The Alcohol Blackout
In the war against campus sexual assault, why are we not talking about drinking?
I walked across the University of Texas campus on a warm, breezy night in April, trying my best not to look too middle-aged. It had been half a lifetime since I’d lugged my backpack across these sidewalks as a freshman from Dallas, clad in steel-toe Doc Martens and a big flannel shirt from the men’s department because I was always looking for ways to hide and smother my vulnerability. Now I made my way to the main mall, where a modest group of students was gathering for a Take Back the Night rally at the base of the Tower. I couldn’t get over how young everyone looked. Bodies still developing, pimply skin, round cheeks yet to hollow. Perhaps part of being forty is completely forgetting what nineteen looks like.
I found a seat among several rows of folding chairs. The theme of the event was “Consent Is Golden,” and as I scanned the scene, I saw young women walking by with temporary tattoos of the phrase on their arms and faces. “Consent” is a buzzword of the new war on campus sexual assault. Did you have consent? What constitutes valid consent? There are mandatory seminars on consent, viral videos about consent, and even consent apps, which will help you determine if both parties have the green light to proceed. What strikes me about the word “consent” is that in all my years of drunken sexual escapades, I can’t remember ever using it. I settled into my chair as three women huddled around a microphone at the bottom of the steps. “We stand before you in acknowledging that what happened to you was not your fault,” one said.
I’d thought a rally against sexual violence would be clamorous, students screaming into a megaphone, but what surprised me was the gathering’s gentleness. There were water bottles for anyone wanting to “practice self-care.” Gift bags containing cookies and a CD of guided relaxation exercises. Counselors on hand to talk. This was the fabled trigger-warning environment of the twenty-first-century American university, the one that may or may not be coddling today’s youth. It was also a welcome reprieve from the Internet, where conversations about sexual assault often devolve into door slamming and plate throwing. For the next ninety minutes, what I heard from the audience of sixty or so students was something the Internet too rarely offers: respectful silence.
One by one, about a dozen young women and one young man stepped up to the microphone with nervous voices and fidgeting hands. As I listened to their stories, I was struck by the direct hit of their sincerity. After a lifetime spent deflecting my own sadness with irony and punch lines, I felt genuinely moved by the raw ache of their tales. As they spoke, I was also struck by another realization. Many of them didn’t initially understand how to categorize what had happened to them. They only knew the experience as a hollowness in their stomach, a panic that seized them in dark hours. “I had no idea,” one said, choking back tears, “that I’d been sexually assaulted.”
If the students were unclear on what sexual assault was, they weren’t alone. The definitions of sexual violence have been shifting underneath our feet for years, and vary from state to state and campus to campus. Once upon a time, the word “rape” conjured a stranger lunging from the bushes, but current law reflects a much broader narrative, in which rape is best characterized as any unwanted bodily invasion, while sexual assault refers to unwanted sexual contact or behavior. This widening scope has allowed us to better prosecute traumatic incidents in a notoriously challenging area of the law, and for many of us it has also meant running the scanner back over our own pasts. At Salon, where for years I edited personal essays, one of the most common submissions was some variation on “I didn’t realize it back then, but I was raped.”
Not everyone was comfortable with the expanding reach of these terms, though; I had plenty of conversations with friends in which we worried that the nicks and scratches of an erotic life—nonconsensual kissing, nonconsensual touching—were now actionable under Title IX. Was this what it felt like to be old and out of touch? But we couldn’t shake a bristling discomfort that the details in certain media stories—the ubiquity of alcohol, the expectation of casual sex, the general smear of hedonism—didn’t exactly sound like rape.
Pause on “alcohol.” College presidents have long considered alcohol to be one of the biggest problems they face on campus—the cause of traffic accidents, injuries, even death, not to mention a sampler plate of jackassery. Alcohol is also involved in a great number of campus sexual assault cases. In a June 2015 poll, two thirds of college women who said they were sexually assaulted also said they were intoxicated at the time. However, alcohol is a primary reason people dismissed the gravity of campus sexual assault for so long. “A bunch of drunk kids getting their kicks” was the carpet under which a great deal of real human pain was swept. Young women who broke rank with the down-for-anything party culture and filed charges often found themselves dismissed as “drunk sluts” who’d been asking for it. A typical online comment: I bet that girl just got wasted and then changed her mind the next morning.
Activists labored to shove those distracting issues out of the frame. What you drank, what you wore—irrelevant. They moved the spotlight onto larger cultural ills: toxic masculinity, a justice system tilted toward the assailant, the privileging of athletes. Rape whistles and self-defense classes had gone the way of the VCR. Rape was not a woman’s responsibility to prevent but a man’s responsibility not to commit. The new philosophy was neatly summed up by Jessica Valenti in her 2009 book The Purity Myth, with a line that best-selling author Jon Krakauer liked so much he quoted it at the beginning of Missoula, his 2015 nonfiction book about campus sexual assault: “Women don’t get raped because they were drinking or took drugs. Women do not get raped because they weren’t careful enough. Women get raped because someone raped them.”
