“Consent and wanting are not the same thing – lots of people agree to sexual experiences they don’t want or don’t enjoy for various reasons, sometimes out of a desire to please somebody, other times to conform to peer pressure, and intoxication can certainly complicate matters related to sex and desire and consent.”
Dr Carter said the research was noteworthy because of the large sample size and long time frame, using a national survey of 8100 people derived from the Australian Study of Health and Relationships over a 10-year period.
The study found that for people of all genders, unwanted intoxicated sex was associated with higher likelihood of experiencing forced sex, being diagnosed with a sexually transmitted disease or using drugs. For women it was associated with increased risk of pregnancy termination and heavy drinking. For men it was also associated with tobacco smoking, increased psychological distress and poor general health.
Dr Carter said drinking was a big part of Australian culture – with one in four men and one in 10 women drinking at risky levels – and a lot of young people used drugs at parties, music, festivals and clubs. However, she said the perception of great sex when drunk or high was not reality.
“So often, people think about alcohol and other drugs in terms of enhancing our experiences with sex – increasing arousal, desire, attraction, curiosity, courage and pleasure” she said. “But drunk, consensual sex is in fact, more often rated as unwanted and less pleasurable, compared with sober, consensual sex and also most sexual assault is attributed to being too drunk or high to consent.”
Under NSW law, there can be no consent where a complainant was “substantially intoxicated by alcohol or any drug” and Dr Carter said unwanted sex was never the fault of the person who experienced it or the substance they were using. However, she said it was unrealistic to suggest people should only have sex while they are sober and research did suggest people could give consent while drunk or high.
Sydney psychotherapist Dan Auerbach said one of the main complaints he heard from people who are online dating is that they feel manipulated or pressured into sex before they are ready.
“An example is a first date quickly becomes flirtatious and even though one person is reluctant or unsure, they drink to overcome their anxiety and ‘cope’ with sex,” he said. “They don’t really feel ready but go along because they think it is expected on a date.”
Young people and those with bisexual experiences – especially women – were most likely to report ever having unwanted sex while intoxicated. Dr Carter said the research did not explain why this was the case.
Relationships and dating coach Louanne Ward said she was surprised the rates were not higher. She said young bisexual women struggling to understand their sexuality could be easier victims of coercion when intoxicated and might have a false sense of security with other women.
One young bisexual woman told The Sun-Herald she had experienced unwanted sex with men several times, but she had always been sober at the time. “I think it’s more to do with being a woman,” she said.
1800RESPECT; NSW Rape Crisis Centre 1800 424 017