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Under the Influence: The Difficult Conversation Around Drug Use and Consent

By Emma Drake

I’m going to begin with something I’m told you should never start an article with, an anecdote. When researching this article, I happened to come across something interesting. When looking up ‘drug use and consent’ in the early stages of my research I found that one of the first things to come up was a NHS advice article for addicts. This intrigued me.

Of course, this is inherently not a negative, addicts should be given the facilities to seek help. However, this also represents a wider issue surrounding drug use and by association, sexual consent whilst under the influence. There is an undeniable demonisation, a catastrophization by mainstream society around illegal drug use. If you use, you’re a deviant, you're an addict, you need help. It is viewed through a lens of extremity. And this is why things like consent when you're on drugs are so seldom talked about.

I don’t know about you, reader of this article, but when I was learning Sex-Ed in school in 2014, drugs and sex were never talked about. Nevertheless, issues around alcohol and consent were talked about in the most serious and gravest of detail. Why then, was the topic of drugs glossed over?

The simplest answer is their illegality, to talk about them being used is synonymous with encouraging their use. Even if it was to be taught, there are few easily accessible guidelines specifically centred around drug use and consent. Too few conversations have been had and as a result, useful information is sparse.

This is the main crux of my gripe, because of the illegality of it, few guidelines exist, no teaching exists and now you have a brand new ‘chemical generation' who don’t know what's okay and what's not. Sexual assault survivors confused as to whether or not they were actually assaulted, and people not understanding boundaries that should be obvious but can become blurred when you look up from the table after sniffing one too many lines or taking one to many of whatever coloured pill.

In 2020, 21% of people aged 16 to 24 had taken a drug in 2020, that’s around 1.3 million people. When you take into account that sexual activity is most at its peak in people around the ages of 18-24, it’s maddening that more resources are not available in order to better inform around consent and when that as been broken. When you also take into account that the ages where most sexual assaults happen are between 12-34 and drug use beginning on average around the age of 15, it really seems simple, you need to educate young people about drug use and consent.

There are several layers to peel back when it comes to drug use and consent. You have drug facilitated sexual assault (DFSA), which is when one person is rendered incapacitated by drugs and is then taken advantage of by the other party. This is a black and white issue, there is a complete lack of consent and an obvious abuse of power from the perpetrator. But there are other situations, more complicated, ones that are a lot more within the shades of grey. These are challenging to advise on.

Conversations regarding consent and substance use are always difficult. When it comes to drugs, it is particularly difficult. You can be similar levels of drunk or completely different levels of drunk. With drugs there are so many variables.

How much someone has taken, what someone has taken. Is there consent if you’re both on cocaine? What about if one of those people is on ketamine instead, or on MDMA?

An Example

One example of this comes from someone I know personally. She has given me permission to use her story in this article but for confidentiality sake I’ll call her Veronica. Veronica had been in a relationship at the time. She was also often using Xanax. It was after a party and Veronica and her boyfriend at the time were high, her on her usual Xanax and him on a cocktail of speed and cocaine. Her and her boyfriend then had sex, Veronica essentially incapacitated and blacking out and him, very intoxicated but alert and conscious.

It took Veronica a while to come to terms with this but she concluded that this constituted as rape. Despite the fact they were both on a lot of drugs, she was hardly even in the room let alone able to consent. This may seem obvious, but to Veronica it wasn’t.

They were both high, just in different ways, could either of them really consent? Did that make it okay? Was the fact that she was a regular user invalidate her experience? Of course not but this kind of uncertainty is felt by so many, making it much harder to process and recover from a traumatic event. Because you aren’t even sure if you have the right to count it as assault in the first place.

So where exactly do we go from here? We know there's a problem, little is being done about said problem. So here’s my best shot at a solution: it seems obvious but harm reduction. Dialogues need to be started, this needs to start in classrooms in school. In those uncomfortable Sex Ed classes. This needs to carry on through to university and beyond. Helplines, articles specifically for drug use need to be accessible online.

Those in power must understand that despite legal legislation, drug use has always and will always happen. And like drug testing at festivals we must put safeguarding measures in place to ensure that harm is minimised.

To survivors like Veronica, You are not dirty, you are not irresponsible, you are not an addict or someone who is flawed. You were assaulted, coerced and taken advantage of in a vulnerable state. These are not consequences you have to ‘live with because of the choices you made’. These are the result of neglect, abuse of power and the irresponsibility of a government and society that would rather sweep problematic things like this under the carpet then confront them head on.

You are not the problem, you are a symptom of something much greater. Something broken that needs to be fixed.

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