Every generation tries to clean up the mistakes of the past. A hundred years ago, feminists fed up with drunk men beating their wives rallied to ban alcohol, hoping that by removing such a social menace, they’d make a safer world. Of course, Prohibition was one of the great failed experiments in American history, proof that the complicated riddle of alcohol and violence required a craftier solution. Now, a century later, the pendulum has swung completely the other way, and we find ourselves in a landscape where the key talking points address everything but alcohol. How we raise young boys. How victims are treated in the media, courts, and interrogation rooms. The problem of serial predators.
In October 2013, when Slate contributor Emily Yoffe wrote an essay suggesting that women would lower their chances of being sexually assaulted if they drank less, the blowback was massive. A new generation of feminists, given voice by the Internet, was unilateral in its rejection of her message. This one isn’t on us, lady. Women were sick of being told they had to smile and act nice while bro-dudes blew chunks off the balcony. A month later, Southern Methodist University student Kirby Wiley received a similar lashing when she wrote an op-ed for the college paper saying that women put themselves at risk by drinking too much. “STOP publishing articles contributing to rape culture and misogyny,” read a Change.org petition circulated after the article was published. Wiley stood by her column, and over at Slate, Yoffe went on to write several hard-hitting pieces on campus sexual assault, but the no-fly zones had been set. In September 2014, when President Obama released his extensive guidelines on how to address campus sexual assault, the section on prevention never even mentioned the word “alcohol.”
And yet. High-profile assault cases keep unfolding in the media, many of them under a foggy haze of booze. Number one draft pick Jameis Winston met fellow Florida State student Erica Kinsman at a Tallahassee bar and may or may not have drugged her drink; the chilling Vanderbilt gang rape involved a victim who was passed-out drunk and an attacker in a blackout; Columbia’s “Mattress Girl,” Emma Sulkowicz, was sober on the night that changed her life, but her alleged attacker, Peter Nungesser, had been drinking.
Alcohol also smudges the lens when we try to get a clear portrait of the current problem. A recent survey from the Association of American Universities had claimed that up to 30 percent of students to have experienced sexual assault, but among the study’s limitations was a failure to clarify what was meant by “unable to consent . . . because you were . . . incapacitated due to drugs or alcohol.” How was a student meant to distinguish between intoxicated sex and incapacitated sex? Given that one of these was a college rite of passage and one of these was sexual assault, details matter.
You can see the tragic confusion between those two in Krakauer’s book, which is a horror show of binge drinking. One female student is assaulted by a drunk male friend while she’s passed out, another female student has a brutal dorm-room encounter with a guy who is blacked out—over and over, young men and women knock back drinks together only to find themselves on the slurry side of an evening with very different ideas about how things should end. But in the land of a thousand trip wires, to point a finger at anyone’s drinking is to risk setting off an alarm: victim-blamer, caught red-handed.
At Take Back the Night, I agreed with the young women who opened the event. What happened to these students wasn’t their fault. But I couldn’t help wondering: in our rush to hold institutions and perpetrators accountable, were we inadvertently removing some key element of personal agency? The idea that these students had some say in what happened to them, at least in the future? Was this really a message we wanted to be giving to young people, or to anyone at all: What you drink doesn’t matter?
It was after sundown when the rally ended. Those of us in the audience were handed small electric votives, which we placed on the steps of the Tower. The Tower is such a familiar sight in the Austin skyline that it can be easy to forget that it was also the location of a shocking mass murder, a sad memorial to the fact that no campus is ever truly safe. The little votives made it feel that way, though. They flickered on the steps, sweet and random as starlight. A few of us took pictures with our smartphones, and then we headed past the barricades of the event and out into the night.
As I walked back to my hotel, it was impossible not to reflect on my own troubled history with alcohol and consent. I had to be careful not to conflate my tale with the ones told that evening. At least half of them had nothing to do with booze. But mine certainly had. Blackouts spilled across my drinking years, and in my case, the difference between incapacitated sex and intoxicated sex looked more like a giant question mark. I felt frustrated that the larger conversation didn’t include more nuance and complexity about alcohol: how it changes us, lowers our inhibitions, warps what we remember, torques what we will say and do. It’s true that consent is golden. But what happens if you drink your consent away?
I always thought I’d be a rabble-rouser when I got to college. I imagined myself storming through campus, agitating for global change. I heard about a Take Back the Night rally during my sophomore year, and I even considered going. This was 1993, and the phrase “date rape” had been dominating headlines for years, a new way to think about sexual violence, one that gave a name to the dynamic most of us knew already—that a night had a way of turning. But I skipped the event, opting to agitate for other things in my crumbling off-campus apartment. More beer. Another Camel Red. Did anyone nearby deliver tacos?
