Rape, Alcohol Consumption, and Human Rights: Meeting obligations for a better future

Over the past year, the RCNI’s Calling Time on Sexual Violence series has examined the issue and role of alcohol consumption in incidents of rape and other forms of sexual violence in Ireland. This series makes clear that while alcohol does not cause sexual violence, it significantly contributes to the attitudes, behaviours and contexts in which sexual violence is more likely to happen and which make recovery and justice more difficult to attain.

In this series RCNI have examined the evidence and made a series of recommendations for the State to act upon. The state has an obligation to reduce the rate of commission of acts of sexual violence by:

  1. changing the patterns of alcohol consumption in Ireland to reduce binge drinking,
  2. challenging incorrect and gender inequitable sex-related alcohol expectancies, attitudes and practices, and
  3. ensuring a responsive, accountable and unbiased justice system for victims of alcohol-related sexual violence.

The Irish State is not only morally obligated to address these issues, but, under International obligations and Human Rights Law, legally obligated[i]  to enact all measures to prevent sexual violence and punish perpetrators. Given the prevalence of alcohol consumption by perpetrators and victims in incidences of rape and sexual violence in Ireland,[ii] there is a clear need for government to target alcohol consumption and attitudes towards alcohol and sex as significant aspects of the efforts to protect and ensure human rights in Ireland.

In this, the final briefing of the series, State obligations to address sexual violence are considered in relation to the prevalence of alcohol involved sexual violence in Ireland.

Human Rights and Sexual Violence

Areas of Concern Regarding Human Rights in Ireland:

The combined 4th and 5th periodic review of Ireland by the Committee on the Elimination of Violence Against Women raised several areas of concern. These include concerns about (a) sexual violence (b) harmful gender stereotypes and (c) harmful cultural practices.

a)       the prevalence of violence against women and girls, low prosecution and conviction rates of perpetrators, high withdrawal rates of complaints’ in Ireland.[iii]

These concerns are highly impacted by alcohol consumption and expectancies in Ireland. The Rape and Justice in Ireland study found:

–           Evidence that a minority of rape complainants felt that their reports of rape were taken less seriously because they had been drinking alcohol.[iv]

–          Rape complainants with a history of alcoholism were more likely to have their cases discontinued by the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), most likely as they are deemed to be poor witnesses.[v]

–          21% of rape complainants in RAJI who withdrew their complaint suffered from substance abuse or dependency, primarily alcohol use.[vi]


–          Studies from outside Ireland have found that juries are less likely to convict when the complainant or the defendant was intoxicated.[vii]

b)      considering the important role of the media in regard to cultural change, the Committee furthermore recommends that the State party encourage the media to project a positive image of women’.[viii] The Committee further noted the problematic persistence of stereotypical views of gender roles’.

–          Alcohol marketing often links consumption of alcohol to the sexual success and availability of women.[ix] This is of considerable concern given the evidence of the influence of sex-related alcohol expectancies on attitudes towards sexual consent and acceptance of harmful rape myths.[x]

In addition to the specific concerns raised by CEDAW’s periodic review, Article 5 of CEDAW states that government agrees to:

modify the social and cultural patterns of conduct of men and women, with a view to achieving the elimination of prejudices and customary and all other practices which are based on the idea of the inferiority or the superiority of either of the sexes or on stereotyped roles for men and women’.

As attitudes towards women, sex and alcohol demonstrate a relationship to the commission of acts of sexual violence, there is an obligation on the Irish government to target alcohol consumption, particularly binge drinking, and alcohol-related attitudes that are facilitative of rape.


To ensure a responsive and fair legal system, the state should:

  • Ensure complainants of incidents of sexual violence have full recourse to the law. Test cases of rape complainants with a history of alcohol dependency should be brought to trial.
  • As juries are formed through the general public, education programmes and broad campaigns aimed at dispelling alcohol related victim blaming attitudes should be funded and rolled out.
  • On-going training of Gardaí and other service providers should be funded to ensure that inaccurate expectations of the effects of alcohol do not prejudice the treatment of victims of sexual violence who are intoxicated.

