Published May 22, 2014
In the April 2014 report, Not Alone, the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault announced plans to address the pervasive problem of college sexual assault.
Although this issue has received considerable attention recently, researchers have known for many years about the high rates of sexual assault experienced by college students. One factor has been consistently identified as a major contributor to campus sexual assaults and yet is seldom addressed: the presence of heavy drinking by perpetrators, victims or both.
Researchers, advocates and policymakers agree: sexual assault is never justified. Forcing sexual contact on someone who is unwilling or unable to consent is always wrong. Unfortunately, disagreements about the role of alcohol have at times been a key stumbling block in efforts to develop effective prevention strategies. Cultural myths that treat drinking as justification for rape still persist. For that reason, some advocates are concerned that acknowledging the pervasive role of binge drinking in assaults may be seen as blaming the victim. Although responsibility falls squarely on the perpetrator, ignoring the role of alcohol will not advance prevention efforts.
Heavy alcohol consumption never “causes” or justifies sexual assault, but research does show that drinking increases risk of assault. It is the position of the UB Research Institute on Addictions that reduction of binge drinking must be recognized as a crucial goal for prevention efforts. To bring further clarity to this discussion, we offer a review of current research on college sexual assault and alcohol use.
Heavy alcohol use has been repeatedly linked to sexual assault of college students. Heavy alcohol use, or binge drinking, refers to having enough alcohol in a single sitting to cause significant physical and cognitive impairment (four or more drinks for women, five or more drinks for men). The vast majority of college sexual assaults occur after drinking heavily in contexts such as bars and parties, and involve a known perpetrator.
Men who drink heavily are more likely to commit sexual assault; however, not every man is prone to perpetration even if he drinks. Rather, heavy alcohol use appears to interact with certain personality traits, attitudes and past experiences to increase the likelihood
of committing assault.
Heavy alcohol consumption contributes to sexual assault perpetration among men who:
Such males often report taking advantage of women’s intoxication as a tactic for isolating them and coercing them to have sex.
The college culture that promotes binge drinking and casual sex creates an atmosphere ripe for sexual assault. Influences from the larger society also contribute to creating conditions in which sexual assault thrives:
Sexual assaults involving alcohol do not fit the stereotype of a rapist as a stranger who jumps out from behind the bushes to attack an unwitting woman who screams and fights back. This image creates several significant barriers to reporting an incapacitated rape:
It is vitally important that campus sexual assault policies provide clear guidelines that encompass incapacitated rape – those all-too-frequent situations where victims are too intoxicated to give consent.
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In April, the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault released its first report on how colleges can combat sexual assault on campus.
The report outlines four recommendations to help colleges identify, prevent, and respond to sexual assault cases, as well as enforce the law.
Identify the scope of the problem: Colleges are advised to conduct climate surveys to gauge the prevalence of sexual assault on campus, test students’ awareness about the issue, and craft solutions.
Help prevent campus sexual assault: On the advice of the Centers for Disease Control, campuses are urged to implement effective prevention programs, including bystander intervention training.
Help schools respond effectively when a student is assaulted: Recommendations include giving victims a confidential place for support; specialized training for school officials; effectively investigating what happened; sanctioning perpetrators; and helping survivors recover.
Improve, and make more transparent, the federal government’s enforcement efforts: A dedicated website (www.NotAlone.gov) has public enforcement data and provides resources about rights and responsibilities to students and schools.