There is a link between drinking excessively and sexual assault. Drinking doesn’t cause assault, but sexual assault is more likely to occur in situations where alcohol was consumed, the National Institute for Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism confirms. Research finds that presence of alcohol can increase the likelihood of intimate partner violence.
You know this. So does Ann Mukherjee. She’s the new CEO of Pernod Ricard USA, the giant beverage company that includes brands like Absolut, Jameson, Kahlúa, Malibu, and Glenlivet. Her job is to sell alcohol.
And when she was a child, she was sexually assaulted. Her attacker was intoxicated. It’s her earliest childhood memory. She was four years old.
Mukherjee jumped to take the position at the liquor giant, stepping down from a C-suite role at the multinational company SC Johnson to head up Pernod Ricard. She says her first thought when she got the job was: ”Now I can create change.”
On Valentine’s Day, with Muhkerjee at the helm, Absolut Vodka will roll out a new ad campaign. Don’t expect a chiseled man sinking an eight-ball into a pool table, a writhing, bikini-wearing model dripping in liquor, or any other booze-soaked male fantasy. Absolut Vodka is running an ad campaign about consent. “Drink responsibly,” Absolut ads will say, as usual. Then they’ll add, “#SexResponsibly.”
“Only a Yes to Sex Is a Yes,” the campaign text reads. “Because sex without consent is sexual assault.” The campaign is meant to highlight how accepting a drink from someone or even getting festively drunk in their presence doesn’t equal consent.
“Everyone has the right to great sex. Why should they feel unsafe?” says Mukherjee. In about half of the sexual assaults that happen on college campuses, she points out, either the perpetrator, the victim, or both had been drinking before the assault. “That’s why they think companies need to take a stand. And that’s why we’re doing what we’re doing—we think companies need to create a conversation around responsible alcohol use and consensual healthy sex.”
“I love to enjoy alcohol,” says Mukherjee, “There is nothing wrong with that.” And the campaign isn’t aimed at women, warning them to be careful. It’s, as Mukherjee puts it, “about the perpetrators that take advantage of those situations and it turns into something unsafe because they don’t respect [no]. They don’t respect consent and honor it.”
Mukherjee sees it as her job—and the job of the brands she leads—to help people understand the truth: that perpetrators are the ones responsible for sex crimes. After she was attacked as a child, she told no one what happened. “Like with any victim, you’re so scared,” she says. Then, when she was a young teenager, her mother died—she was hit by a drunk driver. As an adult she was in an abusive relationship, in which alcohol, she thinks, had a part. After she broke it off, she started volunteering with other survivors and saw that her experience wasn’t unusual. “Seeing the role of alcohol play into the abuse of other women and other victims as well, it’s just unacceptable,” she says. “And so for me to have this opportunity as a CEO to be able to start this conversation, that’s my responsibility as a leader.”
The company developed their ads with RAINN (Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network) and will partner with the organization throughout the campaign and onwards. On Valentine’s Day, Absolut will donate $1 to RAINN for every share and retweet their campaign gets. Mukherjee has also signed on to join RAINN’s national board. She plans to continue working with RAINN and campaigning for consent long beyond the initial ad rollout.
“Perpetrators out there are abusing alcohol and using it as a weapon, and it needs to stop,” she says. “That’s the dialogue we want to create. Everyone’s been talking about ‘drinking responsibly’ forever. But now let’s put our money where our mouth is.”
“This is the first time there’s been a real partnership that involves a lot of public messaging and working together over the long term,” says Scott Berkowitz, founder and CEO of RAINN. “They’ve made clear that they want this to be a long-term relationship. Our mission is very straightforward: it’s to reduce the numbers of sexual assaults in the country and I think their involvement is going to help us in that work.”
For some, the partnership might come as a surprise. But for Mukherjee, it’s just the natural, more ambitious expression of her values. Mukherjee spent years working with Chetna, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping South Asian women who experience domestic violence, as well as volunteering with other nonprofits that support survivors of abuse and violence. In separate conversations, she and Berkowitz used almost identical language to explain that drinkers should be held accountable for their behavior: Responsible drinking means “drinking in a way that allows you to make decisions rationally, like knowing that you should not get behind the wheel of a car,” they both say. In other words: Drinking isn’t an excuse for crime. And sex crimes aren’t an exception.
That’s not a message that’s come from an alcohol company before. It’s not even a message that’s come from mainstream culture.
“There is less moral culpability attached to the defendant who is legally intoxicated,” wrote Judge Aaron Persky, in his decision to sentence Brock Turner to just six months in county jail, though Turner had been found guilty of sexually assaulting an unconscious woman, Chanel Miller.
“College Women: Stop Getting Drunk,” read the headline of a Slate article by Emily Yoffe in 2013. “When [women] render themselves defenseless, terrible things can be done to them,” she wrote.
Perhaps Jed Rubenfeld, a professor at Yale, put it the most clearly, in Yale Law Journal in 2013. “Is it so clear unconscious sex should be criminal?” he asked.
These comments crystalized a belief most people have heard from college administrations, respected newspaper columnists, and parents and authority figures—that drinking makes you vulnerable to sexual assault. If you drink, especially if you’re a woman who drinks, you’re at least partially responsible for your assault.
But only a perpetrator is responsible for a crime. That’s something a big, public conversation about consent can help make clear, Mukherjee believes. “Sexual assault is something that makes you feel not in control and weak,” she says. “And that for me this is why it’s personal. No one should have to feel that way. No one should have to feel that unsafe in any environment.” She speaks about the importance of consent in drinking culture with her kids, 18-year-old twins. She says when she floated her ideas for the campaign to them, they said, “Finally.”
“Teenagers are…not the most expressive,” she says. “So I knew I was on to something.” Gen-Z, she adds, “cares very deeply about responsibility and collectively doing what’s right for the world.”
Absolut’s advertising history is stuff of legend, even if you’re not a marketing nerd—the image of an Absolut bottle with a tiny, light-colored halo over the words “Absolut Perfection” gave way to the longest-running print campaign in history. Andy Warhol, who wasn’t a drinker, claimed to use Absolut as perfume, and designed pop-art ads for the liquor. Keith Haring, Kurt Vonnegut, Jean-Paul Gaultier, Gianni Versace, Manolo Blahnik, and Annie Liebowitz came next. Lizzo is the brand’s most recent famous face. And say what you will about corporate activism—while your bank started covering floats in rainbows and inserting itself in pride parades in the last five years, Absolut has been loudly courting gay consumers since 1981.
The company worked with RAINN to make sure their messaging makes it clear that it’s perpetrators, not victims, who need to change. “You have a responsibility to obtain consent in your relationship. And to make sure that consent is being freely given and by someone who’s capable of giving consent,” Berkowitz says. And it’s not a matter for pundits to debate—it’s the law in most states that a person who has been incapacitated by alcohol cannot consent.
Drinking and sex can be fun, Mukherjee says. Perpetrators shouldn’t get to ruin that. She loves when her husband makes her dirty martinis with blue cheese olives. (“It’s like he knows the exact olive I want.”) She drinks Chivas with her brother-in-law. At home in Dallas, she likes to sip Lillet Spritzers with strawberries.
“Don’t be scared to talk about it,” she says, offering advice to other survivors. “Don’t be scared to do something about it. Don’t be scared to get help. Don’t underestimate your own impact in your own experience and what sharing it can do to help others. That has been my therapy.”
Jenny Singer is a staff writer at Glamour. You can follow her on Twitter.
The post She Was Assaulted by a Drunk Man. Now the CEO of Absolut Vodka Is Telling Her Story. appeared first on Glamour.