Epidemiologist Richard Grucza has tied the rise of women drinking with the rise of women in college—across Western democracies, the more affluent and educated a female, the more likely she is to drink—and booze and higher learning were utterly entwined for me. I’d been stealing sips of Pearl Light since I was a little girl, a middle-class outsider in the tony Park Cities, and my teen years were spent slurping warm beer in an unregulated parking lot off Druid Lane. But drinking as a lifestyle didn’t explode until I arrived on the Forty Acres. “Drinker” was a vision of femininity I’d been chasing all my life. Sophisticated, rebellious, sexy. Alcohol gave me access to a courage I rarely displayed in academic seminars, where I struggled to raise my hand. At night, I matched the boys drink for drink, growing mouthier with every tallboy I downed, and it felt as though a long social exile had come to an end. Men loved women who drank. I loved to drink. This was perfect.
Another phrase came into prominence during my college years: “binge drinking.” Historically, a “binge” referred to days-long benders, but this term was more acute, describing a compulsive style of drinking amplified in speed and volume. Five drinks in a two-hour sitting for men, four for women (or as we liked to call it, getting started). The fact that my friends and I saw no difference between “normal” drinking and binge drinking shows how essential it had become to our lives. All drinking was binge. Did I ever wonder if I had a problem? Sure. I pretty much thought everyone had a problem. “It’s not alcoholism until you graduate,” the saying goes, and that was how I saw it too. I held back a friend’s hair as she yakked into the toilet. I stepped over passed-out bodies while I picked up empties from the gray carpet. To be a college student was to toggle between nurse and wounded patient, between responsibility and its glorious lack.
At night, I matched the boys drink for drink, growing mouthier with every tallboy I downed, and it felt as though a long social exile had come to an end. Men loved women who drank. I loved to drink. This was perfect.
My curse was to black out—to drink so much that my long-term memory shut down, even as I continued walking and talking—and I’d wake up the following morning with critical data points missing: How did we get home? Why is there an empty pizza box on the floor? A common mistake with blackouts is to confuse them with passing out, but they’re quite different. A passed-out person is unmoving, spread-eagle on the couch, while a person in a blackout remains active and awake—cracking bad jokes, belting out George Michael covers, flashing her bra—with no memory of it afterward. It’s a spooky, alcohol-induced amnesia. The comedian Amy Schumer jokes about blackouts in her Comedy Central special: “Isn’t that the worst? Your mind goes to sleep, but your body is like, ‘Tonight is my night!’ ”
Blackouts were long misunderstood in the medical community as a symptom of alcoholism, but recent science proves how common they are. In a 2002 study of drinkers at Duke University, more than half had experienced a blackout, and a UT survey, which is distributed every year, showed that in the spring of 2015 more than 20 percent of first-year students had reported having a blackout in the previous twelve months. One reason for their frequency on campuses is that the risk factors for a blackout are pretty much the description of youthful drinking: imbibing fast, taking shots of liquor, drinking on an empty stomach. Blackouts have become something of a badge of honor, and college conversations are peppered with references to them. Dude, I was so blacked out last night. Or simply: Let’s get blackout. It signifies a romantic oblivion, a cannonball dive into the open mouth of the night. Katy Perry has not one but two hit songs about the crazy antics that ensue from a blackout (“Last Friday Night” and “Waking Up in Vegas”). Meanwhile, blackouts grow like weeds in the media stories about sexual assault, creating two completely separate narrative tracks: one about drunken heroics, another about quiet devastation.
For many years, I focused on the former track. Alcohol was the center of my social life and a private balm for my sorrows. It released me from an overthinker’s anxieties and a body consciousness so intense I’d avoided pool parties for my entire adolescence. We think of young people as carefree—look at them, with their dewy skin and their powder-fresh credit ratings—but we often forget what a quivering mass of insecurities young adulthood can bring. Sex was a particular problem: How could I be casual about something that scared me so much? I wouldn’t even undress in front of my roommate, much less a guy I liked. Cue the easing of the cork from the bottle, the glug-glug of liquid into a glass, and voilà. The striptease was on.
That alcohol became intertwined with my sex life is both a personal detail and a generational one. I know there are women who effortlessly enjoy casual sex and don’t need oceans of alcohol to loosen up, but I wasn’t one of them. As the nineties gave way to the aughts, the expectations of female sexuality went slightly off the rails. Women younger than me had grown up with porn and AOL chat rooms and the giddy pudendum-waxing of Sex and the City, and I found myself feeling like a prude at parties where women touted their pole-dancing skills and casual threesomes. Alcohol allowed me to tap into my own bohemian spirit, and it helped me to downshift my romantic expectations around sex; it helped me to not care. At around the same time, the market for women’s drinks was booming, facilitating this exhibitionism: Premium vodkas in a rainbow of flavors. Cocktails sugared up like candy. The apple martini. The cosmo.
