When booze blurs the lines…



In a personal health counselor’s office, secrets get told, and pain unveiled. For counselor Kathy Butts, that means she often hears stories about sex gone bad, and confusion around expectations during and after hook-ups.

In fact, Butts said she and other counselors at Bergeron Wellness Center hear about unreported sexual assaults about once a week in their sessions with students. Often, Butts said, heavy drinking is involved. She took time on a recent misty morning, to explain what she has learned from students, and how sex and intimacy on campus could get to a healthier place.

Why is having sex while intoxicated so popular between college students? 

Alcohol often acts as a social lubricant. People call it liquid courage sometimes, where they might be will- ing to take a risk they wouldn’t if they were sober. When you mix sex and drinking it’s often a recipe for problems that nobody wants to have.

What are the problems with drinking and having sex?

Sex can be messy, and it can be awk- ward and if you don’t have the skills to navigate that when you’re sober,
it’s really tricky to navigate it when you’re not. Sex takes a fair amount of emotional intimacy and ability to be comfortable in your own skin. A lot of people don’t have those skills and we don’t really do a good job of teaching it to young folks. Research shows that in looking at heterosexual coupling, when guys are intoxicated they tend to misread cues and think women are more interested than they actually are. And women tend to misread, “Oh we are having fun, we are just flirting,” when it’s actually the guy expecting more and thinking this is going to go in a differ- ent direction. That sets everyone up for potentially devastating problems.

Why does this happen with guys?

Often there is pressure to be going out and having sex on the weekends because there is an idea that that is what everyone is doing. Guys particularly feel that that’s what they’re supposed to be doing. They may believe that all the guys around them are doing that and so it’s, “I’ll hook up with anyone who will hook up with me. “I just need to find someone at this party and I gotta get drunk and I gotta put myself out there.” That is a lot of pressure.

What’s your biggest concern when someone comes into Bergeron and tells you that they have been sexually assaulted?

It causes the survivor to feel unsafe in their surroundings, unsafe in their bodies. This impact can last a lifetime.

I mostly hear about men being the ones that cross those boundaries but I don’t think that means there’s no impact on men. Crossing a boundary and hurting another human being is not good for anyone.

There is confusion from many men about what is appropriate and what’s not appropriate in sexual interactions. I definitely hear guys talk about how they want to be good at sex and want whoever they are with to have plea- sure but they don’t know really what to do. There is a lot of understandable confusion and learning through honest mistakes going on here during these years Then there are situations that are not innocent where guys are actually out looking to find a woman who is drunk to take advantage of her.

How can kids in college learn about better sex?

Some colleges are doing a pretty good job of doing more sex education, acknowledging that students are having sex, and giving them the information they want and need. Some schools have classes on, “how do you experience pleasure when you have sex?” and, “how can you communicate about all this awkward stuff?” students are hungry for information because it’s normal to want to have sex. There is a lot of good information on line through sites like www.learnpsychology.org/ now/healthy-intimacy-in-college/.

If a student gets drunk, begins hook- ing up with someone and is enjoying it at first but then feel awkward, how would you advise them in that situation?

If either party is drunk, it is not possible to have consent. Good communication, which is a necessary part of sex, cannot happen.

I recommend being true to yourself and saying, “I’m sorry but I don’t feel comfortable going any further than this and I want to stop,” and then get up and leave. The other person then must be respectful of this limit setting.

Is there any sex that you think would be ok if both people were to be drink- ing or if one person was drinking?

With the hookup culture a lot of times people have zero idea how much the other person had to drink except if they are slurring and falling over but there are some people who can be in a black out and functioning and you wouldn’t know it. Generally, it is best to assume that there cannot be consent if there has been drinking involved. If you make your choices based on this, you will stay steer clear of trouble.

What do you think a woman should do in a situation where they wake up and they don’t remember the night before or that you ended up having sex?

If a person thinks that they were assaulted, getting a rape kit (a forensic exam) at the hospital is a good idea.
I also think it’s a good idea to talk to someone to sort it out a little bit and get a sense of what’s going on and what their worries are and what their options are. Bergeron is a confidential place on campus where students can do that.

You said that alcohol is a social lubricant, do you think this is because people are afraid of intimacy or that they are just shy?

Most people have some fears of intimacy if they haven’t had a lot of sexual or emotional intimacy. There’s the shy thing on top of that and the confidence thing. I feel a tremendous amount of compassion for everyone trying to navigate this. I just want to encourage people to bumble through learning about intimacy without getting a lot of alcohol on board. Alcohol can have the impact that may make a person feel less awkward, but alcohol also makes us much worse at navigating complex social and sexual interactions.

Compared when you went to college do you think the culture is different?

I think there is more pressure on students today to be sexually active be- cause that is what we see in the media and social media. From what I under- stand, the reality is that students today are actually less sexually active than they were when I was in college.

Have you noticed this fear of commitment that then directly relates to the hookup culture, sex and alcohol?

People say a lot, “I hooked up with so and so and then we never spoke again,” or, “I’m supposed to act like I don’t even know him when I see him in class.” I hear a lot of people talking about how they are supposed to act like they don’t care after they hookup with someone. They may have feelings for the person but you can’t let them know that and you have to act like it’s no big deal. Meanwhile you are like, “Oh my god I wish he would text me or I wish she would text me,” but then you see them and you act like you don’t care and it’s just this whole act. There does seem to be some fear of commitment and it does seem to be connected to the hookup culture and pressures surrounding it.

Any more advice on drinking and having sex?

The desire for sex is healthy and normal. When you add alcohol into the mix, it’s risky on both ends. You cannot have consent if either party is drunk. If you want to hook up, do it in a sober way and be assertive in your communication. Be really clear about your expectations, what you like and what you don’t like. Ask about what the other person expects, and what they like and what they don’t like really talk about it. Work your way through the awkwardness and keep practicing talking, person to person.