‘Shit happens when you’re smashed’: gender, race and alcohol-related injustice

I started drinking during puberty, breaking into my grandparent’s miniature liquor collection with my childhood best friend. I downed stealthy flutes of champagne at weddings, dressed up to buy Spumante for a Luna Park adventure and frequented adult discos, dancing into the wee hours, as young as 14. In my hybrid memoir, Traumata, I referenced a rape that took place when I was a blacked out teenage alcoholic. I noted this event on the first page because it had shock value, but it also harboured a sly question: what are your thoughts about women who drink to excess and experience sexual misadventure? I wanted to confront Australia with its view around gender, drinking and unintended consequences.

You don’t have to be a woman with a history of alcoholism—‘Alcohol Use Disorder’ in medical parlance—to be keenly aware of the stigma, discrimination and confounding melange of unfortunate attitudes and wrong-headed responses to substance use and abuse. Just ask Brittany Higgins, the bright young former LNP staffer who alleges she was raped at Parliament house and abandoned semi-clothed in a ministerial office after a night of drinking with colleagues. Or ask the family of fifty-five-year-old Tanya Day. In 2017, after falling asleep on a train, Day was arrested for ‘public drunkenness’ and detained in the cells of Castlemaine police station, where she fell and hit her head. She died of a brain haemorrhage seventeen days later. Her daughter, Apryl, has since established the Dhadjowa Foundation to ‘provide strategic, coordinated and culturally appropriate support for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families whose loved ones have died in custody.’

By the time I was fifteen, I was drinking daily on the road to the deep North with my twenty-one-year-old boyfriend. That was when I first learned, thanks to a chilling incident with a near stranger, about the way predators target women who drink, plying them with booze while plotting their menacing moves. It was then I first understood how classed and raced responses to drinking are. Passing through towns like Rockhampton and Townsville in the late 1970s was a masterclass in discriminatory, racist policing. Sometimes, we’d find ourselves drinking in a park with local Aboriginal people. If the cops spotted us while patrolling, we, white, would be moved on, while our Aboriginal drinking buddies were more likely to be locked up. Gendered and raced attitudes toward drinking are explicitly linked to the handling of sexual assault allegations and the disproportionate incarceration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Both make routine headlines.

The World Health Organization’s 2018 ‘Global Status Report on Alcohol and Health’ revealed that globally men drink considerably more than women and carry a weightier burden of alcohol-attributable disease and injury. However, researchers at the National Drug & Alcohol Centre at the University of New South Wales insist women are fast catching up. Wealthy countries and demographics drink more, though people with lower income or occupational status experience more negative consequences related to drinking. The report states that ‘in many societies, drunkenness is stigmatized, particularly when the drinker is poor.’ Young people aged between 15-24 score highly for heavy episodic drinking across numerous countries, including Australia.

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) estimates that 16.8 per cent of the Australian population exceed the lifetime risk guideline by consuming more than two standard drinks per day. The 2019 Mitchell Institute national survey of risky drinking estimated a $14 billion national price-tag of alcohol-related harm, noting that drinking contributes to around ‘5,500 deaths and 157,000 hospital admissions.’ The Daily Mail, reporting on a Global Drug Survey conducted in 2019, tagged Australians as the ‘world’s third biggest drunks.’ Apparently, ‘only one nationality [Russia] beats Aussies when it comes to being so intoxicated, they need emergency medical treatment’, with women under the age of 25 in the highest bracket.

The GDS report also confirmed women are more likely to experience ‘unwanted sexual episodes’ and ‘being taken advantage of sexually when drunk.’ Research remains entrenched in the cis gender binary, but numerous studies report that transgender identified individuals have higher odds of experiencing alcohol-related sexual assault. Other gender minority populations and ‘sexual minorities’ (LGBTQI+) are likewise at high risk of alcohol-fuelled aggression, with one US study concluding that ‘acute alcohol use is directly associated with an increased risk of aggression toward sexual minorities (or any minority group).’

Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety (ANROWS) tracks community attitudes towards violence against women. The most recent, completed in 2017, showed 13 per cent of Australians agreed that if a woman is raped while drunk or affected by drugs, she is partly responsible (down from 19 per cent in 2013). And 21 per cent agree that ‘some women are so sexual in public, it’s not surprising that some men think they can touch women without permission.’ 8 per cent believe a man is less responsible for rape if he is drunk or affected by drugs at the time.

Men are not alone in harbouring worrying attitudes. As a young woman unconscious of internalised sexism and misogyny, I was conflicted and abashed in the wake of the rape. I was disturbed by the cops pressing charges after finding me on the street, distressed, in the pre-dawn of a Sunday morning, and tormented by a sense of culpability. I let him buy me drinks. I flirted. I went to a hotel with him and his friends. I followed him to his room. I might even have consented to some sexual contact initially, as much as it’s possible to consent semi-comatose. I bought into the ubiquitous ‘shit happens when you’re smashed’ mindset, even though shit so obviously happens along gender lines.

According to WHO, the correlation between all forms of aggression and alcohol use is ‘enormous’ and ‘unequivocal’ and ‘most prominently demonstrated in men.’ As Liz Wall and Antonia Quadara from the Australian Centre for the Study of Sexual Assault point out, ‘alcohol is not a causative factor on its own, as many people drink without perpetrating violence.’ Rather, the physiological effects of alcohol combine with ‘personality traits, beliefs about sex and alcohol, and social and cultural norms or scripts around gender and alcohol.’ Alcohol serves as a license and lubricant for acting out. Wall and Quadara also point out that ‘perpetrators are able to use alcohol to their advantage in a number of ways,’ most pre-meditatively in drink-‘spiking.’ Even so, the Alcohol and Drug Foundation maintains that ‘women are more likely to be socially criticised’ for drinking than men.

There is a long history to gendered perceptions of drinking. In the late 1990s, Carolyn Carter argued that societal attitudes in the West were largely shaped by the classist and racist casting of ladyhood in the 1800s. A ‘lady’ was white, upper-class, and willingly assumed her subordinate place in the family and society. A ‘lady’ was not to use alcohol outside of medicinal purposes or small quantities in the privacy of their own home. ‘Disparate legal sanctions’ were imposed on women who drank too much. Afflicted women could be and often were, committed to insane asylums. They frequently had children removed and were subjected to involuntary hysterectomies. Women who drank in public were considered sexually indiscreet, fair game.

Interestingly, gender inequity is acknowledged as playing a role in women’s consumption. The Department of Health stresses that ‘social factors’ are a theme in the research literature, with women ‘using alcohol to challenge traditional gender roles.’ The ‘passivity expected of women’ is ‘overturned with alcohol use’ and getting loose is ‘seen as giving licence to break social norms expected of women.’ The Department adds that ‘when women consume high levels of alcohol, they are more likely to experience some type of sexual aggression, including unwanted sexual contact, sexual coercion, attempted rape and rape.’ It’s almost as if there’s a connection: when we use grog to escape eons of second-class citizenry and oppressive gendered conditioning, the men most shaped by patriarchy seize upon the vulnerability of inebriation to put us back in our customarily subjugated, violated place.

2021 will go down in the Australian history books as a year plagued by the alcohol-soaked sexual assault allegations that took centre stage nation-wide. Brittany Higgins broke her silence—though lawyers for her alleged rapist sought a media gag in March this year and a new policy was introduced in May restricting staff outside the Parliament House media office from speaking to the media without clearance. Former Attorney-General Christian Porter stood accused. Footage leaked showing a Senior Liberal staffer’s creepy-puerile wank on the desk of a woman colleague at Parliament House. Every grubby breaking news story triggered a domino effect of op-eds and tweets by women and others recounting similar experiences.

