My Knotty Relationship with Alcohol and Consent

Social Commentary

My Knotty Relationship with Alcohol and Consent

Illustration: Akshita Monga

Afriend was telling me, with barely concealed outrage, of what had happened with his friend on a date. “They were both drunk, and he went down on her. She had passed out by then.” The girl woke up in the middle of the encounter, collected her belongings, and left. She complained to the university authorities the next morning and the boy was expelled.

My friend sounded defensive. He argued that this was not rape. He said that the couple was inebriated, they were making out, and one thing led to another. As he was narrating the incident, I couldn’t help but think of Amy Schumer in her recently released stand-up act The Leather Special, in which she recalls, with her trademark, nonchalant sarcasm, a similar experience of blacking out and subsequently waking up with a stranger between her legs. “I was like, OK. I decided to tap him gently, so as not to startle him. ‘Sir?’”

While Schumer went on to hilariously explain how she scrambled around in her head wondering who the hell the guy was, her humour touched a raw nerve. I, too, had quite a history with alcohol and sex.

At 21, I was sharing a hostel room with a long-distance boyfriend who was visiting me in Hyderabad. I was immensely shy and inexperienced in sexual matters, but I convinced myself that if we had a couple of vodka shots, I would be totally prepared to have sex with him. You know, get past the awkwardness and get down to business. None of that happened. I passed out after downing an entire quarter bottle myself and he went back to watching Suits on his laptop.

It wouldn’t be my first tryst with the unholy combination of alcohol and sex, but it would be the last one where I would get away unscathed. I would go on to have several drunken, sexual encounters, thanks to the many problems I had with my body, and none of them would end with my lover backing off and watching Suits.

One of these unfolded when my neighbour asked me out for drinks. Half a bottle of wine and several pegs of whisky later, I transformed into a hyperactive chirpy version of myself, who was down for whatever. I took a few drags of his joint and fell off my chair. The next thing I knew, my clothes were off, he was inside me, without a condom. I was zoning in and out of consciousness, pushing him away. His reply was stern, “I know how to control myself.” I remember very little of that night, but in the morning I realised that all boys were not like my first boyfriend.

It took one more confused, broken morning to understand that alcohol could be used to widely manufacture consent during sex, and that I didn’t have the language to say no. I may have consented to sex but very few men have had the maturity to understand that a woman who was not in her senses was out of bounds.

I was not a frequent drinker, but when I had a glass of bubbling white wine in my hand, I just didn’t know when to stop.

A friend met a man at a dance social, who got her so drunk, that when her flatmate returned in the wee hours from work, she saw the man mounting her. The woman had blacked out much earlier in the evening with zero recollection of the incident. Looking back, she was still perplexed whether she should feel violated or blame herself for being too trusting.

I hover in that confusion myself because by society’s standards, a woman who is drinking is fair game. An inebriated woman is even better. She’s the poster girl of the she-asked-for-it narrative. If she was game when she started, surely she’s game until the end, even when she’s making a run for the bathroom. Consent has been taken in a state of consciousness and naturally it applies to unconsciousness too, right? “It’s a grey area,” most people nod their heads sagely and tell me. To me, the lines are not all that blurred. The call on sobriety is a fairly evident one. We all know when our friends have had a little too much, and we certainly know when they are blacking out.

There’s a scene in the movie Pink which pushes the argument on consent forward. Kirti Kulhari’s character tells a packed courtroom that she and her friends are prostitutes. She’s lying, but she’s lying to make a point and the point is this: Even if they’re prostitutes, even if they are drunk prostitutes, even if they are drunk prostitutes who danced naked on table tops, and then decided to button up and go home, consent once given can be withdrawn. Consent is not an ironclad guarantee to cover all situations. Consent does not matter if the consent-giver is a minor. Consent does not matter if the consent giver is no longer lucid. Consent comes with addenda and they’re not too complicated to understand even if you’re terminally stupid.

I tried to explain this to my outraged friend who seemed insistent on sticking with his “one thing led to another” narrative, but it got nowhere.

Last December, I came back to India. On New Year’s Eve, I found myself in a west Delhi restaurant where pot-bellied uncles were flinging infants in the air and dancing to Badshah’s “Wakhra Swag”, and I promised myself that I had to stop drinking. I was not a frequent drinker, but when I had a glass of bubbling white wine in my hand, I just didn’t know when to stop. And that I was not comfortable with my own sexual needs, made me feel that I was part of the problem. There will be a time when men will grow up and the blame will not lie with me, but that time has not arrived yet.

Since I’ve kicked the bottle, there has been some progress. I have been on dates and have managed to not effectively lose my shit. Once after a double date, my date and I crashed at his friend’s place. The friend promptly went off to the other room to have sex with the girl he’d just met. “They are probably never going to see each other again,” my date smirked, as he tugged at my pants. It was a colossal waste of his time, as I kept saying no, trying to reclaim the power of having a say. After a while, he gave up, and said, “Should I just drop you home?” And we took off.

Why didn’t I have sex with him? Because I didn’t want to. And, drunk or sober, that’s reason enough.