University of Southern California

Sexual Assault

What role do alcohol and drug use play when it comes to sexual assault?

Sexual assaults long have been linked to alcohol and other drugs that make the victim vulnerable or incapacitated. All legal sexual contact requires that all parties involved give consent, and a person cannot give consent if she or he  is intoxicated, drugged, or unconscious. 

California law states that if someone is unable to consent because of the effects of alcohol or other drugs, it can be considered rape or sexual assault if the initiator knew or reasonably should have known that the victim was mentally or physically incapacitated from alcohol or other drugs.

Affects of Alcohol and Drugs

Although it is possible to drink alcohol without becoming intoxicated, alcohol may begin to affect people in negative ways long before they believe they are drunk. Alcohol and drugs can distort reality, cloud judgment, and slow reactions.

Alcohol use:

  • is a factor in most college rapes
  • has been called the number one date rape drug
  • increases the likelihood of sexual assault occurring among acquaintances during social interactions

When intoxicated, a person's perceptions about what is happening around them and to them become blurred. The ability to resist an attack is lowered as verbal and physical response mechanisms become sedated. She may rely on other people to take care of her, to see that she gets home safely, and to protect her from harm.  An individual who has become obviously drunk or high may become a target for a man or groups of men scouting for a victim. Serial perpetrators also will encourage women to drink alcohol in attempts to make them more vulnerable.


Incapacitation can be suggested in different ways by different people, but certain clues are hard to ignore.

Incapacitation clues include:

  • the amount of alcohol consumed
  • slurred speech
  • bloodshot eyes
  • lack of physical coordination
  • the individual’s breath smelling like alcohol
  • vomiting
  • unusual behavior
  • unconsciousness

Drug-facilitated Sexual Assault

Drug-facilitated sexual assault involves giving someone else a drug that renders the victim physically incapacitated or otherwise incapable of giving ─ or withholding ─ consent.Victims may not be able to remember what happened while they were under the influence of the drug.

Drug-facilitated sexual assaults often involve:

  • GHB,
  • Rohypnol
  • ketamine
  • Soma

These drugs often render victims unconscious, leaving the victim little or no memory of the assault.

Legal Defense: Being intoxicated is a legal defense for committing rape or engaging in sexual coercion. Being drunk is not an excuse for committing any crime, including sexual assault. Someone who starts a specific sexual act such as penetration or fails to respect his partner’s wishes to stop is responsible, sober or not.

More information about the role of alcohol and drugs in sexual assault