Like many with a youthful history of sexual assault and consent-hazy experiences, I’ve thought hard over the past eighteen months about decades old dubious encounters that followed me into the future like a persistent peasouper in the back of my mind. In some ways, these slippery non-memories are more unsettling than the only unwanted sexual experience that resulted in a court hearing (the accused skipped bail, a no-show). I was a pubescent virgin when I became aware that being called a ‘prick teaser’ was the worst, most tarnishing insult for a girl. Being a prick teaser was more scorned than being a slut. Once sexually active, I had no idea I could change my mind, no clue that flirting was flirting, and not a sex voucher. I remember saying no to men and giving in to pressure or guilt tripping. I remember being unsure at times, with no understanding ambivalence isn’t a yes. And I recall occasions when I knew I didn’t want sex but went along for fear of rejection, or for the fleeting hit of power and affirmation. Blurry nights and faceless men lost to time and the unconscious. I know many women who, like me, lacked a sense of bodily autonomy, which, mixed with alcohol, becomes a dangerous cocktail in a toxic culture. I had no vocabulary with which to speak about these experiences, but the outpourings from other women during the #MeToo period and recent stream of ignominies have confirmed I was far from alone.

The furore surrounding last year’s high-profile allegations galvanised thousands of Australian women and allies to March4Justice, a country-wide protest in which a petition demanding action on gendered violence was delivered to Parliament (let it never be forgotten that then Prime Minister Scott Morrison refused to publicly receive them). This was a darkly ironic moment since Parliament itself was in the process of being outed as a hothouse for alcohol-related misconduct. Bad takes on the topic came thick and fast, including from high-ranking politicians. Then LNP Senator Eric Abetz victim-blamed Higgins, saying ‘anybody who is so disgustingly drunk, who would sleep with anybody, could have slept with one of our spies and put the security of our nation at risk.’

But it was the allegations exposing pervasive damaging attitudes and the influential people who defended them that most put sexual assault survivors in a state for months. The mishandling and attempted evasions and gaslighting led thousands, perhaps millions, to be re-traumatised. Heavy drinking isn’t always rooted in trauma, and it doesn’t always lead to trauma. Sometimes, good times get out of hand, and we make it home safely. But regardless of the context, a woman who has had too much to drink is at risk, first from assault and thereafter from victim-abusive discourse and insufficiently trauma-informed processes.

For all the drama and strife of my drinking years (the rape, a DUI charge, an obscene language charge after I swore at a cop while drunk), it was nothing compared to what many Aboriginal women face. For all the disapproval and patronising, I was fundamentally safe in the presence of the police. Tanya Day was born the year before me. I don’t believe I would have been left drunk and unchecked in a cell for three hours. Day’s coronial enquiry found that her death was ‘clearly preventable’ and that ‘an indictable offence may have been committed,’ yet there were no prosecutions. According to numerous studies and sources, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are more likely to abstain from drinking alcohol than non-Indigenous people, yet perceptions and outcomes for those who do drink differ radically. As SBS News observed, ‘nearly a quarter of all Aboriginal people who died in police custody were suspected of committing a “good order offence” such as alcohol-related offences, disorderly conduct or unpaid fines.’ #Notallcops are individually neglectful, violent or actively racist, but the system fails chronically, and often gravely, in its duty of care.

In a 2020 article in The Conversation, Alison Whittaker observes that ‘the settler Australian public simply does not see Indigenous deaths in custody as an act of violence, but as a co-morbidity.’ Indigenous incarceration doesn’t always relate to drinking, but where it does, the co-morbidity presumption often combines racism with ‘responsible drinking’ thinking. The notion of responsible drinking places the blame on individuals rather than acknowledging the history of colonial and racial violence that often informs risky drinking. As WHO underscores, it’s a ‘moralizing tone’ promoted by ‘alcohol producers’ despite being ‘considered by public health experts to be strategically ambiguous and against the public health interest.’ Complicity also rests on an ingrained nexus of racism and sexism. The tacit mainstream acceptance of violence against Indigenous women was highlighted in a March 2021 open letter to Our Watch titled ‘in response to the lack of public concern or response to the killings of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women.’

