When a Man Is Too Drunk to Consent

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Several readers are touching on that theme. One writes:

My first sexual experience was rape, in the sense that I was coerced and given drugs and alcohol. I was 14 years old, and the girl was 16. She was much more worldly, and very pushy. The whole experience was extremely unsettling, not least because I contracted a rather painful yeast infection from her, and visited several doctors who all told me I didn’t have an STD (VD, in those days). They told me to go away, that I was imagining things. Eventually, after a long time, it went away on its own, with me completely ignorant of what it was until many years later.

From a guy in his late twenties who got “black-out drunk”:

A few years ago I was at a small party with a few close friends and some other guests. I had been drinking prior to the party and so by midnight I was very intoxicated. Since it was a friend’s house, I decided to go ahead and fall asleep in the spare bedroom rather than continue drinking and get sick/embarrass myself. Around the time I decided to get into bed, I blacked out. I only remember flashes of what happened afterwards.

At some point I got out of bed to get myself some water. I remember having my shorts and shirt still on and going into the kitchen. As I am filling up a glass, I remember talking with a girl in the kitchen. I can not remember what we talked about at all.

I then remember being in the bedroom and her pushing me against the wall while kissing me. Then flashes of moments: I am pushed on the bed; my shorts are off and she is on top of me; and finally I am in the middle of the bed on top of her.

I don’t remember details and have no sense of the time involved, what was said, what anything felt like, or even what I did during those images. I just remember a series of images that do not seem real. I don’t even remember falling asleep.

I woke up in the morning, confused, face down, and naked. She was on the edge of the bed getting dressed. On the floor were two used condoms that I do not remember even having on. She smiled, kissed me quickly on the lips, and said,”That was fun, but I gotta head out this morning. Bye!” She said that in a cheery, normal, not-hungover-at-all voice and walked out the door.

I didn’t even respond to her. I just watched her walk out. I did not even know what to say. I still don’t. I still don’t know how to classify this.

Yes, I know that getting black-out drunk is always a bad idea. Yes, I know that drunken one-night stands happen. I also know that I did not want this, and that everyone there knew that I had gone to sleep early because I was too drunk. I also know that when I think back on this I am equal parts angry, disgusted, and disappointed that I didn’t stop it.

For some reason, I decided to tell this story to two separate female partners in the time since. In both cases, they listened attentively, and then responded in almost identical fashion, “If you were on top, then it wasn’t rape.”

I do not know how to respond to that statement. I honestly don’t fully know what to call this story. I just hope that this story is helpful in some way.

Another reader suspects he was drugged:

I’ve decided to share my rape experience. Unfortunately, I don’t remember much of it, but I will do my best.

I was living in Orlando at the time. Like most young people living on their own for the first time, I had a favorite bar with a good price on drinks.  It was Thursday night, and a few friends and I went there because I didn’t have to go into school until very late on Friday.

We took one of their tables, and we all ordered drinks. I got about halfway through mine and we got up to do some dancing. Retrospectively, that was a bad idea. When we returned, I finished my drink and ordered a second. I don’t even remember getting the second one. All I remember of that night beyond that point is a few flashes of an unfamiliar room, and two different women on top of me.

I was woken up by a police officer poking me in the ribs with his nightstick around 10 in the morning. I was sleeping behind a bush, about 30 miles from the bar and my home. He asked me exactly what happened, and I told him as best as I knew. He offered to give me a ride home, which I accepted. When he dropped me off at home, he told me to be more careful in the future and drove away.

I hadn’t really absorbed what had happened yet. I went inside, showered, and got ready for class. I was still a little unsteady, so I asked a buddy of mine to come pick me up for class. He advised me that one of my other friends (a woman) was very mad at me and I should avoid her, since I went home with a stranger the night before, and he had never seen anyone get so drunk from one drink. He then proceeded to make fun of me for being a “lightweight.” I’m not.

