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We need to talk about Brett Kavanaugh and alcohol

The research is clear: Alcohol plays a major role in sexual assault and violent crime across America.

Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on September 6.
Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on September 6.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

In the accusations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, many troubling elements in his high school and college circles have been detailed: a culture of toxic masculinity — including allegations of rape — a degradation of women as sexual targets, and a seeming lack of oversight, from private or public figures.

But there’s one other thing that’s consistently come up: alcohol.

Alcohol’s role in violence is nothing new. The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence estimated that alcohol is a factor in 40 percent of violent crimes, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calculated that alcohol is a contributor in 47 percent of homicides.

When it comes to sexual assault, researchers for the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) have noted, “Conservative estimates of sexual assault prevalence suggest that 25 percent of American women have experienced sexual assault, including rape. Approximately one-half of those cases involve alcohol consumption by the perpetrator, victim, or both.”

Based on what we’ve learned in the past few weeks, Kavanaugh may have consumed alcohol heavily in high school and college — even boasting about his excessive consumption in his yearbook. But beyond other problems associated with drinking, alcohol seemed to play a consistent role in the acts of which Kavanaugh is now accused.

Christine Blasey Ford said that both she and Kavanaugh had been drinking before he allegedly groped her and tried to undress her while covering her mouth. Deborah Ramirez said that Kavanaugh was drunk when he exposed himself to her and pushed his genitals in her face. Julie Swetnick said Kavanaugh used alcohol and other drugs to cause women to “lose their inhibitions” so they could be “gang raped.” Kavanaugh has denied all the allegations.

On his high school yearbook page, Kavanaugh seemingly bragged about hooking up with a fellow student, Renate Schroeder (now Renate Dolphin), by calling himself a “Renate Alumnius” (though he said recently they only shared a kiss; Dolphin says both claims are untrue). On that same page, he also highlighted heavy drinking by noting that he’s the treasurer of the “Keg City Club” and proclaiming “100 Kegs or Bust.”

There’s understandable hesitancy to talk about these problems. Maia Szalavitz, a reporter focused on drugs and addiction, explained the concerns over at Vice:

Many of Kavanaugh’s supporters were quick to diminish the significance of his alleged rape attempt on Dr. Christine Blasey Ford — arguing that even if he did hold her down and nearly suffocate her while attempting to take her clothes off at a high school party, it was merely “horseplay.” Besides, he was a drunk boy and shouldn’t have his whole life “ruined,” or something.

On the other hand, the fact that Ford said she’d had one beer has been used in pathetic attempts to discredit her. Her memory is viewed as suspect, but even moreso is her character. In a tweet that went viral, writer Chloe Angyal described the cultural paradigm applied to alcohol and sexual victimization succinctly: “She was drunk, this rape is her fault… He was drunk, this rape isn’t his fault.”

These concerns are absolutely legitimate. Alcohol should never be used to blame a victim or excuse a perpetrator.

With that said, we know alcohol really does lead to bad decisions and actions. We, after all, readily acknowledge that with drunk driving.

We all know that drunk driving is bad because drinking inhibits a person’s ability to drive. But we also still acknowledge that the person made the choice to drink and drive, and we punish him through the justice system for doing so, while enacting policies that hopefully make it less likely someone will drink and drive in the future. There’s no reason the link between drinking and other bad behavior, from murders to rape and sexual assault, should be treated any differently.

America loves booze. But it also comes with serious risks. If society wants to stop more incidents like those of which Kavanaugh is accused, it should take those risks far more seriously.

There is a strong link between alcohol and violent behavior

There’s a lot of research, spanning decades, showing that alcohol contributes to very bad, downright violent behavior.

One of the best reviews of the evidence on alcohol and sexual assault comes from 2001, authored by researchers Antonia Abbey, Tina Zawacki, Philip Buck, Monique Clinton, and Pam McAuslan for NIAAA. (Although the review is now 17 years old, Kim Fromme, director of the Studies on Alcohol, Health, and Risky Activities Laboratory in Texas, told me that “I don’t think you’ll find a better review,” remarking that it’s from “leaders in the field” and “not much has changed about the science around the association between alcohol and sexual assault.”)

The review noted several potential ways that alcohol makes someone more likely to sexually assault another person. Alcohol can cause more aggressive behavior, and inhibit decision-making or make someone less able to read another person’s social cues.

“When a man is intoxicated, he can more easily focus on his immediate sexual gratification, sense of entitlement, and anger, rather than on his internalized sense of appropriate behavior, future regret, the victim’s suffering, or the possibility that he will be punished for his actions,” the researchers wrote.

Alcohol can also contribute to some people’s expectations about sex. It can be used as an excuse for bad behavior. And there are stereotypes “about drinking women being sexually available and appropriate targets.”