When I moved to New York, at the age of 31, casual hedonism felt like a single girl’s lifestyle brand. Sexy, drunk, game for whatever—the vision of empowerment. And it was a sign of power that women could drink like men: we had more social freedom, more access to leisure time than earlier generations. We deserved riotous good times and blind-eyed buffoonery too. But the way alcohol can give a person power in the first half of the evening only to rob them of it in the second, that was the part no one mentioned. Some Sundays I’d wake up, and the first thing I’d wonder upon opening my eyes was whether or not my bed was empty. Please, please, please be empty. The sadder I got, the more I drank, and the more the bed was not empty. I never wondered if I’d consented. I wondered if he would text me, or if I wanted him to. I wondered if we’d used a condom. “Owning my sexuality” started to look a lot more like failing to give a shit.
I quit drinking in June 2010, at the age of 35, after the gradual realization that I didn’t drink like other people. Giving up alcohol was a loss as agonizing as any I’ve ever known, but it was also a truer way of living, which had its own rewards. It was the following year, in 2011, when the Department of Education sent out a letter—known as the “Dear Colleague” letter—informing universities around the country that under the provisions of Title IX, they were obligated to take sexual assault seriously or lose federal funding. The years that followed were marked by a vocabulary that disrupted any collective vision of high-fiving good times: rape culture, slut-shaming, heteronormative thinking, micro-aggressions. I sometimes felt like American culture had sobered up at the exact same time I had.
But as the debate around alcohol and consent unfolded, I also felt caught in the vortex of messaging. On one hand, I was glad to see a younger generation refuse to cede its seat at the bar and put the onus on men to change. On the other hand, I didn’t think anyone could drink without consequence, ever. I was glad to hear some feminists address alcohol, calling it “the number one date-rape drug,” explaining how predators will get you drunk to take advantage of you, and yet the language made my forehead crinkle. Get you drunk? I’d gotten myself drunk just fine, thank you very much. Inside this vortex was a person very torn on the issues of empowerment, alcohol, and consent—a confusion clearly shared by others. I’d wade online into the polarized comment sections, with their smug authority and caps locks, and feel deflated, as if we’d all just made a giant, steaming mess.
I began writing a memoir about drinking, and I decided to focus on my blackouts—the worst consequence of those years, and the biggest impediment to seeing my past clearly. As I began to research blackouts, I was surprised to discover how little I knew or, in fact, how little anyone knew. There were so many factors that had made me prone to blackouts: the way I knocked back alcohol, my tendency to skip meals, my small size, my much-praised ability to “hold my liquor,” and even just being a woman, because women process alcohol differently than men. (Wouldn’t you know it? All those years of priding myself on keeping up with the boys, and I’d been operating with a massive handicap.) I also began to notice the different ways that men and women experienced their blackouts. Men often talked about unremembered fights, violence, aggression. Women talked far more frequently about unremembered sex. As blackout expert Aaron White, a senior scientific adviser to the director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, told me when I interviewed him for my book: “When men are in a blackout, they do things to the world. When women are in a blackout, things are done to them.”
In 2012 Steubenville exploded in our social media feeds, a social justice revolution incited by one unforgettable snapshot: a teen girl, loaded to the point of limpness, lugged around by two high school football players. Her tale was a classic blackout story. She woke up naked in some guy’s basement, no memory of how she’d gotten there. But in the twenty-first century, blackout stories have evidence trails. Cellphone pictures, videos, and text messages captured what the girl’s brain could not, and eventually a disturbing picture of sexual violation emerged. There are many lessons to be learned from that dark night in Ohio, but I’ve long been haunted by one detail in the media coverage. At some point in the evening, one of the high school students in the group observed that his friend was too drunk to drive, proof that the danger of driving while intoxicated had finally been internalized by a younger generation. Half an hour later, that same student happened upon his two friends with a naked girl so wasted she could barely move—and excused himself from the scene. Nobody ever said, She’s too drunk for anyone to be touching her. We’re too drunk to be doing this. She’s too drunk, you’re too drunk, we’re all too drunk.
For that matter, neither had I. I honestly didn’t know: How drunk was too drunk to consent? When had a woman lost the ability to say yes? There were clear and obvious lines. If a woman had passed out, if she was unconscious, she was off-limits. But beyond that, I had no easy answer, and no way to neatly categorize my own experiences. Those lines were more subjective, more indistinct.
I knew it was a risk when I opened my book with a scene in which I came out of a blackout in a Paris hotel room in the middle of having sex with a man I couldn’t remember meeting. I chose the episode because it was the scariest of my drinking career, the place where my drunken heroics crashed up against quiet devastation. I knew readers might be creeped out by the scene, even turned off to the book. What I did not expect was that some readers would believe I was too drunk to consent. One afternoon, I was talking with a professor acquaintance who studies women and drinking. “I’ve just never thought of that episode as rape,” I told her.
“Okay,” she said, choosing her words carefully. “But what would you say if I disagreed with you?”
You don’t have to look around the Internet long to find women wondering if the sex they had in a blackout was rape. A post on TeenHelp with the subject header: “Having sex while blacked out.” A post on Reddit: “My boyfriend took advantage of me while I was blackout drunk.” Most people find the blackout-sex question tricky, a matter of key details, but every once in a while, I come across a thundering certainty. When someone posted on Yahoo! Answers, “Was it rape if I was blackout drunk?” 100 percent of respondents said yes.