This is the part that continually shocks me to this day, but I didn’t realize I had been assaulted. I knew I had to have been drugged, but the concept of being raped by a woman didn’t even enter my brain at this point, at least not consciously. I started having lots of nightmares on the subject, however, and didn’t realize it was rape until I tried to argue against someone that it wasn’t and realized I couldn’t defend my position.

I decided to seek out the services of a psychologist. Otherwise, I figured this would haunt me forever. I told him the whole story. After I had finished, he started to counsel me, and it went ok at first. I was making progress. Then on the 6th visit, he said something I will never forget: Until I take responsibility for what happened, I will never get past it.

I left, and I never sought therapy again, although I probably should. The nightmares never left. I feel like I can’t tell anyone. Only my wife knows and sympathizes. She also has to deal with some sexual difficulties, although I manage ok. But I can’t help shake the feeling mentally that, other than her, nobody knows, and nobody would care if they did. It’s very isolating.

This next reader also blacked out—and owns up to that fact:

First, I’d like to start by saying that I’ve been a huge fan of the Notes section since its inception. It’s very rare to find a comments section worth reading, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who has benefited from the myriad perspectives and stories you’ve published thus far. This is the first thread I’ve felt qualified to contribute, which I suppose is a bit of a mixed blessing. Hopefully someone out there can take something valuable from my experiences.

***

Sex has been a difficult issue for me since before I had any grasp of what it actually was or entailed. My first sexual experiences happened at an extremely young age, something that was not due to molestation or rape at the hands of an adult, but rather child-on-child sexual abuse initiated by an extremely close friend. It’s a complicated subject—one that has no easy answers or identifiable parties to blame. There are only victims.

Needless to say, my views on sex and intimacy have been cast in the shadow of those early experiences. Due in part to unresolved issues that blossomed from them, I have had many problems with mental health in my life, including depression, disordered eating, suicide attempts, and substance abuse. These have all blended together in ways both positive and negative with regards to my love life; I have never had a relationship that wasn’t either extremely passionate or crazy or both. Clinginess is a part of my romantic personality, as are jealously and a propensity to shut down.

On the flip side, I can be extremely sweet, caring, and tender, to levels that my partners attest they haven't experienced in past relationships. In spite of all these hurdles and difficulties in my private affairs, I’ve managed to become a somewhat regular guy in the public realm, with a well-paying steady job and a small circle of close friends.

I preface the story with this information to let you know that this is not a clear-cut tale of “woman rapes man.” It is confused and messy, an experience that can’t come down to a simple act of someone else exerting their power over my person. I felt in the aftermath of it, and still feel now deep inside, that I share some of the blame for what happened to me.

***

I had just graduated from university and was in a rut. My partner—the longest relationship I had ever had at that point and a woman whom I loved dearly—had graduated in the same class but was clearly bound for bigger and better things. Our relationship was the most stable and regular one I’d ever experienced. That was not just my opinion; we were such an item that our friends referred to us as the “old married couple,” a moniker we took great pride in.

As the college days began to recede, however, the fear of abandonment and loneliness set in. I became afraid that she would leave or that I wouldn’t want to follow, and I began coping by drinking and closing myself off. The relationship obviously began deteriorating at that point, which only further exacerbated my paranoia and despondency.

One weekend, she and our mutual friend group left town to go to a concert in the country. I was supposed to meet up with another friend at a local bar, and since it was a Friday, I went out early and had a few drinks beforehand. Six beers, and then to the other pub. The friend never showed, but another mutual friend did. He bought me a drink—some sort of mezcal martini that’s popular at that particular establishment.

That’s where my night ends.

There are a few blurs of consciousness in between; I see a seat belt out of the corner of my right eye; the flash of pines and brick buildings flying by; the reflection of a sedan in the storefront windows. Nothing more.

I woke up the next morning and couldn’t see. My glasses were gone. I didn’t recognize the apartment, or the futon where I was sitting upright, my genitals exposed, my pants around my ankles. I had no shirt on. My head was so fogged that I was convinced that this could not be real. Time didn’t seem to move correctly. This wasn’t reality.

