Youth, Alcohol Consumption and Sexual Violence

14 Aug

Rape and Justice in Ireland (RAJI) identified that adult victims of rape in Ireland are predominantly young, with half of all reported rapes involving a victim under the age of 25. Those accused of rape were also young: 33% of those accused of rape were under the age of 25.[i] The RAJI study did not include victims or perpetrators of rape under the age of 18; however, evidence suggests that sexual violence perpetrated by, and against, those in the 14-18 year old category is common[ii] . Service providers in Ireland note that sexual violence against girls in this age category increasingly resembles sexual violence committed against adult women rather than younger children. [iii]

Alcohol consumption by adolescents and young adults is also notably high in Ireland. While alcohol has not been shown to cause sexual violence, it can be shown to contribute to the context in which sexual violence is more likely to occur. Given the propensity for binge drinking among youth in Ireland, coupled with limited sexual and social experience and the prevalence of rape-supportive attitudes noted among Irish youth, the relationship between youth, alcohol consumption and sexual violence requires action.

Alcohol and Youth: different physiological outcomes

Alcohol consumption has been shown to have different effects on adolescents and young adults than on older adults. Young people are generally able to drink larger amounts of alcohol with fewer motor impairment effects, to achieve higher blood alcohol levels before becoming incapacitated and to experience fewer sedative effects of alcohol consumption.[iv],[v],[vi] However, adolescents and young people also tend towards greater impulsivity and poorer recognition of negative outcomes for their behaviour.[vii] The combined result of this is that young people who binge drink are at high risk of incurring injuries, engaging in risky sexual practices, and being a victim or perpetrator of crime and violence.[viii],[ix]

Alcohol and Youth: the social context

Young people in Ireland are exposed to high levels of alcohol involvement in social situations. Pubs, clubs and house-parties are typical gathering places for young adults who have reached the legal drinking age, while younger adolescents often include alcohol in social settings both out-of-doors and in unsupervised homes.[x] Youth alcohol consumption in Ireland is high by European standards: 86% of students have experimented with alcohol by the age of 16, while 42.5% of those in the 15-16 year age group reported binge-drinking during the previous month.[xi] Young people are thus likely to consume alcohol, or be around peers who are consuming alcohol, in many social situations.

The locations in which alcohol consumption occurs are also often high risk locations for sexual violence, particularly among under-age drinkers, as the locations are chosen to avoid detection by older adults, the Gardaí and other figures of authority.

Sex-Related Alcohol Expectancies and Youth

Adolescents and young adults demonstrate a high acceptance of sex-related alcohol expectancies. European studies indicate that young people (16-35) have positive views on the ability of alcohol to facilitate sexual encounters. 34% of young males and 23% of young females surveyed who drank alcohol, used alcohol to facilitate sexual encounters.[xii] Such positive sex-related alcohol expectancies have been related to a decreased recognition of sexual refusal in acquaintance and dating situations.[xiii]

Rape-supportive beliefs about sex and gender roles among youth

In addition to positive sex-related alcohol expectancies, young people in Ireland hold rigid views in relation to sexuality and gender roles. Hyde and Howlett found that young men believed that young men wanted sex more than did women. Further, young men perceived sex as continuously available for young women but restricted (by women) for young men. They believed that it was the woman who decided on the boundaries of sexual activity and stated that young men would push those boundaries as far as possible.[xiv]

In addition, young people demonstrate high levels of rape-myth acceptance and blaming of intoxicated rape victims[xv] . As discussed in FactSheet 4 of this series, the view that women have the duty to control sexual encounters can lead to victim-blaming where a woman is intoxicated, as she is seen as culpable for losing control of the situation through intoxication and thus facilitating her sexual assault.

Rape myth acceptance and victim-blaming appear to decrease with age: it is thought that with little experience of  dating and sexual activity, younger people conform to stronger beliefs regarding ‘rules’ related to dating and sexual interaction –many of those rules are contradictory and impossible to conform to. It is therefore inevitable that a victim of sexual violence will have broken at least some of those rules and as a result be treated unsympathetically. .[xvi]

Hyde and Howlett recounted that several young women who participated in the study expected male pushiness in sexual encounters and believed that intoxicated males were more likely to push sexual boundaries. The study found that among some participating groups of young people ‘sexual pressure was almost treated as unremarkable’.[xvii]

Such attitudes towards sexual roles and responsibilities may increase the likelihood of sexual violence where alcohol is involved. If a young woman is incapacitated due to intoxication, young men may take non-refusal as a sign of consent. Peer pressure to assert their masculine sexuality, perceived as difficult to control, may lead to the coercion and pressure to engage in sexual activities of individuals whose ability to offer verbal and/or physical resistance is compromised due to intoxication. The intoxicating effects of alcohol combined with sexual attitudes are also likely to impact on recognition of refusal where it is expressed.

Opportunities to Reduce Alcohol-Related Sexual Violence among Youth:

Although alcohol is associated with incidences of sexual violence, how one behaves when alcohol has been consumed is influenced by other factors including personality traits and attitudes.  Therefore, reducing or eliminating alcohol consumption among adolescents and young adults will not stop sexual violence among youth in Ireland. Nevertheless, it may reduce the vulnerability of intoxicated young people to sexual violence and the risk of sexual perpetration by some intoxicated youth.

