When two adolescent boys were found guilty earlier this month of raping a teenage girl in Steubenville, Ohio, there was much discussion about rape culture, social media, and whether taking advantage of a passed out girl is just boys’ nature. Many media reports highlighted the drunken state of many of the kids present at the rape, and some argued that the girl’s drunkenness made her at least partially responsible for the abuse she suffered. Meanwhile, the boys’ drunkenness either was not mentioned at all, or was seen as making them less responsible for the attack.
One thing that didn’t elicit much disagreement was the issue of teenage drinking itself. “Where were the parents?” was a frequently asked question. “Why were these kids allowed to drink?” Alcohol and bad parenting, many people agreed, were the real culprits of this rape.
But is that really true? Does alcohol lead to rape and violence? And are parents responsible for adolescent drinking?
The answers to these questions are less straightforward than one might expect.
It is certainly true that a large proportion of violent crimes involve alcohol use. This has been attributed to a variety of factors, including the fact that alcohol inhibits self-control and limits the ability to assess risk, and the fact that some people consume alcohol in preparation for their involvement in violent acts because they believe it will make them braver and stronger.
It is also true that people under the age of 21 consume alcohol regardless of the legal U.S. drinking age, and that many young people binge drink, that is, drink a lot of alcohol over a short period of time.
Younger adolescents are, however, less likely to be involved in alcohol-related violence than they are to be involved in any other violent crimes. And when you look at violent crimes committed by a male perpetrator on a female victim, there is no significant difference between the proportion of women attacked by men under the influence and the proportion of women attacked by men who did not appear to be drunk.
In other words, the fact that a man drinks does not make him any more or less likely to attack a woman.
The influence of parenting and parental drinking on teenage behavior is also not a straight shot when it comes to alcohol and violence. While adult binge drinking in the larger community is a strong predictor for binge drinking in teenagers and college students, parental problem drinking is not—or at least not directly. To summarize a number of quite complex family studies, drinking is not a problem for adolescents in and of itself, though it is obviously not healthy in excess. Rather, the problems are how they drink, how (not if) they see their parents drink, and what they learn to do generally about their emotions and conflicts.
Parenting matters, but, especially for older teenagers, so do peer pressure, societal norms, and genetic susceptibility to using alcohol.
My motivation for looking into the correlation between these issues is not merely academic. I come from Denmark, a country where alcohol use is normalized, even celebrated, among citizens, including teenagers. As I recall it, the main drink served at high school dances back home was beer. Did that make us rape each other? My recollection is that it did not.
This recollection seems to be substantiated by facts. In a recent survey of industrialized countries, Denmark topped the teenage drinking list, while the United States came in last. But rape estimates from Denmark and the United States suggest that women and girls are equally likely to be raped in both countries, or even slightly less likely to be raped in Denmark than in the United States. To put it differently, drinking more does not make Danish people rape more.
My point is not to say that alcohol was irrelevant to the Steubenville rape case. Obviously, the girl’s alcohol-induced unconsciousness enabled the crime in some way (not that it at all excuses the violent acts). I am also not trying to exonerate these teens’ parents of responsibility. I would like to think we have some influence over our children’s sense of right and wrong, and by that I include the notion that we have a responsibility to help people who cannot help themselves.
I do take issue with the notion that alcohol and bad parenting are what caused this crime. Alcohol is a poisonous substance that does damage to your health when consumed in large or even not so large quantities. Bad parenting has much the same effect. But neither ensures that you will commit a crime.