A woman enters the room after a time. She apparently owns the apartment. I tell her that I can’t find my glasses. She looks on the counters while I crawl on hands and knees reaching under the furniture. Eventually I find them and put them on, but they do nothing to remove the blurriness from my perception.

She tells me that I fell asleep in the middle of it, and so she went to bed after she couldn’t wake me. She invites me to bed. I agree. We have sex, again apparently. She takes a picture of me with a Polaroid camera and writes my name on the white border, then slips the image into her drawer.

The dream doesn’t end, and that’s when I start to be afraid. I tell her I need to go home. She drives me to my place, which looks surreal in the morning light. She gives me her phone number, then a kiss, and then drives off.

I went inside and sat down for an hour. Nothing changed. Nothing became clearer. My head hurt worse with every passing minute. And then I knew that none of this was a dream, and that I had really just done this.

After what seemed like years, I took a shower, dressed myself, and walked to my girlfriend’s house. She opened the door and I told her that I needed to talk. I told her I had cheated. I had. There’s not much in my life that I would like to eliminate from my memory, but the look on her face when I said those words is one of them.

We didn’t speak for two weeks, and then she called me to tell me it was over. Frankly, it would have been over at some point, but to have it end because of what I did, and didn’t even remember, was terrible. I dropped out of all my social circles, deleted Facebook, and didn’t leave the house for about three years. Two months after this happened, in a fit of severe depression, I called the number my rapist gave me, convinced that she was the only one who would have me now. She didn’t answer and didn’t return my message.

***

Things have gotten better now. I have new friends, good friends, a new partner, and a better job that has brought some financial stability to my life. My friends are hard-drinking, rambunctious, and crass—a personality type that suits me well—and we’re unafraid to get into taboo territory with our conversation. I’ve told some of them about what happened. They are sympathetic but I can tell that they don’t really believe me. My partner doesn’t fully believe me either. That a late-20s male who’s over 6’5’’ could be taken advantage of seems absurd. It’s more likely that I got drunk and wanted it, isn’t it?

I know that I really didn’t want any of it, or any of the consequences, but that’s how life works.

My rapist is still in our town, and I see her regularly. We neither speak nor acknowledge each other, though my friends are close to her. Just a few nights ago, a new addition to our social circle got swept up in conversation with her, and she began acting aggressively. My friend (who knows) tried to wedge herself into the conversation while I took my buddy to the bathroom to fill him in. I don’t know if anything would have happened, but I’d like there to be no more Polaroids in her collection.

This next reader didn’t appear to be drinking a lot that night but was fast asleep when the incident began:

I still can’t bring myself to use “the R word” in reference to what happened. I’ve had other friends—ladies, mostly—say yes, that’s what Jane did. But, I still can’t say it in reference to myself. Instead, I say I was forced into sex because I felt I had no good exit given the circumstances. Changing the name of it doesn’t make it any easier.

***

I met Jane (not her real name) around 2012 on a dating site. She had several things going for her that I found attractive, such as her interest in the arcane and odd as well as art, music, and a dark sense of humor. From a physical standpoint, Jane was fabulously “Rubenesque”; I found that attractive since I like women with curves. (I’m over 200lbs and six foot two.)

Over the course of a few dates, Jane and I found out that we had a lot in common, including friends, but we also realized that we would not work as couple. Instead, Jane and I found ourselves as great “friends with benefits.”

I’ve been in horrible and great versions of such an arrangement. The worst is when sex is all that’s there. The best is when sex is part of a broader friendship focused on enjoying time together.

About a year after we started being “friends with benefits,” I moved out of state. We’d chat from time to time and maintained a presence in each other’s lives because, like I said, we enjoyed each other’s company and the sex was great.  

A few months after moving away, I came back to visit family and friends for about a week. Among the friends I planned to spend time with was Jane. In fact, the plan was for me to stay over at her house on my last night in town and then catch my flight home in the morning.  

