Report Highlights Relationship Between Drinking and College Sexual Assault

By May Wilkerson 05/21/15

The problem with alcohol and sexual assault on campus has reached "epidemic" levels.

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Sexual assault has reached “epidemic levels” on college campuses, a new study confirms, and drinking plays a major role. But the study's authors point out that examining the controversial link between alcohol and sexual assault should be done carefully, as to avoid “victim blaming.”

According to the report, published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, 18.6% of female students experienced attempted or completed rape in their first year of school. That’s nearly one out of five women.

For the study, researchers defined rape as either attempted or completed penetration, and separated the cases into two categories: forcible and incapacitated. “Incapacitated” rapes included scenarios where the victim was under the influence of drugs or alcohol “and unable to object or consent,” said study lead Kate B. Carey, a professor at the Brown University School of Public Health.

After surveying 483 female students, the researchers found that 15% of women had experienced incapacitated rape, compared to 9% who had experienced forcible rape in their first year. Given that some women reported multiple cases of rape, 83%, were in situations where the women were too impaired by alcohol or drugs to give consent.

But linking alcohol and sexual assault is controversial, since it could be seen as putting responsibility on the victim. Carey does not explicitly urge women to drink less to protect themselves from rape. Instead, she pointed out that “drinking to incapacitation is not a good idea” for either men or women, “because when you’re incapacitated due to drugs and alcohol, adverse events can happen.”

The study's authors urge school administrators to address both drinking and sexual assault as separate but overlapping issues. “Efforts to reduce risky alcohol use on college campuses would benefit from incorporating universal messages about healthy relationships and healthy sexuality,” wrote Heather McCauley, an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh’s pediatrics department, in an editorial accompanying the report.

“The approach can be tricky because the tone of that approach can be perceived as victim-blaming,” McCauley told The Daily Beast. “Sexual assault is caused by people who sexually assault, not by women who drink too much.”

But she explained that while alcohol does not cause sexual assault, drinking can make women more vulnerable. It also creates a breakdown in communication. “Alcohol may exacerbate the likelihood that someone misreads the sexual cues,” she said.

Ultimately, the report is meant to jumpstart a “more nuanced conversation about the role of alcohol and drugs and sex,” said Carey. “And we’re still working out what the right messages to be giving to young people.”

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May Wilkerson is a writer, comic and Managing Editor @someecards. Co-host of the podcast Crazy; In Bed w/alyssalimp. She is also the top Google result for "insufferable lunatic." Follow this insufferable lunatic on Twitter.