Of course, if you look closer at those answers, you’ll find them studded with misinformation, false assumptions, and fuzzy terminology. This might be laughable—the Internet, wrong again—were it not for the fact that the same widespread ignorance plays out in the courts and campus tribunals, where far more is at stake. “The vast majority of judges, jury members, and attorneys don’t know much about blackout,” said Kim Fromme, one of the country’s leading experts on the subject, when I met her for dinner on the day after Take Back the Night. A tanned, athletic professor of clinical psychology at UT who has been studying alcohol since the eighties, she published her first blackout studies in 2003. “I became fascinated with the idea that you could be fully cognizant, actively engaged, and not have a memory of it,” she told me. “How does that happen?”
Fromme, like other researchers, is often called on to testify in sexual assault cases around the world, which has taught her to expect a deficit of knowledge on the topic. Given how prevalent blackouts are in these cases, she calls it “mind-boggling” how little legal experts know about them; she sees a need for both women and men to educate themselves about what blackouts are and how they occur.
Meanwhile, blackouts grow like weeds in the media stories about sexual assault, creating two completely separate narrative tracks: one about drunken heroics, another about quiet devastation.
Quickly, a little Blackout 101. There are two kinds of blackouts: “fragmentary” (known by some as “brownouts”), in which a person forgets portions of an evening but not all, and the less common and more severe “en bloc,” in which memory loss is total and permanent. You don’t have to be wasted to have a blackout; instances of blackouts have been recorded at blood-alcohol content levels as low as .07, which is below the legal limit to drive, although they grow far more common as BAC approaches .2 and above. Because the loss of memory is so bizarre—amnesia is the stuff of sci-fi thrillers, brain injuries, and Alzheimer’s—people assume someone in a blackout must be staggering around and slurring every word. Certainly some do, but not everyone. During the Vanderbilt gang rape trial, the prosecuting attorney expressed disbelief that the assailant, who claimed he was too drunk to remember his crime, had sent a text message saying he wanted a quesadilla, spelling the word correctly. “Is that a blackout?” the lawyer scoffed.
Well, yes. Never mind that “quesadilla” probably auto-fills on any college student’s smartphone, the lawyer illustrated a crucial misunderstanding about blackouts. People in blackouts can be surprisingly functional. They drive cars. They operate complicated equipment. They sure as hell can text message. Long-term memory is disabled by a blackout, but not motor skills or verbal ability. A friend of mine told me he cooked for an entire dinner party in a blackout. I once performed at a comedy event in front of more than two hundred people, and I have no memory of it, and I’m told I did all right.
There might be hints that someone is experiencing a blackout. I’ve seen people in blackouts repeat the entirety of what they said a few minutes earlier, what a friend of mine calls “getting caught in the drunkard’s loop.” An ex-boyfriend told me he knew I was in a blackout when my eyes got this eerie, unplugged look. But it’s important to stress that there is no definitive way to know if someone is having a blackout. “You can’t tell if I’m in a blackout right now,” said Fromme. “In the same way you can’t tell if I have a headache. They’re both happening inside my brain.”
I’ve heard from men and women who went for years without knowing they were having blackouts. The problem with memory loss is that you don’t necessarily know about it unless someone points it out to you. Most young people don’t know the difference between passing out and blacking out either, and when pieces of a drunken sexual encounter can’t be recalled, it’s very hard to determine from memory alone whether you were passed out or blacked out, even though the behavior can look very different to the observer.
Then we have the complicating issue of roofies. Certainly drugs do get slipped into drinks, but it’s also true many people don’t realize how easily they can black out from alcohol alone. (Alcohol can also have troubling interactions with prescription pills; Ativan, Xanax, Klonopin, any drug in the benzodiazepine family, when mixed with alcohol, can create an amnesiac effect.) I read a front-page story in the New York Times about a freshman at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, in upstate New York, who went to the hospital following an assault she was still piecing together. Her friends in the dorm thought she’d been drugged, but she tested negative. Her BAC, meanwhile, was about twice the legal limit, well within normal bounds for blackout. I sympathize with her confusion. If you’ve never had a blackout, you just cannot understand how unmooring it is to reach back and discover time is missing.
Some people will never have a blackout—only about 50 percent of drinkers do—and the reasons still elude us. In fact, it’s part of Fromme’s current research to figure out that answer (she believes genetics plays a large part). The blackout field is small, and limited. Scientists can’t ethically dose their subjects to the point of blackout, which means that researchers have to rely mostly on self-reporting. So the mysteries of blackouts linger as the need for more information grows. One of Fromme’s graduate students is doing a practicum at UT’s University Health Services, and she said the number one concern in her alcohol-focused group counseling is blackouts. Students want to know how to avoid them.
