Beer and sex: the dangerous mix

Sorting out blame for the consequences when drunk friends become intimate

By Katherine Wartell

Establishing a victim and a criminal in a stranger-rape scenario is not difficult. The unsuspecting victim is attacked by a shadowy assailant and the right and wrong is clear.

But, that distinction can become fuzzy when the victims know their alleged attackers and even fuzzier when alcohol is involved. Yet the United States Department of Justice estimates that approximately two-thirds of rapes are committed by someone known to the victim and studies have suggested that as many as 50 percent of acquaintance rapes involve alcohol use by either the victim or perpetrator or both.

In 2012, there were 37 rapes reported throughout all of Riley County. Because officers are not required to categorize the nature of the rape, including whether it involved acquaintances or alcohol, the specific breakdown of each is not known.

But Matthew Droge, public information officer for the Riley County Police Department, said a lot, if not the majority, of the cases the department receives involve acquaintance rapes, a large portion of which involve alcohol.

According to national figures, the majority of rape victims are under 30 years of age and college-aged women are particularly vulnerable. The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention figures for 2012 indicate that one woman in five reports having been raped at some point in their life.

In Kansas, rape is defined in several ways, including knowingly having sex with a victim who does not consent because they are overcome by force or fear, or are unconscious or physically powerless, and knowingly having sex with a person who is incapable of giving consent because of mental deficiency or disease or the effect of any alcoholic liquor, narcotic, drug or other substance, which condition was known by the offender or was reasonably apparent to the offender.

The number of reported rapes that are prosecuted in Riley County District Court varies from year to year, County Attorney Barry Wilkerson said, and those cases are chosen for prosecution based on careful examination.

But they don’t all lead to convictions. While authorities are hesitant to speculate in public on the reasons why juries may acquit rather than convict in acquaintance rape situations, there appears to be a sense that alcohol complicates the issue of determining responsibility.

One such case involved the recent trial of a man accused of raping a woman while she was unconscious in bed in her Manhattan apartment in 2012.

At the trial, testimony was heard that he was in the apartment drinking with the woman and her male friend, with whom she had a romantic relationship, after he had been invited up from the apartment below, where he lived. An acquaintance of his had been with him. 

He did not know the woman prior to that night, during which time, several witnesses said both heavily drank. One of those witnesses, the woman’s male friend, testified to having been the only sober person in the apartment during the time of the alleged rape. It was he who called the police, after he walked in on the two in her bedroom.

Initially, he testified, he thought he walked in on consensual sex, before deciding it was rape.

According to the defense, represented by public defenders Mellissa Rundus, Jennifer Chaffee, and Larry McRell, the defendant and woman had flirted throughout the night. They argued that when he visited her room later, after she had been escorted to bed by her friend, she welcomed him. In closing arguments, Rundus told jurors that the case was about a jealous boyfriend.

The version outlined by the prosecution, represented by assistant county attorneys Barry Disney and Wes Garrison, was that the woman could not have given consent because she was unconscious in bed, having drunk too much. In support, her friend testified that he had to shake her awake after the defendant had left the room. In closing arguments, Disney told jurors that they would have to think the worst of someone to assume she would have casual sex with a man she just met, while another man, who was for all intents and purposes her boyfriend, was in the next room.

The man was found not guilty by the 12-person panel.

Rundus said of her client, “(He) is not a rapist. Justice was served. The purpose of a trial is to evaluate the credibility of witnesses and resolve disputed facts…”

McRell, whose office represents five counties, said they often defend in similar cases. In his experience, many of the cases, though not all, tend to involve drinking to excess moreso than any use of drugs.

“At the end of the day,” McRell said, “it’s hard to assess criminal liability when the search for truth is clouded by drinking alcohol.”

Juror judgments may also be complicated by the fact that in Kansas, the law does not provide juror leeway in considerations of the circumstances of the rape. That means first-time offenders are typically sentenced to about 13 years, County Attorney Barry Wilkerson said, regardless of whether they knew the victim, and regardless of whether one or both was inebriated.

(There is an exception for cases involving children younger than 14, which carries a life sentence with the eligibility of parole after 25 years.)

That lack of distinction can be at odds with how the public views stranger versus acquaintance rape, McRell said. “Sometimes in the court of public opinion, people tend to look at them differently,” he said.

In some states, rape is divided into degrees, an alternative that some Kansas attorneys have privately voiced an interest in.

For advocates like Mary Todd, director of the K-State Women’s Center, treating victims of stranger rape and acquaintance rape differently undermines the trauma victims feel.

When people are raped by an acquaintance, she said, their trust in the world is shattered.

On her blog, “Mary’s Be AGoodDog Blog,” Todd chronicled a statement read by a K-State student during the sentencing of her attacker, a man known to her. “This event has affected my life in ways I cannot put into words for you today,” the student read, “…before this date I was confident; confident in my strength… my looks… my peers… my own control over my life… I now question myself on nearly every decision I make, wondering what the hidden consequences may be.”

For many victims, acquaintance rapes result in a lot of self-blame, Judy Davis, executive director of the Crisis Center, said.

But the issue of alcohol-facilitated sexual assault is cultural according to many officials. While it is hard to quantify how much alcohol is consumed in Riley County each year, especially with the myriad bars and liquor stores that are located in Manhattan alone, Droge said he does not believe it is an issue particular to Manhattan. “America has a bit of a drinking culture and inherently that isn’t a bad thing,” he said, but added that “the dangers of drinking past your ‘safe’ limit can increase your risk of becoming a victim of a crime.”

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