Was It O.K. to Leave a Drunken Woman With a Stranger? – The New York Times

Not long ago, I took a vacation to another city, and something that happened there still troubles me. I went to a bar that was playing live music and sat at a table very close to the band. A young woman, probably 21 years old, noticed an empty seat at our table and asked if she could join us. I’ll call her Kim.

Kim was a junior at a local college. She was friendly, intelligent and also clearly drunk. Not stumbling drunk, but slurring words and feeling no pain. She stated she was enjoying her one night a week off from waitressing and was delighted to find a place playing live music. She came in alone.

Right beside her was a musician in the band. He wasn’t needed in all the songs, so he was free to chat quite a bit, and you could see there was chemistry between him and Kim, but they had not met before.

At one point Kim left, presumably to use the restroom (she asked us if we would watch her things), and when she returned, the musician was with her, carrying her drink.

The band was really good, and the bar was packed. We were lucky to have arrived early enough to snag a table. Between our table and the bar, people were standing and dancing at least three deep. The bartenders were incredibly busy and not serving at tables. To get their attention you had to fight your way to the bar. Around 11 p.m., my companion and I were ready to call it a night. We said our goodbyes and left.

I’ve thought a lot about this night since and wondered if I should have done something. Perhaps it’s because of #MeToo, or perhaps it was a motherly instinct of mine kicking in (I’m old enough to be Kim’s mother), but I felt uncomfortable leaving Kim there so drunk and alone.

Should I have said something to the bartenders? They were so busy and not really able to watch over the customers. I would like to think that under normal circumstances they would have made sure she got in an Uber by herself (and not with a stranger), or at least would have made sure she didn’t leave with someone against her will. But was she too drunk to give consent?

Should I have said something to her, like, “Are you going to be O.K. getting home?” She didn’t appear to be anywhere close to wanting to go home. And speaking to her seemed so condescending — she was of legal age and so on.

Should I have said something to the musician, who seemed like a decent man? (I know, looks can be deceiving.) Though he was carrying her drink for her, he himself was not drinking. I have allowed myself the fantasy that he knew she was drunk, made sure she got home safely and did not take advantage of her, but instead took her phone number and checked on her the next day. And six months later they were a couple.

What was the right thing for me to do in this situation? Laura, La Jolla, Calif.

Was she too drunk, you wonder, to give consent? There are people who say that consent can be given in any state short of incapacitation, which is, indeed, the law in many states. (“Incapacitation” suggests that you’re drifting in and out of consciousness; that you don’t know what’s happening, whom you’re with, how you got there.) There are people who say that sex under the influence of alcohol is always wrong. Neither is a plausible position.

Memoirs about drinking, as it happens, are one place where you find people thinking hard about alcohol and agency. “Many yeses on Friday night would have been noes on Saturday morning,” Sarah Hepola wrote in her powerful book “Blackout.” Were those yeses therefore less than consensual? Not in her view. She chafes against the notion that the bad actor who provides you with drinks got you drunk, as she wrote in Texas Monthly, and insists, “I’d gotten myself drunk.” One reason the issue of sex under the influence is complicated is that people often imbibe for its expected consequences — they seek a lessening of inhibition.

“We found sex compelling and terrifying and foreign, and drank to deal with it,” Caroline Knapp recalled in her own memoir, “Drinking: A Love Story.” She wrote: “A naturally inhibited person, someone who grew up feeling mystified and insecure about what it meant to feel sexual, I turned to liquor the way a dancer turns toward music: It felt central to the process, central to my ability to shut down the voices of self-criticism in my own head and simply let go.”

These are authors who struggled with alcoholism; they were hardly commending their decisions, or the way they turned to booze or what booze provided them. But they were clear that going home with someone you wouldn’t have otherwise gone home with doesn’t mean you’ve been assaulted. “The reason I liked getting drunk,” Hepola wrote, “was because it altered my consent: It changed what I would say yes to.”

Somewhere in the gradient of intoxication, between the glass or two of wine at dinner to outright incapacitation, consent becomes attenuated. Yet there’s little agreement about when. Our ideas of consent derive from our ideas of autonomy — and those ideas become complicated when we take steps that we know will affect our decision making. That happens in benign contexts: You go out to a karaoke night knowing you’d never sing karaoke without a couple of beers in you. And it happens in more consequential ones.

Where to draw the line? I can imagine various approaches. One would focus on the continuity of self: If a person drinks, up to a certain point, she might make decisions she otherwise wouldn’t — and yet afterward she can still tell a coherent narrative about herself, as a subject with beliefs, desires and intentions that are intelligible to her when she’s sober. She can replay her decisions and remember why she made them, even if she wouldn’t make them now. That continuity of self would be violated if she became blackout drunk and woke up with a stranger. The stranger, we can feel, should have known that she was in no condition to be making any decisions.

But whatever approach we try, none of them will mark a precise point on the road from buzzed to blotto. As an ethical matter, moreover, you want to avoid making bad decisions, or letting others make bad decisions, even when consent isn’t at issue. When your judgment is impaired by alcohol, you’re more likely to engage in risky sexual activity, more likely to expose yourself to S.T.D.s, unwanted pregnancy and more.

Which brings us to your second question. When is it a good idea, or possibly even a duty, to intervene in order to protect a stranger? In this case, a reason for restraint is that, as you note, it can be disrespectful to question a fellow adult’s decisions. Still, when someone is seriously intoxicated, her right to manage her own life is lessened by her diminished capacity. (Condescension would be in play only if you were treating her as incompetent when she wasn’t.) And the fact that she might be only 21 carries weight, too. Her experience with drinking and drunkenness might not be comparable to that of someone a few years older.

Another reason not to intervene might be that there is someone else who has a duty to do so. In this case, that duty might lie, ethically speaking, with the bar and its staff members. So pointing out to them that she was drunk would have been a good idea. In most states, so-called “dram shop” laws make establishments potentially liable for some of the bad consequences of serving alcohol to visibly intoxicated people. Telling bartenders that a customer is drunk often gives them a reason to stop serving them. This would only leave you off the hook, though, if you thought that they would act on your information, and you had doubts about that.

It’s worth noting that, contrary to the assumptions people often make, the fact that the musician wasn’t drunk is a good thing, because it means he was more likely to exercise sound judgment. (Our minds run to the calculating predator and his impaired victim, but statistically, alcohol use by the perpetrator is a big risk factor.) You evidently struck up a conversation with the student in which you learned her name and her circumstances — that’s a good thing, too. But yes, you would have done well to say something to the musician, conveying your concern for the young woman. A subtle sense of being in the public view can make it more likely that people will behave the way they know they ought to.

~Kwame Anthony Appiah teaches philosophy at N.Y.U. His books include “Cosmopolitanism,” “The Honor Code” and “The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity.” To submit a query: Send an email to ethicist@nytimes.com; or send mail to The Ethicist, The New York Times Magazine, 620 Eighth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10018. (Include a daytime phone number.)

Source: Was It O.K. to Leave a Drunken Woman With a Stranger? – The New York Times

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