As any sexologist will tell you, alcohol and risky sex are bosom buddies, and drunken hook-ups in college are basically considered a rite of passage nowadays. New research published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior seeks to understand the factors behind this phenomenon, and more specifically, the situations in which a person will try to prevent their friend from making a drunken mistake.
At the end of a long night, our friends are inevitably the ones who will clear a path to the bathroom when we’re about to throw up and order an Uber for us to get home. Relying on them to help us avoid making bad decisions around sex seems only natural. Previous research has shown that the more we drink, the more likely we are to hook up, and to have multiple hook-up partners. This would be all fine and well if it weren’t for increasing STI rates among college-aged people, along with the very real risk of unplanned pregnancy.
The current study included an incredibly large sample of 1270 undergraduate students. About half of the participants were male and the average age was 20. As part of the study protocol, participants read one of four hypothetical vignettes created by the researchers—which I’ll explain in more detail in a second—and completed several questionnaires.
All four vignettes described a social situation in which the participant is at a party on a Friday night with friends. One of their friends then drunkenly decides that they will be leaving with an opposite-sex stranger they are sexually interested in.
The scenarios were different based on whether the friend was male or female (named “Josh” or “Jane”) and whether the participant, in the story, was drunk themselves or sober. So, the possible combinations were: Josh/drunk participant, Josh/sober participant, Jane/drunk participant and Jane/sober participant.
The questionnaires asked the participants about their attitudes toward intervening (like how unpleasant they anticipated prying their drunk friend away from a potential hook-up would be), what other people would think of them intervening and whether the participant would actually do something if the situation were real, how realistic they found the scenario they had just read and how often they had encountered something similar in their own lives.
Both women and men thought they’d have more success averting a female friend than a male one.
The researchers found that study participants were more likely to intervene if they themselves were female, if they were sober during the event and if it involved a female (as opposed to male) friend who was leaving the festivities. This means that guys are at a greater risk of falling prey to an alcohol-fueled hook-up, because their friends are less likely to intervene, as we see in how poor Josh was left to his own devices.
Furthermore, regardless of whether female participants were sober or intoxicated in the scenario, they reported stronger intentions to intervene than male participants who were drunk; however, being sober increased the likelihood that male participants would intervene.
It turns out that what other people think about intervening also influences our behavior in these situations. Female participants more strongly believed that social norms would be in favor of them persuading either Jane or Josh not to go, and even more strongly for Jane. Male participants, on the other hand, reported weaker beliefs that they should intervene, particularly with Josh. By the same token, both women and men thought they’d have more success averting a female friend than a male one.
Previous studies have shown that asking research participants to imagine themselves in drinking situations is a realistic way to get a sense of how they’d behave when they are indeed drunk. Participants in this study also reported that the fictional scenarios they read were both realistic and familiar to them.
This suggests that despite the fact they didn’t experience these situations in real-life, there may not have been that large of a discrepancy between what they reported and what they would have in actuality done. But to ensure ecological validity (or the likelihood that a study’s findings accurately reflected what we’d see in the real world), the study’s authors suggested that future studies should pose these sorts of questions to students when they are actually drunk—which, you may be surprised to learn, has been done before, in the name of science.
The authors also questioned whether the lack of urgency in preventing Josh from hooking up was due to not knowing the female acquaintance in the scenario, since in this case, participants would be friends with Josh and not the woman he’d be going home with. This would make sense, considering that research has shown we are more likely to intervene when a situation involves people close to us.
The study also prods at the sticky question of whether someone can give proper consent when they’ve been drinking, particularly when it’s with a new partner that they don’t know very well. It would seem, from the findings, that both women and men are understandably more concerned about protecting their female friends from a potentially unsafe situation.
I would argue, however, that just because straight guys tend to be physically larger and stronger than their female partners, this doesn’t mean that the level of risk they face when they go home with a stranger is nil. We tend to assume that the opportunity for sex with someone hot is a win-win situation, but after hearing many of my male friends’ horror hook-up stories (like the time a woman tried to use anal beads on my friend, Liam, without asking him first), I’d like to add this caveat.
It’s important that we also recognize that sexual coercion and assault can and does happen to men, a subject that is rarely talked about, but without question, deserves our concern.
How do we lessen the overall risk for guys when it comes to mixing sex and alcohol? Sex researchers and educators are constantly working to improve education on this topic, and it appears, from the results of this study, that encouraging our buddies to speak up and use their influence as a friend is one promising way to go.
As much as we may cringe at the thought, it really doesn’t hurt to pull someone aside, even if it’s another guy, to have a discrete conversation. As much as I hate to be all doom and gloom, the negative consequences of risky sex affect them and their sexual health, too.
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