I certainly tried. I devised so many tricks. I cut out brown liquor, I cut out red wine. The most effective avoidance tactic I found was sticking solely to beer—blackouts are more likely when there is a rapid spike in BAC, and a steady trickle of Stella Artois managed to keep me in the safe zone—but evenings of seven, nine, twelve pints left me with an expanding waistline that would tip me toward liquor and red wine again, which would eventually lead me to one of those mornings, eyes popping open to unknown territory: I did what? I said what?
The Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgård has written of his blackouts, “It felt as if I had been let loose in the town.” It could be startling to hear what I was like without my governors. I cussed out my friends. I cried operatically. I took off my clothes at awkward times. I grabbed men’s asses. These stories were so distressing, so wholly foreign to the person I thought I was—kind, charming, exquisitely modest about my body—that I eventually stopped listening to them altogether. Heavy drinkers often suffer a disconnect between the person they imagine themselves to be and the person they actually are, and blackouts sit at the apex of this denial. “God’s little way of telling me I don’t need to know,” I used to joke.
This blank space in one’s story makes blackouts slippery from a criminal perspective. If you can’t remember a thing, are you still responsible? The court system usually says so. “Oh, that wasn’t me,” I used to think. “I was just wasted.” But try this excuse next time you get pulled over for speeding and see how far it gets you. One of the painful lessons of adulthood for me was accepting that what I did when I was drunk still represented some part of me, even if those parts were unintegrated and overamplified by booze. The wanton lust, the buried anger, the howling sadness—they were all lurking inside, and the more I drank away my inhibitions, the more those secrets leaked out. A 2013 article in the Journal of Forensic Science determined that people in a blackout are conscious and know what they’re doing. The blackout may disable memory, but it has no effect on a person’s sense of right and wrong.
That doesn’t mean people don’t act differently in blackouts. A blackout itself may have no special “deranging” property, but alcohol certainly does, stripping away our judgment. “I was just drunk out of my mind,” Corey Batey, the assailant in the Vanderbilt case, said at his trial. “This is something I would never do in my right state of mind.” Batey claimed to be in a blackout when he peed on and sexually assaulted a woman passed out in a fellow football player’s dorm room, for which he was found guilty on multiple accounts of aggravated rape and sexual battery. (The case was recently declared a mistrial because of a juror who failed to disclose a history of sexual abuse, and it is being retried in April.)
The full story of the assault is bone-chilling. And I know this is the part where I’m not supposed to sympathize with Batey, and where I must acknowledge that the horrors inflicted on that young woman—treated like a sex doll, abused and humiliated—demand criminal punishment. But I can’t help aching for any person who must learn from witness testimony the horror he has perpetrated on another human. It is a hideous thing, to learn the evil of which you are capable. So often we hear from parents in these cases, “But my son would never do that,” and I think they’d be much closer to the truth if they were to say, “But my son would never do that sober.” In her recent book, Asking for It, Kate Harding tells the story of her own college assault. A mutual friend said of her rapist, “Do I think he’s the kind of guy who would rape somebody? No. Do I think he’s a blackout drunk who does a lot of things he doesn’t remember? Yes.” But just because the guy can’t remember being a rapist doesn’t mean he isn’t one.
Consent and alcohol make tricky bedfellows. The reason I liked getting drunk was because it altered my consent: it changed what I would say yes to. Not just in the bedroom but in every room and corridor that led into the squinting light.
A popular thread on Reddit last August asked the (rather clumsily worded) question, “What’s the craziest black out drunk experience you’ve ever been told you’ve done?” Reddit is a notoriously male-dominated community, and although I have not actually read all five-thousand-plus comments, the top answers veer heavily toward “hilarious” hijinks. I bought a hot tub for $600. I woke up beside a bowl of spaghetti bolognese. I peed on a suitcase. (Men peeing in blackouts is common. As a doctor once told me when we were discussing men’s wasted behavior, “It’s like the whole world becomes their toilet.”) After I read the link, I told the friend who sent it to me, “You can tell this was written by dudes, because no one is talking about questionable sex.” When I speak with women about their blackouts, which is often, questionable sex is the number one concern. In the weeks after my blackout in Paris, for example, I just felt wrong. Haunted by a slithering ick. Compare that with a comment I found on the tech site Gizmodo, where a guy offered his take on a similar tale: “The best is when you ‘come to’ or ‘clock in’ and your [sic] in the act of hooking up with a chick, ‘how the hell did this happen? Aw whatever who cares!’ haha.”
The latest campus cases should give men reason to rethink such a shrugging attitude. Take, for instance, a famous case of blackout sex at Occidental College, in Los Angeles. Two freshmen, referred to only as Jane Doe and John Doe, had both been drinking when they met up at a party and began dancing and flirting. Jane’s friend, worried she was getting a little loopy, ushered her back to her dorm room, but text messages between the couple show them scheming to hook up. “Okay do you have a condom??” Jane texted, to which John responded, “Yes,” and she wrote back, “Good give me two minutes.” Jane threw up on the way to John’s room, but neither Jane nor John can remember exactly what happened next. The next day, they accumulated enough evidence to determine they’d had sex, which was particularly upsetting to Jane; she’d been a virgin. Jane eventually filed suit against John, claiming she’d been raped, and though both students had been in a blackout, John was the one who got expelled. (John is one of several male students who have sued their college for mistreatment under Title IX; the case is still pending in the L.A. Superior Court.)