This does not always mean that alcohol is a cause for the perpetrator’s behavior. Some attackers, for example, may simply take advantage of a social situation in which there is drinking to assault someone. This allegedly applied to Kavanaugh: Julie Swetnick, one of his accusers, claimed that Kavanaugh and his friends drugged girls at parties where alcohol was present to take advantage of them; in those cases, the drinking enabled the assault, but it preceded the alleged decision by Kavanaugh and his friends to sexually assault someone.

Of course, alcohol is not involved in every sexual assault. And not everyone who drinks goes on to sexually assault someone. But alcohol does play an outsize role in such assaults.

The review also explained that alcohol can increase person’s chances of being victimized, since alcohol can “reduce ability to evaluate risk” and “reduce ability to resist effectively.” Drinking can also expose potential victims to other people who are drinking and, as a result, doing bad things; if a woman wants to drink at a college party, for instance, there may be men at the same party who are drinking irresponsibly and therefore may be more likely to assault someone.

“It is important to emphasize, however, that although a woman’s alcohol consumption may place her at increased risk of sexual assault, she is in no way responsible for the assault,” the researchers wrote. “The perpetrators are legally and morally responsible for their behavior.”

More broadly, alcohol has been linked to violence in general. A study published this week by researchers at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health’s Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth, for example, found that access to alcohol outlets in Baltimore is linked to more violent crime, including homicides, robbery, and sexual assault. Other research has produced similar results around the country.

As with sexual assault, part of the violent crime problem is that alcohol can make people more aggressive. Charles Branas, who’s studied the link between alcohol and violence, previously told me that there’s also “a disinhibition theory”: “So it’s not so much aggressiveness, but that decisions and judgment that would normally be held in check are suddenly disinhibited under consumption of alcohol.”

This should be in many ways intuitive. The disinhibition is part of why many people like alcohol. But we also know that it’s part of what makes alcohol dangerous — for drunk driving, violent crimes in general, and, yes, sexual assault.

There are policy interventions to mitigate these problems

Alcohol, of course, is linked to problems beyond violent crime and sexual assault, including health problems and many kinds of accidents. It’s connected to 88,000 deaths and millions of emergency room visits each year in the US, as well as millions more deaths each year worldwide. The only drug that’s linked to more death is tobacco (particularly in its smoked form).

With all these problems, public health and drug policy experts have argued that much more could be done to mitigate the harms of excessive drinking. The ideas do not entail bringing back Prohibition, but they do require some new restrictions and regulations on booze.

There’s good evidence for many of these policies, too. Some examples:

  • A higher alcohol tax: A 2010 review of the research in the American Journal of Public Health came out with strong findings: “Our results suggest that doubling the alcohol tax would reduce alcohol-related mortality by an average of 35%, traffic crash deaths by 11%, sexually transmitted disease by 6%, violence by 2%, and crime by 1.4%.”
  • A minimum price on alcohol: A 2013 review of the research by Tim Stockwell and Gerald Thomas at the Centre for Addictions Research in Canada found that, based on data from Canada, “a 10% increase in average minimum price would result in the region of an 8% reduction in consumption, a 9% reduction in hospital admissions and a 32% reduction in wholly alcohol caused deaths — with further benefits accruing two years later.” Negative side effects, such as people resorting to potentially dangerous bootlegging to get cheaper alcohol, were minimal, the review found.
  • Reducing the number of alcohol outlets: A 2009 review published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine also found that limiting the number of alcohol outlets (such as liquor stores) in an area through, for example, stricter licensing can limit problematic drinking and its dangers. But it also found that going too far can have negative results — by, for instance, causing more car crashes as people take longer drives to outlets and possibly drink before returning home.
  • Revoking alcohol offenders’ right to drink: South Dakota’s 24/7 Sobriety program effectively revokes people’s right to drink if a court deems it necessary after an alcohol-related offense. The program, specifically, monitors offenders through twice-a-day breathalyzer tests or a bracelet that can track blood alcohol level, and jails them for one or two days for each failed test. Studies from the RAND Corporation have linked the program to drops in mortality, DUI arrests, and domestic violence arrests.
  • Put state governments in charge of selling alcohol: A 2014 report from RAND concluded that when state governments monopolize alcohol sales through state-run shops, they can keep prices higher, reduce access to youth, and reduce overall levels of use.

These are just a few of the ideas that experts have mentioned. There are many more ways to curtail alcohol consumption and misuse without outright banning it.

Different individuals will likely disagree on whether these proposals go too far in restricting personal liberty, even if they do save some lives. But the research suggests such policies are at least worth considering.

If anything, though, America seems to be moving in the opposite direction. With its tax reform bill, the Republican-controlled Congress last year cut taxes on alcohol — a move that, the research suggests, will lead to more alcohol-induced deaths, violence, and sexual assault, including the kinds of acts of which Kavanaugh is now accused.