv] Abbey, ibid.:484

[xvi] Ibid.

[xvii] Palmer RS, McMahon TJ, Rounsaville BJ, Ball SA. 2010. Coercive sexual experiences, protective behavioral strategies, alcohol expectancies and consumption among male and female college students.J Interpers Violence. 25(9):1563-78. Epub 2009 Dec 29.

[xviii] Abbey, ibid.

[xix] Abbey, A., Parkhill, M.R., Jacques-Tiura, A.J. and Saenz, C. 2009. Alcohol’s role in men’s use of coercion to obtain unprotected sex. Substance Use and Misuse: Find all citations in this journal (default)Or filter your current search44(9-10):1329-48]

[xx] Zawacki, T., Abbey, A., Buck, P.O., McAuslan, P. and Clinto-Sherrod, A.M. 2003. Perpetrators of Alcohol-Involved Sexual Assaults: How Do They Differ From Other Sexual Assault Perpetrators and Nonperpetrators?Aggressive Behaviour, 29: 366–380.

[xxi]Ibid..

[xxii]  Gross et.al. ibid: 381.

[xxiii] Hanly et.al. ibid.

One Response to “Sex Related Alcohol Expectancies: mediating rape and alcohol consumption”

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