Following World Health Organisation recommendations, the state should:[xi]

  • Limit availability of alcohol: including the number and location of premises which sell alcohol, the hours during which alcohol can be sold, and enforcing the minimum drinking age.
  • Regulate marketing for alcohol: in Ireland, alcohol marketing should be restricted from suggesting that alcohol consumption leads to sexual success and from portraying women in a negative fashion. A specialised statutory body should be tasked with monitoring alcohol marketing to ensure that it does not impinge in these manners on women’s human rights.
  • Pricing policies: Increased alcohol prices have been shown to reduce alcohol consumption, particularly among heavy drinkers and young people. RCNI support minimum prices for alcohol and the banning of price promotions, discount sales and sales below cost.
  • In addition, education is an important tool in addressing alcohol involvement in sexual violence:
  • The WHO recommends reducing the negative consequences of drinking and alcohol consumption as part of the Global Strategy to Reduce the Harmful Use of Alcoholincluding training staff in premises that serve alcohol.  RCNI endorse such training and add that these programmes should explicitly recognise sexual violence as a potential alcohol harm and incorporate  bystander programmes and awareness raising for sexual violence prevention for staff of pubs, clubs and other venues that serve alcohol or that cater to those who are intoxicated, such as fast-food outlets, taxis and so forth.
  • Developing quality education programmes for young people that address harmful culturally held attitudes towards alcohol consumption, sexual behaviour and gender roles. Alcohol education components should be mainstreamed along with sexual violence education components in all secondary level sex education and vice versa.
  • Roll out broad marketing campaigns that aim to dispel incorrect information about the effects of alcohol and to challenge rape supportive attitudes including combating alcohol-involved-rape, denial and minimisation and victim blaming.

The Irish Government: defending and promoting human rights

As signatories to CEDAW, the Irish government has a legal obligation to take all appropriate measures to prevent violence against women[xii] and to ensure that punishment for acts of violence against women, including sexual violence, is commensurate to the crime.[xiii] If the Irish state is to be taken seriously as a defender of human rights, it must make good on its existing obligations by addressing the significant impact of alcohol consumption on sexual violence through measures to reduce harmful alcohol consumption, including the strict regulation of alcohol marketing, educating young people and the general public on alcohol consumption and rape facilitative attitudes, and legal reforms  to ensure that individuals who were intoxicated at the time of an incident of sexual violence and those with a history of alcoholism can attain justice within the Irish legal  system.

Calling Time on Sexual Violence

This series has examined the involvement of alcohol in sexual violence in Ireland. Given the prevalence of alcohol consumption by perpetrators and victims in incidences of rape and other forms of sexual violence,[xiv] there is a clear need to target alcohol consumption and attitudes towards alcohol and sex as a significant aspect of prevention efforts. This cannot happen without the substantive support of government. This series is not only ‘calling time’ on the involvement of alcohol in sexual violence, it is also ‘calling time’ on government; it is time for the Irish State to meet its obligations to protect women, children and men from alcohol involved sexual violence. Addressing the behavioural influences of alcohol consumption, attitudes towards sex, gender and violence fuelled by alcohol expectancies and often promoted by alcohol marketing, and ensuring the highest quality of services for victims are essential aspects of the state’s efforts to protect all people in Ireland from sexual violence, punish those who commit acts of sexual violence and care for those who have been victims of sexual violence. Indeed, now is the time.

[i] The Irish State is a signator to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UNHR), the Declaration for the Elimination of Violence Against Women (DEVAW), and importantly, legally binding conventions such as the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Violence Against Women (CEDAW) and the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

[ii] Hanly, C., Healy, D. And Scriver, S. 2009. Rape and Justice in Ireland. Dublin: Liffey Press.

[iii] United Nations Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. (2005). Concluding comments of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women: Ireland (CEDAW/C/IRL/4-5). New York: CEDAW.

[iv] Hanly et.al. :160

[v] Hanly et.al. 251

[vi] Hanly et.al. 2009: 244

[vii] Maurer, T.W. & Robinson, D.W. 2008. Effects of Attire, Alcohol, and Gender on Perceptions of date rape. Sex Roles, 58:423-434: 432

[viii] UN-CEDAW, ibid.

[ix] See, for instance, Saidlear, C. 2012. Sexual Violence and Alcohol in Ireland: A culture? International Conference on Survivors of Rape. http://alcoholireland.ie/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/rape-crisis-network-cliona-saidlear.pdf

[x] See , for instance, Briefing 3 of this series, Sex Related Alcohol Expectancies: mediating rape and alcohol consumption? http://rcni.wordpress.com/2012/05/31/sex-related-alcohol-expectancies-mediating-rape-and-alcohol-consumption/

[xi] World Health Organisation. 2010. Global strategy to reduce the harmful use of alcohol. Geneva: WHO Press.

[xii] García-Moreno, C. And Stöckl, H. 2009. Protection of sexual and reproductive health rights: Addressing violence against women. International Journal of Gynecology and Obstetrics 106, 144–147:146

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Hanly, C., Healy, D. And Scriver, S. 2009. Rape and Justice in Ireland. Dublin: Liffey Press.