A number of strategies have proven effective in limiting the supply of alcohol to young people. In line with recommendations by the World Health Organisation[xviii], the National Substance Misuse Strategy[xix] suggests the following:

–          Reducing the supply of alcohol to young people through increasing the cost of alcohol,

–          Establishing a minimum pricing for alcohol,

–           strict enforcement of minimum age for the sale of alcohol,

–          eliminating the sale of alcohol to intoxicated people through stricter enforcement,

–          reducing and controlling hours of sale for alcohol

–          Limit and control volume, content and placement of all alcohol advertisements and marketing

In addition to supply-line strategies, delaying initiation of alcohol use by young people can also be effective in reducing the long-term social and health consequences of early drinking. These strategies include:

–          The Minister for Children to ensure the provision of alternative social activities that do not involve alcohol, as recommended by young people during consultation with the Office of the Minister for Children.[xx]

–           A cross-departmental, funded strategy to improve knowledge and awareness of the risks of alcohol use and particularly of binge drinking

–          Legislation that strictly controls and limits alcohol marketing, in particular where it is targeted at young people and presents alcohol consumption as linked to sexual success. Such legislation should be supported by an independent and proactive enforcement mechanism.

However, alcohol reduction strategies alone will not be effective in reducing sexual violence among young people unless underlying attitudes towards sexuality and sexual violence are addressed. Education programmes and campaigns that target rape-enabling alcohol expectancies, victim blaming, rape myths and rigid, gendered, sexual attitudes, are thus an integral aspect of any attempt to reduce sexual violence among young people in Ireland.


[i] 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:224-227.

[ii]  Finkelhor, D., Ormrod, R. Turner, H., Hamby, S.L. 2005.The Victimization of Children and Youth: A Comprehensive, National Survey. Child Maltreatment, 10(1):5.

[iii] O’Keeffe, C. 2011. Shortage of Services for Sex Abused Teenagers. Nov. 24th, Irish Independent. [www.document] http://www.irishexaminer.com/ireland/kfqleyidsnmh/rss2/ (accessed May 29th, 2012).

[iv] Newbury-Birch, D., Gilvarry, E., McArdle,P. Ramesh, V.,  Stewart, S., Walker, J.,  Avery,L.,  Fiona Beyer, F., Brown, N., Jackson,K., Lock, C.A., McGovern, R. and Kaner, E. 2009. Impact of Alcohol Consumption on Young People; A review of Reviews. Newcastle: Department of Children, Schools and Families: 21.

[v]Clark D, Thatcher, DL, Tapert, SF. 2008. Alcohol, psychological dysregulation, and adolescent brain development. Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research 32(3):375-85.

[vi] Windle M, Spear, LP, Fuligni, AJ, Angold, A, Brown, JD, Pine, D, et al. 2008. Transitions into underage and problem drinking: developmental processes and mechanisms between 10 and 15 years of age. Pediatrics 121(Suppl 4):S273-89.

[vii] García, V. 2008. Impulsivity as a vulnerability marker for substance-use disorders: review of findings from high-risk research, problem gamblers and genetic association studies. Neuroscience & biobehavioral reviews 32 (4):777

[viii] Hope, A. 2008. Alcohol Related Harm in Ireland. Health Service Executive – Alcohol Implementation Group: 29.

[ix] Spear LP. Adolescent brain and the college drinker: Biological basis of propensity to use and misuse alcohol. Journal of Studies on Alcohol. 2002(Suppl. 14):71-81.

[x] Newburn, T. and Shiner, M. 2001. Teenage Kicks? Young People and Alcohol; A review of the literature. Public Policy Research Unit and Joseph Rowntree Foundation: 24.

[xi] Morgan, M. and Brand, K. 2009. ESPAD 2007: Results for Ireland. Department of Health and Children. Available at: espad-2009-results-for-Ireland-dept-of-healthchildren-2009.pdf (accessed February 3, 2012): 5.

[xii]  Bellis,M.A , Hughes, K.  Calafat,A,  Juan,M,  Anna Ramon,A  Rodriguez, J.A.  Mendes,F.  Schnitzer,S. and Phillips-Howard, P. 2008. Sexual uses of alcohol and drugs and the associated health risks: A cross sectional study of young people in nine European cities. BMC Public Health. 8: 155

[xiii] 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.

[xiv] Hyde, A. and Howlett, E. 2004. Understanding Teenage Sexuality in Ireland. Crisis Pregnancy Report No. 9. Crisis Pregnancy Agency: 52

[xv] Barone, C.,Weissberg, R. P., Kasprow,W. J.,Voyce,C. K., Arthur,M.W.,&Shriver T. P. (1995). Involvement in multiple problem behaviors of young urban adolescents. Journal of Primary Prevention, 15(3), 261-283.

[xvii] Hyde and Howlett, ibid.

[xviii] WHO. 2010. Global Strategy to Reduce Harmful Use of Alcohol. World Health Organisation.

[xix] Department of Health. 2012. Steering Group Report on a National Substance Misuse Strategy. Department of Health: 43-46.

[xx] McEvoy, O. 2008. Teenagers Views on Solutions to Alcohol Misuse: report on a national consultation. Office of the Minister for Children

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