The case has been cited as an example of an overcorrection in campus sexual assault cases, in which decades of hand slaps have been replaced by what some consider judicial overreach. (Others would argue that the new order simply tilts the scales back toward women, and after years of men enjoying the upper hand, isn’t that a kind of justice?) The Occidental College story also throws a wrench in affirmative consent, the increasingly common standard for defining rape in which sex is best seen as an ongoing negotiation and consent must be gained at each step. The model grew, in part, out of the observation that when women were being raped, they often went silent or froze. Their absence of “no” was incorrectly interpreted by the man as a green light, which led to the idea that perhaps a more effective signpost for consent would be “yes.” “Yes means yes,” the slogan goes. However, with the Occidental case, we have a situation in which yes doesn’t mean yes after all. So when does a woman’s “yes” stop counting?
Consent and alcohol make tricky bedfellows. The reason I liked getting drunk was because it altered my consent: it changed what I would say yes to. Not just in the bedroom but in every room and corridor that led into the squinting light. Say yes to adventure, say yes to risk, say yes to karaoke and pool parties and arguments with men, say yes to a life without fear, even though such a life is never possible. Still, there is a point at which someone who has drunk too much cannot, legally, consent to sex. So what is that line, exactly? And if your partner has also been drinking all night, how can he or she detect it? For that matter, has your partner passed the point of consent too?
Ask a defense attorney, a victim’s advocate, an expert on a campus tribunal, and a professor, and they will each probably give you a different theory on the line between drunk and incapacitated. The way I shake it out, blackouts fall into a gray zone: some people in blackouts present as cogent, as people going after what they want, and given that no one can tell they’re in a blackout, I would say we have to consider their consent valid. But there is another kind of blackout, in which drinkers do show visible signs of incapacitation, and the question is, how much evidence should be enough for another person to know better? Someone who pees on themselves: probably too drunk to consent. Someone who has to be carried up the stairs: possibly too drunk to consent. What about someone who slurs their speech or throws up? That was the case with Jane Doe, and the reason John was ultimately found in violation. It is also a scenario I’ve seen in romantic comedies, where the heroine gets comically wasted and is still down for a good time.
It would be useful to have a clear checklist on the difference between intoxicated sex and incapacitated sex, but these lines shift and move according to case and circumstance, and the ultimate takeaway is this: men and women should be more aware of valid consent when they’re drinking. In my many years of blackouts, I feel certain I’ve displayed multiple visible signs of incapacitation in the company of men I tumbled into bed with. I fell in their living room, almost slicing my head open. I slipped off my barstool. I tripped going up stairs. So did they. And we often laughed about this, as drunk people do, because drunk people are stupid, and then we tumbled into bed for sex that might or might not have been good, but I wouldn’t know, because my long-term memory was disabled.
Whether this sounds like delicious freedom or reckless danger probably depends a lot on your own experience with these situations. But is such sex rape? I wouldn’t say so, but I’m aware other people disagree, and at the rate this conversation is shape-shifting, upturning old assumptions and placing them in a new light, I wouldn’t be surprised if I disagreed with me too somewhere down the line. One of the great luxuries of a free society is the ability to change your mind.
Close to 1 a.m. on a Friday, a few nights after the Take Back the Night vigil, I went to a restaurant called Big Bite right off the Drag, the campus’s main thoroughfare. I’d found it on Total Frat Move, a cheeky college site based in Austin, which had listed the place as one of the “Best Campus Blackout Restaurants.” (“There are few things more enjoyable to a fraternity member than the casual, black-out devastation of disgustingly delicious food.”) It was low tide, before the bars cleared out, and the place was still relatively empty. Perhaps trying to channel the spirit, I ordered a gut bomb of a sandwich—which somehow managed to include fried macaroni and cheese, grilled chicken, and ranch dressing—and took a seat in a corner booth.
Two guys sauntered in together and quickly branched off: one began chatting up the bored girl behind the register as the other swung toward me. I should have guessed I’d be easy prey, sitting there by myself after midnight. What do you expect? It’s like drunk dudes have a homing device for any female who has strayed from the herd. Sometimes I read about rape culture, and I get confused: What’s “predatory behavior,” and what’s a normal Friday night?
“How come you’re eating alone?” he asked. I told him I was hungry. I told him I’d been on Sixth Street, which was true. I’d been looking for students to interview about drinking, but everyone I approached turned out to be a tourist.
“We call it Dirty Sixth,” he said. He looked to be nineteen or twenty. Baby-faced, with eyes droopy from indulgence. Drunk people have a terrible habit of invading your personal space. They touch body parts, stroke hair. The guy took my hand and leaned in too close. “Do you want to go home with me and my friend?”
