The relationship between alcohol and sexual agency for young women in university




Cusack, Erin Elizabeth

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A link between binge drinking, negative sexual health outcomes, and sexual victimization among university populations is well established in the research literature (Messman-Moore et al., 2013; PHAC, 2016; Smith et al., 2009). Despite these known risks, young people often hold beliefs that alcohol consumption can enhance or facilitate their sexual experiences, however, less is known about the role of alcohol in young women’s consensual sexual experiences. In this qualitative study, I used a feminist perspective to explore young women’s perceptions and experiences of the role of alcohol in their sexual agency – the ability to communicate and fulfill their sexual desires and boundaries – and the social norms that influence this relationship. I collected data through interviews with 14 young university women between the ages of 19 and 25 who identified as heterosexual, lesbian, bisexual, or queer. Participants identified heteronormative sexuality norms that influence the role of alcohol in their sexual agency, namely the prioritization of women’s sexual inexperience, female sexual fidelity, and women’s attractiveness. Participants perceived that alcohol influenced their sexual agency at an individual and social level. In their individual experiences, participants discussed the dis-inhibitory effects of alcohol as a “tool” to alleviate feelings of shame associated with sexual expression and negative body image. At a social level, participants used alcohol as a means to deflect social stigma associated sexual expression as they could “blame the alcohol” as their motivation for engaging in sexual activity. These findings suggest that young women’s motivations for drinking may be linked to sexuality norms that discourage young women’s sexual agency, which could be relevant to consider in health promotion and harm reduction efforts.



alcohol, young women, sexuality, sexual agency, health promotion, harm reduction, public health, sexual health, LGBTQ