If there’s one thing every healthy, interpersonal relationship has, it’s consent. On the surface, the concept of consent may seem simple: Two or more people voluntarily agree to an act (such as sexual activity). However, when alcohol gets involved, those lines can get blurry.

As you may know, one of the major effects of alcohol is impaired judgment. Consuming alcohol affects your decision-making, which affects the ability to give — and perceive — consent. In this article, we’ll explore the challenges associated with alcohol and consent, as well as ways to help ensure an encounter is consensual.

The Problem With Alcohol and Consent

When does consent end? Can a drunk person give consent? What if both parties are drunk? These are just a few of the questions you may have heard when it comes to alcohol and consent. Unfortunately, these questions don’t have clear answers. There are laws that say a person can’t provide consent when incapacitated by alcohol — but whether someone is “incapacitated” is often open to interpretation. For example, there’s no set blood alcohol level where someone is suddenly too drunk to consent.

Because the boundaries are unclear, navigating consent when alcohol is involved can become difficult. Here are a few ways in which alcohol interferes with consent.

  • Impaired judgment: Alcohol has a direct impact on the prefrontal cortex, which is a part of the brain responsible for decision-making, risk perception and impulse control. The more alcohol a person consumes, the less inhibited they become. As a result, they may make decisions they wouldn’t have made while sober. They may also become more vulnerable, which makes them more easily persuaded or coerced.
  • Communication problems: Alcohol can make it harder to communicate with and understand others. For example, say both parties are drunk. One person may struggle to establish their boundaries, while the other might misunderstand their words or misinterpret nonverbal cues.
  • Memory issues: Significant alcohol consumption can impair memory function. For instance, a person might struggle to recall events or even pass out. This can make it difficult to remember whether consent was given.

Due to these reasons, alcohol interferes with one of the most significant elements of interpersonal relationships: enthusiastic, explicit consent.

Why Is Consent Important?

You’ve probably heard that consent is an essential part of relationships, but do you know why? Here are some reasons it’s important to establish consent.

  • Abuse prevention: When someone is intoxicated, they’re more vulnerable to potential harm, such as coercion and assault. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, sexual assaults are more likely to occur when alcohol is involved.
  • Safety: Consent helps create a safe environment for all parties. Not having consent increases the risk of someone feeling uncomfortable or violated. It may also result in regret. In one study, over 60% of participants shared that they regretted their behavior after drinking.
  • Respect: Giving and obtaining consent demonstrates that both parties respect one another. It gives everyone a chance to establish their boundaries and helps prevent power imbalances.

Overall, consent helps prevent harmful outcomes like regret, assault and abuse. It’s important to note that all consent should be enthusiastic and informed. This means everyone involved is fully aware of the act and is willingly engaging in it. To establish informed, enthusiastic consent, all parties should be sober.

Establishing Enthusiastic Consent

Making sure everyone is sober is one way to establish consent and prevent any blurred lines. Here are a few other things to keep in mind when giving or obtaining consent.

  • Open communication: Open communication involves talking to a partner about their comfort levels and boundaries. Because consent can be withdrawn at any time, communication should be ongoing. In other words, communication should begin before engaging in any activity, and it should continue throughout the activity.
  • Observing body language: Sometimes, a person may not feel comfortable explicitly stating their boundaries. Thus, it’s a good idea to observe body language and look for nonverbal cues of discomfort. Examples include tense posture, frowning and lack of enthusiasm.
  • Clear language: While analyzing body language can be helpful, it’s not enough to establish enthusiastic consent. It should always be paired with clear, explicit language. Get permission for every act, and ask instead of assuming.

Along with following these guidelines, it’s helpful to review resources on consent and promote continuous consent education.

Resources for Consent

While there’s no doubt that clear consent is extremely important, there’s still a lack of education about it. Many people, particularly teenagers and college students, are left to navigate consent and boundaries on their own. Spreading consent education gives people the tools they need to properly grant and get consent. The result is increased awareness and reduced abuse cases. Here are some places you can find resources on consent.

  • Education organizations: Sexual health care organizations, such as Planned Parenthood, provide detailed instructions on what consent is and how to ensure it’s established.
  • Online resources: There are many tools available that help illustrate consent. In addition to informative articles, you can find videos and interactive quizzes (which may be helpful for visual learners).
  • University programs: Many schools and universities offer on-campus resources about consent and related topics, such as sexual assault prevention.

In addition to teaching people how to get consent, these resources demonstrate how to establish boundaries and make sure those boundaries aren’t being violated. Many also highlight the importance of sobriety and how alcohol can disrupt boundaries.

While sobriety is key to enthusiastic, informed consent, not everyone is able to refrain from alcohol. It’s possible to develop an addiction to alcohol, in which the brain craves and becomes dependent on the substance. Alcohol can also cause physical and mental health issues.

If you or a loved one is struggling with alcoholism, treatment can help. At Sunlight Recovery, we provide programs designed to help people overcome substance use, including medical detoxification and inpatient rehab. We also offer mental health treatments. To learn more, contact us today.