Because, it had been a long day of running around town, I met Jane at the bar where a band we both loved, featuring some mutual friends, was playing. It was a great show. But I was exhausted. So, after our friends ended their set I told Jane I was going to head back to her house to sleep. I asked if she wanted to come along as well. Jane decided to stay back, have another drink, and chat with friends. “No problem,” I told her, “I’ll see you when you get home.”

It must about been 1am when I slipped into Jane’s bed. As I expected, I was out by the time my head hit the pillow.

When Jane returned home I wasn’t sure what time it was because I didn’t hear her or see the clock when I was partly roused when she got in bed. As I said, I was exhausted. Not fully awake, I felt Jane cuddle and then start running her hands over me. Sleeping naked, it was easy access for her to fondle me. After pushing her hands away, she became more aggressive. At one point, she grabbed me and started giving me oral. That’s when I was started to wake up, realize what was going on, and I told her I was too tired, I needed to sleep.

I tried to rollover and forget what just happened. But she wouldn’t stop.

Jane started to touch me even more. She even took my hands and placed them her breasts and then between her thighs to show me how in need of sex she was and how I should also be turned on as well. I wasn’t turned on. In fact, I was the opposite. I tried to move my hands off her, but she kept grabbing me and putting them back on her body.

I told her “no” again and again. I told her again that I was tired, and that now was not the time. She didn’t want to hear it.

I could tell she was drunk. I begged her to stop, but she didn’t. In fact, she started to use her strength to push my head towards her crouch. I was now almost completely awake, upset, and trying to assess what I should do.

I felt there were several possibilities, all of them equally bad. I could get up, get dressed, gather my things, and try to leave. But, with her being drunk, rough with me, and refusing to take “no” for answer, I realized that it might lead to a fight in order to escape. With my plane leaving in about six hours, I saw that scenario leading to medical treatment and/or legal problems for one or both of us.

Also, I thought if the cops were called she might turn the situation on me, claiming I raped her because there could have been evidence of the sex we had earlier that day. Plus, such a complaint by her would fit the script of what normally happens: man attacks woman, right? Since she was drunk and unstable, I had no idea what she would do given that Jane was not willing to respect my pleading “no.”

Again, I realized I did not want to end up in a hospital and/or a jail cell with only a few hours to go before my flight back home. At the time, I felt like it would prolong the problem and I would have to deal with the fallout of this horrible night from two timezones away.

So, I did what I felt I had to do in order to get out of the situation as fast as I could: I gave her what she wanted.

It probably didn’t last more than 10 minutes, but it felt like hours in my head. After giving her the oral she demanded through her vice grip on my head, I faked an orgasm after a few minutes of doggy-style sex just to get it over with.

As soon as I was “done,” I got up, went to the bathroom, splashed some cold water on my face, and tried to gather myself mentally and emotionally in the mirror. When I returned to the bedroom, she was barely awake, lying in bed, about to drift off to sleep.

I looked at her as I got back in bed. While I might have looked calm outside, inside, I was seething—shaking and angry. I’ve never hated anyone so much for what they had done to me.

Here I was with someone who was my friend. Someone I had shared laughs, tears, and great intimate times with that I trusted with my body and secrets. Someone who took something I enjoyed in my life, sex, and turned it into something so horrible and painful. How could she put me in this situation? Why did she not respect me? I didn’t deserve to be treated like this.     

As I rolled over, away from her, facing the wall, I closed my eyes and started to feel tears rolling down my cheeks. More tears streamed down my face as I buried it in my pillow.

It probably took about 20 minutes as I waited to hear the sounds of her soundly sleeping. I got up slowly from the bed, trying to not to wake Jane. I gathered my clothes, went back to the bathroom, got dressed, gathered my luggage from the other room, and left. My watch said it was about 4am.

As I got in my rental car to leave, I felt so cold, alone, and violated. Because it was so early, I don’t know what to do or who to call. I just started driving—no idea where I was going to go. But I remembered a 24-hour diner nearby, so I headed there. I sat down, got something to drink, and wrote in my journal.

