Women and alcohol related violence

Sexual violence and date rape

Sexual violence refers to physical sexual assault, completed and attempted rape. Although both men and women may be victims of such violence, women are more frequently victims. Research has shown a strong link between alcohol use and sexual violence, with many of those committing or being victims of assault having consumed alcohol prior to such incidents.

The issue of ’drink spiking’ and its role in sexual assault is one area that has received much media attention. On such occasions, a victim’s drink is spiked with alcohol or drugs to facilitate sexual assault. Drugs like rohypnol and gammahydroxybutyrate (GHB) have received much publicity. However, other drugs, both legal and illegal, have been identified following cases of sexual assault.

The prevalence of such assaults is difficult to estimate for a number of reasons:

  • the nature of the crime and the unwillingness of victims to report the incident;
  • the difficulty with identifying the drug used, as some drugs may only be detected for a short time;
  • the difficulty in determining whether the drugs detected were taken knowingly or administered covertly.

Despite the media attention given to drugs, alcohol is the most commonly used drug to facilitate sexual assault and the majority of victims are women. Victims who have been drinking may be less able to defend themselves or more likely to enter risky situations. A high percentage of men convicted of sexual violence were reported to have been drinking before the attack. Similarly, a high proportion of the victims had been under the influence of alcohol at the time of attack. Many ’date rapists’ report deliberately getting a woman drunk in order to have sex with her.

A study by the Forensic Science Service calls into question the role of drink spiking in sexual assaults. Analysis of 1,014 cases found that in only 2% of them was there a direct link between sexual assault and drinks spiked with ’date-rape’ drugs. In only 21 cases were traces of drugs found where they had not been taken voluntarily. Alcohol was detected in 46% of cases and recreational drugs in 34%. GHB disappears from the bloodstream after eight hours and can be detected in urine samples for only 18 hours. Only 35% of samples were taken within this time and, therefore, there may have been additional spiking with GHB. However, in samples taken within the period for detection, GHB was only found in two cases, suggesting that it was not commonly used as a date-rape drug.

Research conducted at the University of Surrey examined 33 cases of drug/alcohol-assisted rapes. It found that 75% of victims reported having consumed alcohol voluntarily, while 39% had taken drugs voluntarily prior to assault. This study suggested that alcohol, rather than drugs, is the choice for many assailants and that a high number of assaults take place where a victim has been vulnerable through intoxication.

Such studies highlight the need for women to be aware of the risks of heavy drinking, not only with respect to their health, but also in terms of their personal safety.

Domestic violence

The relationship between alcohol misuse and domestic violence is complicated and although there is no evidence for a direct causal effect, alcohol misuse has emerged as a risk factor for abuse.

The number of domestic incidents increased by 23.8% to 20,959 for the year 2004/05. Alcohol was present in 87% of domestic incidents reported in Northern Ireland in 2003/04 and according to the Northern Ireland crime survey (NICS) 2003/04, 55% of the worst incidents of domestic violence occurred while the assailant was considered to have been under the influence of alcohol, a 10% rise from the 2001 figures.

Although domestic violence affects both men and women, women are more vulnerable, with figures from Northern Ireland indicating approximately 90% of incidents involve female victims. Findings from the NICS 2003/04 revealed that 65% of identified victims were female, while 35% were male.

Women experiencing domestic violence may use alcohol or other substances to cope with the effects of violence. Women who experience domestic violence are also more likely to misuse prescription drugs, alcohol and illegal substances.

Women who drink heavily may be more vulnerable to violence.

Compared to women who do not misuse substances, those who do tend to have experienced a higher rate of violence as children and continue to experience more verbal and physical abuse as adults.

Women who misuse substances are more likely to live with men who do likewise. These women are also more likely to use physical violence in retaliation for being abused, thus increasing the risk of more serious injury.

Women may be excluded from domestic violence service provision if using drugs or alcohol, even though they are particularly vulnerable.


Women who have experienced sexual abuse, either during childhood or later in life, and those who have experienced domestic violence, are more likely than other women to abuse alcohol.

Studies on substance-abusing women indicate rates of child abuse ranging from 47% to 90%.

The development of alcohol misuse or dependency amongst such women is often regarded as a coping mechanism developed in response to the psychological stress of the situation.

Victims may use alcohol to cope with the negative feelings of such incidents, but this in turn may place them at further risk to such attacks.

Also, women who are problem drinkers are more likely to live with men who misuse alcohol and remain in such relationships for longer due to self-blame.

Such women are more likely to use physical violence to retaliate when attacked and this increases their risk of injury. Victims who have been drinking are less likely to report sexual assault.


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