That was fast. “Oh, no,” I told him. “I’m actually here reporting a story about drinking culture.” His cheeks flushed slightly, and he stood up again. “Well, I wouldn’t know anything about that.”
It bothers me that the conversation about alcohol and consent seems to be debated mostly by women—fought by women, argued about by women, the emotional burden carried by women. I’m ready to see more focus on how drinking changes men: how sex and aggression can get cross-wired, or the frightening way alcohol can smear their good sense away. Not “how much did she drink” but “how much did he?”
When I stopped drinking, I discovered how unappealing I found drunk men. They came across as weak, sloppy. But when my male friends got honest, they admitted that the opposite wasn’t necessarily true for them. They were turned on by drunk women: their looseness, their wildness, all those open doors. After my book came out, I got a few soul-searching responses from guys who’d read it. They talked about running the scanner over their own pasts: frat rituals, late-night bar behavior, the wolf-pack mentality. The way their male friends had circled drunk women, clamoring to refill their drink, waiting for them to lose control, and they knew—they knew—how drunk some women got. That was the whole point.
“Can I give you a kiss on the cheek?” the guy asked as I shifted uncomfortably in the booth. I told him no. Another thing about drunk people is that they tend to miss very obvious social cues, like a person’s eyes sweeping the restaurant for anyone who might intervene. They tend to assume everyone is as drunk and horny as they are. The finer points of consent were lost on this guy. He couldn’t tell I was forty years old and stone-cold sober. “Come on, just one kiss on the cheek,” he said, standing against the table and blocking me in.
“Fine,” I agreed, just to get him to go away. A mistake. He immediately re-upped, asking me to kiss him on his lips now, one finger pressed against his wet mouth. “No, thanks,” I said, starting to gather my things. Should I be angry at the guy, or was he simply acting according to the script he’d been given? Bag the chick. Hit it, dude. I felt sad for the whole sordid mess of it, sniffing around the booths of Big Bite for one more girl to bang. “You’re hurting my self-esteem,” he said.
“Your self-esteem is fine,” I told him as I got up to leave. “If anything, it seems too high.” I’d given a lot of thought to why alcohol appeals to women, but of course the same enticements hold true for men, and any other human on a long spectrum of sexuality and gender. We all want to be stronger, bigger in the world. We all want to feel invulnerable and free. We all want to unshackle ourselves from our own insecurities and grab the tilting world with both fists. We drink because it feels good. We drink because it makes us feel happy, safe, powerful. That it often makes us the opposite is one of alcohol’s dastardly tricks.
As I left the restaurant, the guy lingered at the door, calling after me. “Where are you going, wonderful?” he asked. I was walking so fast I practically tripped into a group of college kids in shorts and T-shirts. One of the girls locked eyes with me. “Yeah, wonderful, where are you going?” she asked, and we both laughed. I honestly couldn’t tell if she was making fun of me or making fun of the guy, but in the moment I didn’t care. I was glad she was there. I was glad to have a witness.
I don’t know what campuses should do about drinking. Perhaps the answer is as specific to each college as it is to any one person. At UT, a sprawling campus in a bar-studded town, the focus has been on educating students about the risks and on harm-reduction strategies: safe rides home, initiatives to hand out water and food at events where alcohol use is generally high, like football games and the frat-sponsored bash known as RoundUp. The school has also funneled money into progressive programs like the Center for Students in Recovery and BeVocal, a new bystander initiative. I hope it teaches kids about blackouts too—not only what they are but that it’s possible to drink in a way that you can avoid them (and if you can’t avoid them, that may tell you something else).
After my visit, I asked Erin Burrows, a prevention and outreach specialist at Voices Against Violence, which sponsored Take Back the Night, what she tells college students about alcohol and consent. “We encourage students to consider that if someone is not sober enough to drive, they are not sober enough to give consent to sexual activity,” she said. Will 50,000 students follow such guidelines? For that matter, would adults? Too often we frame this conversation as though it’s only happening at universities, when the truth is that many adults could use a gut check about alcohol and consent. Tinder and Grindr are only the latest in an ever-escalating series of technological marvels that collapse the distance between our fleeting late-night impulses and our erotic behaviors. I feel lucky I sobered up before the onslaught of hookup apps; my 2 a.m. ideas didn’t need any encouragement. The farther I get from those years, the more I see how empty that pleasure was. A performance. A charade to prove my value. So much nakedness, so little intimacy.
Still, these are my lessons, and the kids on the Forty Acres will have their own. That’s the goal of an education: to discover the world and your path within it. Drinking can be an instrument of liberation, but it can also be another cage. Should women drink less? Should men? The great part about adulthood is that you get to choose—how to behave, what to drink, when to stop, or not stop as the case may be—and you learn from those actions. Society will give you all sorts of messages, other adults will ply you with all kinds of well-intentioned advice, but ultimately you get to decide: Is this risk worth it? How do I want to behave? Who do I want to be? You could call that owning your choices. You could also call it valid consent.