Then I received a text; my flight out of town was going to be delayed an extra day due to weather. Great, I thought, I have to stay here another day when all I want is to return home, see my cats, sleep, and get back to normal life.

As the sun was coming up, I left the diner, called a good friend of mine from out of state, and we talked as I sat in the car in the parking lot of a big box store. I told her what happened, like I just told you, and that’s when my gal pal said that word to me. My friend said she felt what happened to me was rape.

I couldn’t bring myself to say it.

After the sun rose, I started calling friends for a place to stay for Sunday night. Luckily, I had a place to go for my extra day before my rescheduled flight left early Monday morning.

Then around noon I started to get calls from Jane. I refused to answer, so she left a voicemail wondering where I was and why I left without saying goodbye. I texted that I did not want to talk to her and I never wanted to see her again after what she did.

“What happened?” she texted.

At first, I didn’t want to respond. But I did. “You forced me to have sex with you last night. I told you NO … but, you wouldn’t stop.”

The phone rang again. I didn’t pick up, so Jane left another message. “I don’t believe what you are telling me. I’d never do anything to hurt you. I don’t remember any of this. I’m so upset. Please call me. We need to talk.” I could hear the concern in her voice.  

I texted Jane back, again, and wrote that she did not deserve to talk to me for what she did. I added that if she didn’t remember what happened, she’s a bigger danger to herself and others than I could ever imagine. Because the only way Jane could have done what she did was if she was blackout drunk and, if that was the case, how did she make the 30-minute drive home from the bar?

Jane texted apologizing, again, and said she wanted to talk. But I told her she would never hear from me and to never contact me again. “Have a nice life!”—my final text to Jane.

***

“How does a woman rape a man?” The whole situation put me in an odd place—emotionally, and at odds with how our culture views men who have been sexually assaulted. I guess I refused to see what happened as rape because, like many, that word is reserved for what happens to women—and to be honest it’s often related to physiology. When you look around the culture, you see the idea of a woman forcing a man into sex as either not a bad thing—because men are always supposed to be ready to go—or that it’s physically impossible.

The majority of talk around men being raped in our culture centers on sexual violence committed by men in positions of power on young boys, like what happened in the Catholic Church. Or it’s inmate-on-inmate rape in prison. My scenario was neither of those.

Also, there’s an aspect of feeling like I put myself in a bad situation. Sure, I could have got out of bed, got dressed, and left. But, like I said before, I was concerned for my own physical safety and having to deal with the legal system on my last night in town. Was it the best choice to just give in? Maybe not, but, I felt like I had few options.

We can play “Monday Morning Quarterback” now, but that doesn’t change the facts of what happened or how I’ve been left to process this violation of my body and emotional trust at the hands of someone who I considered a dear friend. I admit, there’s part of me that feels that I should have done something else. But then again, isn’t that just another version of blaming the victim?

***

Two years have gone by, and I’ve only told a few select people—friends, lovers—and they have been supportive. But it still haunts me from time to time. I want to believe it hasn’t hurt my intimate relationships since then, but it still gets me angry thinking about it. That, sadly, is a typical male reaction to trauma: anger instead of sadness.

Some days, I feel trapped with this horrible memory. I’ve often thought that because my scenario is relatively rare, or at least I believe it to be, there is no infrastructure in place to help men like me.

That’s not to say things are better for women. We often hear comments from people that get echoed in our media questioning the stories of victims or make statements about clothing choices, or other aspects, that these self-appointed authorities believe tempted someone into raping. When you couple such ignorance with problems in the legal system, like the massive backlog of rape kits in cities like Detroit, you can understand why so many assaults go unreported.

At the same time, because women face the majority of the assaults in our culture, there appears to be a better—although far from stellar—support system in place for our sisters, mothers, and daughters when they become victims. But where can a young man go when he’s facing a situation like mine?