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What Is ‘Consent’ To A Drunk?

I heard an interesting archived interview on Fresh Air yesterday, via podcast. Writer Sarah Hepola was on talking about her memoir of alcoholism. Hepola — with whom I once had a drink at the Old Monk in Dallas — was talking about how she often would black out while drinking (“blacking out” is not the same as passing out; blacking out is getting so drunk you have no idea what you’re doing, or any memory of it) and wake up the next morning in some guy’s bed, not knowing how she got there. Excerpt from the interview:

GROSS: Yeah, but you point out in your book that if you’re in a blackout, the man you’re with doesn’t know you’re in a blackout, and so he thinks that you’re operating with full intentionality…


GROSS: …And you’re not even going to remember what happened. And it’s questionable how much consciousness you have at that moment.

HEPOLA: I think this is a really important point. And this is something that – really when I started to think about this was when the conversation around campus sexual assault exploded about three or four years ago. And we’d been going through a national conversation, and a lot of the things we’ve talked about is alcohol and consent. It was really striking to me, by the way, that I drank for 25 years and I don’t remember anybody ever saying to me during those 25 years, were you too drunk to give consent? Like, I don’t – I just – I don’t remember that question ever being asked of me. It was like, yeah, hell yeah. You rocked it – or whatever. Like, there were always – these stories were always kind of spun as triumphs.

Then when this conversation about campus sexual assault came up and I was reading these stories about alcohol and consent, I started to think about how blackout plays out in that. It’s a really gray area of consent. And I think it’s something that all of us would do better to understand a little bit better, you know? And you’ve already put your finger on one of the most important things, which is the person that you’re with doesn’t necessarily know that you’re in a blackout.

Keep in mind that a blackout is not the same thing as passing out. A person having a blackout may look like they know what they’re doing. How the hell is a man, who might be drinking to excess himself, supposed to know that the woman he takes to bed is too drunk to consent? What if she accuses him of rape?

A friend of mine told me not long ago that at his university, a woman came into the room of an athlete, climbed into bed with him naked, then later accused him of rape. My friend’s point was that these situations are a lot more complicated than many people understand, and that women have a lot of power over the lives and fate of men that they consented to bed — if they later regret it, and want to punish the man. My friend, who is a Christian, was not defending rape culture, but saying that the sexual free-for-all on campus today not only leaves women vulnerable to unscrupulous men, but men vulnerable to unscrupulous women. This seems obviously true to me.

Thinking back on my own highly boozy, highly irresponsible undergraduate days, I … am glad I went to college in the 1980s.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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