In 2021 graduate Melani Garcia’s freshman year at Berkeley High School (BHS), she attended her first party. At the party, she said hello to a classmate who she believed to be intoxicated.
“The first thing he does without even saying ‘Hi’ is reach straight for my t*t,” Garcia said. “I slapped him away and said, ‘Don’t f*cking touch me’ and he was like, ‘My bad’ and then he goes in for a hug and tries to grab my *ss.”
“Again, I’m pushing him away. ‘Stop f*cking touching me.’”
Five years later, the party culture at BHS still hasn’t changed. “At every party, there’s at least one instance of some sort of harassment [or] assault,” said Lincoln Roan, a sophomore in Communication Arts and Sciences (CAS). “Anytime there’s teenagers at a party with alcohol, there’s some sort of miscommunication or someone just does not respect boundaries at all.”
At these parties, things can quickly spiral out of control. Once hundreds of students start showing up to a house in the Berkeley hills, for example, the scene can get out of control, as students bring in alcohol and other drugs. Garcia recounted, “I’ve literally been at parties [and have] seen people overdose and have to go to the hospital.”
The problem is that teenagers will attend parties with the intention of having a sexual experience, but, “people also go there to get drunk,” Roan said. “Nobody should be mixing alcohol with sexual experiences. It never leads to anything good.”
David Luu, who previously worked at BHS as an Alcohol, Tobacco, and Drug Educator, said that the reason for this is that once inebriated, the first part of the brain that gets affected is the prefrontal cortex, responsible for critical thinking and decision-making. The first thing that happens is “you loosen up a little bit … Some of those inhibitory barriers where you’re feeling kind of self-conscious, they start to fall away.”
Luu explained that alcohol is a “depressant drug,” so it slows down one’s thought processes. Messages in the brain are passed along more slowly when alcohol is present in the blood.
For teenagers, consuming alcohol is even more risky than for adults because it’s combined with two other factors. For one, teenagers’ prefrontal cortexes have not finished developing. Also, teenagers don’t have as much life experience, which often informs responsible decision-making. This combination of lack of experience, underdeveloped prefrontal cortexes, and impaired thought processes “can impede an individual’s ability to make good decisions” as well as removes one’s ability to give consent, according to Luu.
Once alcohol and other substances are used at a party, boundaries begin to be crossed. In terms of sexual assault, people make decisions that they typically wouldn’t when sober. For instance, “people can forget to ask for consent,” said Roan. They also said that “some people will talk about how they prefer sexual experiences on different types of drugs.” Roan expressed that while it’s not necessarily problematic physically, it leads to a problem regarding boundaries and consent.
“People who are interested in someone will be very touchy or overwhelming and won’t realize that they’re [harassing someone] because they think it’s just being flirty, or they’re confident because they’re drunk,” Roan said.
Roan said that lines get crossed easily when people are at a party and run into others who they used to be romantically involved with. When those people are drunk, they can become very physical, emboldened by the alcohol, thus more likely to make sexual or romantic advances. Roan said that “I’ll try and push away from them. And it won’t go farther than that. But it’s still just uncomfortable … to be around. And not exactly enjoyable for me.”
“Being at a party and being drunk and having a person who’s also drunk force themselves onto you … You’re not fully present in the moment to actually grasp what’s happening,” Garcia said. This can be caused by the fact that drugs impair people’s decision-making and communication skills. “Different drugs can cause anxiety or different mental impairments to where you won’t necessarily feel comfortable enough to speak up,” Roan said.
As students become intoxicated, patterns emerge in how different people’s behavior changes when under the influence. Being under the influence “enables boys to engage in more aggressive and ramped-up behavior, while girls tend to become more dazed and susceptible to harm,” Garcia said. “Both parties become significantly less able to make critical decisions as the lines between what is okay and what is not become blurred.”
“The more the person has to drink, the deeper parts of the brain are affected as well,” explained Luu. One such part of the brain is the limbic system, which is associated with emotions. When someone consumes a greater amount of alcohol, they are more likely to have a heightened emotional response. “When people are engaged in conflicts, they’re more apt to act in an emotional way because of the depression of the limbic system and also the depression of the prefrontal cortex.”
The way these emotional responses come out behaviorally differs “depending on the way the person [has been] socialized: either male or female,” said Luu. Roan noticed this in that when inebriated, “guys will definitely get either aggressive or just emotional. They’ll get angry really fast, or emotions, when they’re triggered, will be more extreme than they would be if they were sober.”
As closely related as party culture and rape culture are to each other, Roan said that drugs are not the reason people are getting assaulted and raped, and that ultimately, the people and perpetrators of assault are the problem. They pointed out that someone who doesn’t have any sense of boundaries is much more likely to cause harm when drunk at a party than someone who knows about consent and how to respect their own and other people’s boundaries.
“I think party culture created a window for rape culture to blossom,” said Garcia.