The Connection Between Alcohol and Sexual Assault
It is estimated that nearly 50 percent of sexual assaults in the U.S. involve drinking by the victim, perpetrator, or both. Compared with other sexual assaults, those involving alcohol are associated with more victim self-blame, stigma, and greater alcohol use to cope. Furthermore, assaults in which the perpetrator is intoxicated are more likely to involve the use of physical force, which is associated with more severe outcomes for victims. Although an obvious remedy to the occurrence of alcohol-involved sexual assault is to reduce drinking—and important efforts to do so must be made—drinking is unlikely to decline significantly in the near future. Thus, there is an ongoing need to understand why alcohol use is so often is associated with acts of sexual aggression. If key mechanisms underlying alcohol-involved assault are identified, those mechanisms might be promising points of intervention to prevent alcohol-involved sexual assault.
The Alcohol Myopia, Objectification, and Sexual Assault (AMOSA) Hypothesis
Our search to understand mechanisms responsible for alcohol-involved assault has led to the development of the Alcohol Myopia, Objectification, and Sexual Assault (AMOSA) hypothesis. As its name suggests, a core feature of this hypothesis is alcohol myopia, a distortion in attention and perception that occurs during alcohol intoxication. Steele and Josephs (1990), who first coined the term, define alcohol myopia as a “state of shortsightedness in which superficially understood, immediate aspects of experience have a disproportionate influence on behaviors and emotions” (p. 923). Thus, in contrast to sober people, who can consider both obvious and subtle information before responding to situations, alcohol myopia restricts the drinker’s attention, so they are less able to consider the less immediate (in terms of time and place) consequences of their actions.
The concept of alcohol myopia has proven useful in helping us understand how drinking promotes sexual aggression. Specifically, we wondered whether the attention narrowing properties of myopia might lead men to sexually objectify women by focusing more intently on their sexual attributes (e.g., sexual body parts, clothing) relative to their more humanizing (but less salient) qualities (e.g., feelings, intentions, consent). Particularly when drinking settings contain other cues that foster expectations of sex (e.g., provocative music and decor, dim lighting, isolated spaces), intoxicated men might be especially likely to objectify women by making unwanted sexual comments, ogling their bodies, or otherwise attending to women’s appearance rather than their more humanizing qualities. Drawing on such notions, we hypothesized that alcohol myopia might promote more frequent and blatant sexual objectification of women by some men, overshadowing factors that might otherwise inhibit sexual aggression.
Evidence for the AMOSA from the Bar Lab
What evidence is there for the AMOSA hypothesis? We first surveyed 502 men on how often and how much they drank alcohol. We also asked them to report how frequently they gazed at women’s bodies instead of listening to what women were saying as well as whether they engaged in non-consensual sex. As expected, we found positive relations between drinking, objectification, and sexual assault perpetration. We also found that objectification emerged as a mediator between alcohol and assault. While a promising first step, this study suffered from the usual limitations of survey studies, especially with assessing myopia, which may be difficult for participants to accurately self-report.
To provide a more rigorous test of the AMOSA, we brought 49 men into our Bar Laboratory at the University of Nebraska and got them legally drunk while measuring actual objectifying and aggressive behaviors as they unfolded in real time. We randomly assigned half the men to an intoxication condition and the other half to placebo control. Recent technological advances in eye-tracking allowed us to directly assess the objectifying gaze—whether men directed their gazes less at women’s faces and more at their sexual body parts. To assess sexually aggressive behaviors, we adopted the sexual imposition task from Hall, Hirschman and Oliver (1994). Men learned that a fellow female participant disliked sexual media and then selected a sexually explicit or neutral film clip for her to view. Selection of the sexually explicit film is considered an indicator of sexual aggression.
What did we find? Consistent with the tenets of the AMOSA, intoxicated men spent less time gazing at women’s faces and more time staring at women’s sexual body parts than sober men. Drunk men also sexually aggressed against the female confederate more often, as expected. Men who selected the sexually explicit video clip—our analog of sexual aggression—also reported objectifying women in general and dehumanizing the female confederate in particular. Finally, the objectifying gaze significantly mediated the effect of intoxication on sexual aggression. With funding from the NIAAA, we are building on this initial work by conducting more robust tests of the AMOSA and identifying key moderators.
What Can We Do to Reduce Alcohol-Involved Sexual Assault?
There are a few takeaways for individuals and institutions that want to reduce alcohol-involved sexual assault. While many people believe “you can look as long as you don’t touch,” our research suggests that sexual looking may be a gateway to sexual touching. At the same time, targeting sexual objectification may be a useful approach to reducing and preventing sexual assault among heavy drinkers. On drinking nights, men could be prompted with smartphone messages reminding them that women are fellow human beings (the electronic version of the T-shirt saying “my eyes are up here”). Influential bystanders such as bartenders and fraternity presidents could be trained to identify and confront objectifying behavior directed toward women before a full-fledged sexual assault occurs. In sum, objectification appears to be an important mechanism of alcohol-involved sexual aggression and interventions that counteract objectification may effectively reduce the likelihood of sexual assault even among heavy drinkers.
Sarah J. Gervais, Ph.D., is a social psychologist and Susan J. Rosowski Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
David DiLillo, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and Willa Cather Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
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