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:
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:
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:
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.