Photo of pillows and sheets on a recently slept-in bed.

Sometimes drinking can lead to unintended consequences (like hooking up with a roommate or kissing your ex). Navigating sex can be complicated, especially if alcohol or other drugs are involved. Here are answers to some of the trickier questions around drinking, sex and consent.

What is consent and how is it given?

Consent is when people mutually agree to engage in sexual activities, whether it’s kissing, touching or sex. Consent consists of words or actions that create a clear understanding of what’s desired. It’s essential to making sex pleasurable.

It’s important to establish consent before fooling around. Consent is about setting personal boundaries, respecting the boundaries of others. It’s important to check in if you’re unsure or things seem unclear.

 Here are some consent essentials:

  • No one should feel pressured or obligated to engage in sex or be incapacitated by drugs or alcohol.
  • Someone can change their minds at any time during a sexual encounter and that choice must be respected.
  • Agreements are conditional. For instance, if you consent to sex with a condom and your partner doesn’t use one, that is not consent.
  • Consenting to one sexual activity doesn’t mean you’ve consented to others. For instance, just because you are making out with someone doesn’t mean that you’ve automatically consented to have sex with them.
  • Enthusiasm is key! When people are excited and actively participating, sex is always better.

Is sex always considered nonconsensual when people have been drinking?

No. The use of alcohol or other drugs, in and of itself, doesn’t automatically mean a person is unable to consent. However, alcohol and drugs make it more difficult for someone to clearly consent. When in doubt, it’s best to hold off on engaging in any sexual activity. Additionally, substance use cannot be used as a defense against allegations of sexual misconduct.

If you and your partner have been drinking at all, it’s best to check in verbally and regularly when having sex. Ask things like:

  • Do you still want to do this?
  • Is this okay?
  • Does this feel good?
  • Are you having fun?
  • Do you want to keep going?
  •  Do you want to stop?

Listen to your partner, pay attention to nonverbal cues and respect their boundaries. If they have difficulty responding to questions or aren't answering directly, stop until you know clearly what they want.

How much does someone need to drink before they can no longer give consent?

The impact of alcohol and other drugs varies from person to person. However, if someone is incapacitated for whatever reason, they are no longer able to give consent.

Incapacitation is a state where someone cannot make a rational, reasonable decision because they may lack the capacity to understand the “who, what, where, when and why” of a sexual interaction. Incapacitation is often associated with alcohol or other drug use, but it can also involve other factors like sleep, illness, injury or disability. Here are some signs that indicate a person may be incapacitated and is unable to give consent:

  • Disorientation. Someone may lose track of where they are or who they are with, seem confused, forget basic information or repeat themselves (lack of short-term memory).
  • Loss of motor control. Someone may have difficulty performing tasks like inserting a key into a lock, getting something out of their wallet, walking on their own or dressing and undressing themselves.
  • Unconsciousness. Someone may be unconscious, coming in and out of consciousness, asleep or passed out.

If these factors are present, consent is not possible regardless of what the person is saying or doing.

Engaging in sexual activity when someone could have understood a person to be incapacitated is considered sexual assault. 

What if people are in a relationship?

In many relationships, consent doesn’t always entail an explicit conversation about sex every time it happens. However, romantic or sexual involvement with someone doesn’t give that person permission to have unwanted sex or contact with someone. Incapacitation still applies even in relationships. Navigating different sex scenarios within a relationship is a personal experience, and it may be something to discuss with your partner when you are both sober.

Campus resources

  • Don’t Ignore It is an online resource to explore your options for seeking confidential support, reporting concerns and learning skills for helping others. If something seems off, it probably is – don’t ignore it.
  • The Office of Victim Assistance (OVA) provides free and confidential trauma-informed counseling and advocacy support to undergraduate and graduate students, as well as staff and faculty. They can help people navigate resources, explore reporting options, and/or process the impact of the experience. Students can also connect with OVA through e-Ask an Advocate. This service allows students to connect with an OVA advocate online through a secure video chat. e-Ask an Advocate counselors can help provide insight, solutions and information about additional resources as well as information about one’s rights and options around traumatic experiences.
  • The Office of Institutional Equity and Compliance (OIEC) helps implement and enforce university policies around sexual misconduct, intimate partner abuse and stalking, among other unwelcome behaviors. If you or someone you know in the CU community has been impacted, reports can be filed online. Individuals can also report something anonymously to OIEC.

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