The XX Factor

Sexual Aggressors in Bars Aren’t Necessarily Drunk, But Their Targets Are

A pint of Bud won’t turn this nice guy into a presumptuous jerk

In college, I knew women who assigned themselves drunken alter egos based on Snow White’s seven dwarves: Happy, Sleepy, Grumpy, etc. The idea was that alcohol could reveal and intensify a person’s true character—“Happy,” for instance, already had an effervescent attitude, while after a few beers “Sleepy” lost the ability to pretend she cared about your theory of animals in Wuthering Heights. As a society, we sometimes play a similar game with men who drink, except the game has heavier consequences, and all the players get the same sorts of names: Cad. Caveman. Creep.

You know who I’m talking about: the sloshed dude in the bar who tragi-comically thinks women welcome his sexual advances when they don’t. But between 2000 and 2002, researchers from the University of Toronto and the University of Washington sent 140 observers into 118 alcohol-serving establishments in Canada and discovered something surprising: zero relationship between a man’s level of intoxication and his sexual aggressiveness. That doesn’t mean that alcohol is irrelevant to boob-grabbing, butt-slapping, and verbal harassment, though. A strong association emerged between a man’s aggression and his target’s degree of intoxication.

The study, published Monday in the online journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, found that 90 percent of sexually aggressive incidents in bars involved male initiators and female victims (no surprise there) and that two-thirds of the exchanges featured nonconsensual touching. Observers were sent out in pairs, one man and one women, to reduce bias. They rated the bar-goers’ drunkenness based on their behavior and how many drinks they consumed. And they took detailed notes on the guys’ persistence, observable intent, and the role of third parties and staff. What they found was that no correlation exists between how much the men drank and how likely they were to harass women and that harassers targeted the women who had been drinking more. 

According to the researchers, “the dominating role of masculine identity in public drinking settings” both emboldened harassers and prevented bystanders (even bouncers) from intervening in instances of sexual aggression. And while some of the men might have misread their cues, hallucinating reciprocity where there was none, the fact that they tended to go for drunker women suggests that they knew their overtures were unwanted: A tipsy target can’t protect herself as effectively as a sober one.

Still, I can understand why we cling to the character of the inebriated goof naively trying his luck with unimpressed ladies. He’s a far less threatening figure than the cold-eyed operator cruising for easy marks. Viewing scenes of aggression as misunderstandings feels nice in a lite-FM kind of way, but this mindset introduces some glaring problems—the first, most obvious, and most important being that we can’t stop predators we insist on underestimating. But also: Normalizing the come-ons minimizes women’s feelings of violation and advances a pretty insulting and unproductive vision of men. If all it takes to transform an average Joe into a total asshole is a little chemically assisted inhibition-lowering, what does that say about Joe?

The truth is, if you imagine a bar as a watering hole where safari animals gather to socialize and drink, sexual harassment has less to do with frisky male antelopes tossing their antlers around too freely and more to do with lions. The men who violate women are their own species. One needn’t believe that guys are all secretly terrible, primed to turn into sex-crazed monsters when liquor courses through their veins. But we do have to recognize that some men are worse than we perhaps hoped, that they coolly target women they perceive as vulnerable, that they know their advances are unwanted and proceed regardless. The price of absolving guys as a group is more thoroughly condemning sex offenders as a group. Despite our cultural myths, there is really no logical overlap between masculinity and groping a woman’s breast under a strobe light.