The National Alcohol Strategy 2019-2028 responds to WHO’s plea for a global commitment to reducing the harmful use of alcohol. The Strategy acknowledges that ‘Australia is regularly reported or casually referred to as having an “alcohol culture” where not consuming alcohol can be viewed as being “unAustralian”’ and that ‘Harm from alcohol-related accident or injury is experienced disproportionately by younger people.’ It recognises that ‘domestic, family and intimate partner violence’ are often associated with alcohol. And it states that 25 per cent of all frontline police officers’ time involves ‘alcohol-related crime’ but does not recognise state violence.

The Strategy lists the first policy priority objective as less injury and violence, but there is no mention of a public education campaign around sexual violence and consent and no evidence of steps to prevent drinking-related Aboriginal deaths in custody by embedding culturally sensitive trauma-informed police training or establishing an alternative public health response to low-level alcohol and drug-related transgressions. The third policy priority objective is better offender treatment and rehabilitation, but there is no reference to planned preventative consent and respectful relationship education delivered by experts following the National Association of Services Against Sexual Violence best practice guidelines. No sign of the ‘Gender-sensitive programming and policy making’ that the Department of Health acknowledges as having the potential to substantially reduce risk factors for women.

Deanne Carson, CEO of Body Safety Australia, says one of the most frequent questions her team is asked by boys when discussing consent with teenagers in schools is ‘but what if we are both drunk’? The answer requires considerably more skill than was demonstrated by the now infamous milkshake ad, the government consent education video released to widespread critique and derision. Amber Shultz, Walkley winning investigative journalist, tweeted that the video series sucked up $3.7 million tax-payer dollars, half the funding allocated to the Respect Matters campaign. ‘Whether working in the prevention of sexual violence space or addressing alcohol use, specific education about sexual consent and drug and alcohol use is essential,’ Carson says.

It is impossible to address alcohol as a contributing factor to sexual assault without also addressing power and control in relationships. Young people need to understand power inequities and the onus of responsibility of the person instigating sex in ensuring that any sexual interaction is consensual before progressing.

That said, context matters. In an existing relationship, partners may have a good understanding of each other’s capacity to consent when under the influence of alcohol or drugs. The milkshake ad also constitutes a consent education fail by falling short of Carson’s advice that consent education needs to start in early childhood. As celebrated journalist Nina Funnell said on Twitter, ‘we need to treat this as a human rights issue, a public health issue, a gender issue and an education issue all at once.’

I went to a rehab for women at the age of twenty-four, and I haven’t had a drink since. The business of getting sober or reducing consumption is trying for most habitual drinkers, and there is no sure-fire path that works for everyone. But I think I have a solid sense of what doesn’t work. Shaming doesn’t work (it may even drive people to drink more). Nagging doesn’t work. Lectures about willpower or ‘responsible drinking’ don’t work. Criminalising drinking doesn’t work. As to what does work, what worked for me has an evidence base, according to my friend and psychotherapist Dr Zoë Krupka: haven and time out, understanding and education, guidance from empathic experts and people who have overcome a drinking problem. Crucially, a risky drinker will not stop or moderate until or unless they are ready. It can’t be forced, or if it is, as when someone is imprisoned, the chances are they will resume drinking when they can. Not everyone reaches that point of readiness, but many do. Either way, people who drink to excess need to be held by a society that believes them and believes in them by protecting them. And those who hurt them must be made accountable.

I thought back to the young woman I was as I watched Brittany Higgins, Saxon Mullins, and Apryl Day rise from the pain of lived experience to bear civic witness to alcohol-related aggression and injustice. Australian society has changed too little since I was their age, as their testimony confirms, but it has changed enough that they felt more emboldened and supported to speak out than I did at their age. The speed of recent developments makes the events of 2021 seem more distant than they are, but the snapshot taken of the Australia of today stands as evidence of the desperate need for radical reinvention. A new government is in place but this country needs brave and bold leadership at every strata of society to consign the stories these women tell to history, never to be repeated.

Meera Atkinson

Meera Atkinson is a Sydney-based literary writer. Her published works include the hybrid memoir Traumata. She teaches creative writing and literature.

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