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SUPPORT WITHIN REACH: Alcohol, drugs and sexual assault

Alcohol plays a role in approximately 50% of all sexual assaults across the U.S., yet victims are most often blamed because they chose to utilize their freedom to go and consume alcoholic beverages.

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Support Within Reach
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Close your eyes and imagine this scenario for a minute.

You decide you want to go out for some alcoholic drinks at your favorite or new local establishment. Now you are approached by an individual who has asked you for sexual favors and you deny them saying “no.”

You are what you consider to be heavily intoxicated, and that individual takes advantage of you either by coercion (talking you into it even though you already said no or by force, threat of force or physical force). You are too intoxicated to fight off the perpetrator, or your body does a more-than-normal response of freezing (you don’t know why you can’t fight them off).

This scenario hit close to home for one female individual in Minneapolis in May 2017. After her sexual assault and reporting to law enforcement, they decided it may fall under criminal sexual misconduct in the third degree, adding in mental incapacitation due to intoxication levels.

The offender was convicted of criminal sexual misconduct, however, through the appeals process, he was found not guilty because the judge didn’t give information regarding mental incapacitation laws as they stood during that time. The case eventually reached the Minnesota State Supreme Court in 2019, where they backed the decision. Because she got intoxicated by herself, she was not deemed mentally incapacitated by coercion or force.

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Alcohol plays a role in approximately 50% of all sexual assaults across the U.S., yet victims are most often blamed because they chose to utilize their freedom to go and consume alcoholic beverages. Alcohol does not cause sexual assault! Then perpetrators utilize the environment in which individuals are in and take advantage of them (usually by power imbalance). When you add in prescription drugs (prescribed or not) symptoms of intoxication are multiplied making it even harder for a person to fight or run away, and there's an increased chance of freezing during an assault.

Thankfully, on Sept. 15, the loophole around mental incapacitation and sexual assault was finally closed. The legislation change is hidden in the public safety bill recently passed by the Minnesota House and Senate. This means for victims who are intoxicated during their sexual assault are no longer at fault if they had those drinks without force or coercion by the perpetrator. This change in legislation also breaks down a barrier to reporting because victims knew if they voluntarily drank alcohol the assault would be blamed on their choices.

So, close your eyes again and imagine this scenario.

Imagine you are at a local establishment and had only one drink (and your bill reflects that). Yet, you wake up the next morning in a strange place or even your own bed. You notice your clothes are off, a condom wrapper on the nightstand, and you can’t remember anything. You feel as if you are extremely hungover yet you know you only had one drink.

Drug facilitated sexual assault is also another avenue used by perpetrators of sexual violence. Date rape drugs often called “roofies” affect the brain’s central nervous system, temporarily disabling most bodily functions. “Roofies” don’t stay in the bloodstream for long (48 hours or less) so they can easily be missed when going to the clinic or hospital days later.

What can be done to help reduce the chances of drug-facilitated sexual assault? The first step is educating the public that yes this still happens. Second, as annoying as it is, watch your drinks and keep them with you at all times if possible. If you cannot keep your drink with you, ask a server, bartender, or if there are others with you to watch your drink. There is also a trick of putting a coaster or napkin over your drink, but again if no one is watching that drink it's easy to tamper with those items.

Finally, there is a program in the Bemidji area called Safe Bars. This program is intervention-based to help those working in the liquor serving establishments identify, respond and intervene in situations where sexual assault and harassment most commonly occurs. Your local Safe Bars are Slim’s Bar and Grill, Keg N’ Cork, Hard Time Saloon, and Fozzie's Smokin Bar-BQ. To learn more about Safe Bars, email me at k.nelson@supportwithinreach.org .

Kori Nelson is the Development and Volunteer Coordinator at Support Within Reach.

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