Last week, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that a person can’t be convicted of sexually assaulted someone who is intoxicated or under the influence if they drank or took the drugs willingly.
The ruling was a decision on a case involving a 20-year-old woman who took five shots and a prescription pill one night in 2017 when a man outside the bar she was at with a friend invited them to a party. Later she blacked out and said she woke up to the man, Francios Momolu Khalil, raping her. She said he continued even when she said she didn’t want to have sex.
In 2019, a jury found Khalil guilty, and convicted him of third-degree criminal sexual conduct. But that conviction has now been tossed out, after Khalil’s lawyers won their appeal, which hinged on an argument Minnesota Supreme Court justices found to be in line with the law: that a lower court’s interpretation of “mental incapacitation” in this case “unreasonably strains and stretches the plain text of the statue” since the 20-year-old woman had gotten drunk before Khalil came on the scene. These are the words of Justice Paul Thissen, who wrote the majority decision; the ruling was unanimous.
What “unreasonably strains and stretches” for me, however, is the reasoning behind this decision, which can only be described as blatant victim blaming. Thissen wrote that his definition of “mental incapacitation” relies on the victim becoming intoxicated without their consent, such as with date rape drugs. And in fact this does reflect Minnesota state law, according to the Washington Post, which only considers intoxication a barrier to consent under the aforementioned circumstances.
This is where the complex politics of consent—who can give it, and when—fail to cohere with the law, and vice versa. Practically speaking, people have consensual sex under the influence of drugs and alcohol all the time. But by allowing that this may be the case, Minnesota Supreme Court justices also allow for an absurd distortion of that logic, ruling that (legally speaking at least) this must always be the case. In other words, the court seems to hold the position that a person is always able to consent to sex if they are intoxicated on substances they willingly consumed. We know that this is not the case.
I’m less interested in talking about whether or not Khalil deserves to serve a harsher sentence; the criminal justice system is deeply broken and not worth defending on its own terms. Rather, I’m more interested in the implicit message of the law, and how it reflects a culture of victim-blaming that continues to thrive. Since the effect of willingly getting drunk and blacking out and being coerced into getting drunk and blacking out is the same, Minnesota Supreme Court justices are effectively telling victims that if you are violated while partaking in the former, it’s your fault.