Alcohol and Sexual Risk Taking: What Parents Need to Know

bottles and glasses of alcohol drinks

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not
necessarily those of Advocates for Youth.

“It could be the ugliest
person in the world; someone we wouldn’t think twice about if we were sober, but
we’d go to bed with if we were high or intoxicated.” These are the words of
Veronica, a young woman with HIV, in the video In Our Own Words: Teens and

Invariably, when young people hear this line, they laugh. They
know it to be so true.

Parents on the other hand, hear the quote and
gasp. Veronica’s bluntness crosses their line of comfort. It penetrates their
denial about teens’ sexual activity and use of alcohol.

While conducting
interviews for a video about underage drinking, I was astounded by parents’
refusal to consider the range of potential negative consequences of underage
drinking, including sexual risk-taking.

One mother was adamant her
17-year-old didn’t use alcohol or drugs, or have sex. “Oh, I would know for
sure!” Two weeks later, she found a stash of marijuana in his room.

Other parents deliberately look the other way, considering drinking by
teens a harmless right of passage. “Kids will be kids.” They say. “Everybody
drinks. What can you do about it?” But I have met mothers and fathers whose
children were seriously hurt because they chose to drink. Dreams were shattered.
Opportunities were lost. Those parents tell a different story. They wish now
they’d done more to stop early alcohol use.

While I was writing
Words Can Work: When Talking With Kids About Alcohol, Kathy told me of
learning that her 15-year-old daughter, Megan, had been drinking at a party.
Kathy ignored it. She said she wasn’t overly concerned. After all, it was just
one night.

But then, one night while at a party, Megan was sexually
assaulted. A guy had noticed she was unsteady and offered to take her for a
walk. Megan told me, “All I remember is running and running and running and
finally just getting caught and … and I was sexually assaulted and there was
nothing I could do.”

Now Kathy regrets ignoring the warning. “I should
have pursued it,” she said. “But you want to believe your kids. I would wait for
Megan to come in at night. At the bedroom door, 20 feet away, she would seem

Dr. Brian Johnson, Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at
Harvard Medical School, says many parents choose to avoid the issue for a
variety of reasons. Sometimes, he says, they fear pushing their child away.
Other times it’s denial. “When something is frightening, like you know your
child is behaving in an unsafe way,” Dr. Johnson explains, “You can decide you
won’t think about it. You tell yourself it will be all right. But kids’ drinking
is Russian roulette.”

The following facts underscore Dr. Johnson’s
point—that underage drinking is indeed a form of Russian roulette:

  • Teens who report drinking alcohol on at least one occasion are seven times
    more likely to have had sexual intercourse than nondrinkers.
  • Binge drinkers, like those who have ever used drugs, are three times more
    likely to have contracted an STD than nonproblem drinkers and nondrug users.
  • Alcohol is more closely linked to sexual violence than any other drug and is
    a common companion to rape, including date rape. Alcohol use, by the victim, the
    perpetrator or both, is implicated in 46 to 75 percent of date rapes of college

Source: The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia
University, Dangerous Liaisons: Substance Abuse and Sex,

Many parents who say they talk with their kids about alcohol focus only on
drinking and driving. One parent proudly told me, “When kids drink at our house,
we insist they throw the keys into a pile and no one leaves the house ’til

Other parents minimize alcohol’s potential for harm saying,
“At least they aren’t doing drugs!”

But, each year, over 100,000
Americans die from alcohol-related causes—alcohol, the leading drug of choice.
Antigone is HIV positive. She no longer drinks, but sometimes when she did, she
had unprotected sex. “I mean, you know,” she says, “I had sex when I wouldn’t
have if I wasn’t drinking.”

Parents—who love their kids and say they will
do anything for them—are turning a blind eye to destructive behavior. By
ignoring the use of alcohol, and at times supplying it, parents send a message
that alcohol is harmless.

Recently, in Scarsdale, New York, a school
superintendent called a drunk student’s parents to pick him up. The parents
reportedly sent the housekeeper instead. I’ve heard hundreds of similar stories
of parents’ denial or neglect. One friend told me her daughter had her first
drink, and her first experience getting drunk, at a house where the parents had
set up a margarita bar for the kids.

Research shows that the first use
of alcohol typically begins around age 13. So, parents who want to protect their
children need to include in their ongoing family dialogue clear messages about
the link between alcohol and risky behavior, including sexual risk taking.

Not to do so, leaves a child vulnerable. Dr. Paula Rauch, Chief of
Pediatric Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital says many parents recall
their own drinking as teens and remain silent on the issue. They ask themselves,
“How can I judge my child’s behavior? I wasn’t perfect.” But that robs their
children of a mature guide, one who confronts the myth that bad things only
happen to other people.