Is Alcohol Really to Blame for the Prevalence of Sexual Assault on College Campuses? - Pacific Standard

Is Alcohol Really to Blame for the Prevalence of Sexual Assault on College Campuses?

Access to alcohol isn't anything new, but access to members of the opposite sex is.
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(PHOTO: TOBIAS ARHELGER/SHUTTERSTOCK)

(PHOTO: TOBIAS ARHELGER/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Many Americans are concerned about sexual assault on college campuses. While the number of those affected is still being debated (one in four is commonly cited), even the conservative estimate is that some one in 50 women are made the victims of rape while in college.

Why does sexual assault occur so often? There are a number of elements to consider, but, according to the 2007 Campus Sexual Assault Study (PDF) published by the U.S. Department of Justice, “alcohol consumption by the victim is a major risk factor for sexual assault.”

But is drinking really the cause of many sexual assault cases, and the reason for its prevalence on college campuses? Historically this seems questionable. If there has been any change at all in sexual assault patterns at institutions of higher learning—and that the numbers are climbing is one fact that isn't up for debate—it can’t be explained by alcohol consumption, which has remained pretty constant. What has changed is the way that men and women socialize.

In a controversial column, Slate's Emily Yoffe noted that a whole lot of these sexual assaults occur in the aftermath of large parties, where everyone is drunk. As she wrote:

A common denominator in these cases is alcohol, often copious amounts, enough to render the young woman incapacitated. But a misplaced fear of blaming the victim has made it somehow unacceptable to warn inexperienced young women that when they get wasted, they are putting themselves in potential peril.

Tell the women not to drink so much, she concludes.

But as Tyler Kingkade put it at the Huffington Post, it's mostly drunk boys who are, after all, assaulting those drunk girls. So “let's tell men not to get drunk as sexual assault prevention,” he wrote. Since those responsible for the assaults are also drunk, maybe it makes more sense to tell them not to drink. But the problem may not be the alcohol at all: “in terms of stopping sexual violence, let's start with teaching people not to rape and go from there.”

Seriously? No one’s warning women that bad things happen when they drink? I seem to remember the “getting drunk is dangerous” theme being pretty central to all of those orientation meetings I went to (along with women) my freshman year of college. There were posters in every hallway to back up these messages.

A lot of people found Yoffe's column—and advice—offensive.

Katie McDonough responded at Salon the very next day. “[W]omen’s behavior is the real reason they are victimized — and that we live in a society that does a poor job of policing such behavior — is regularly used to blame sexual violence on the ‘problem’ of young women,” she wrote. Telling women to avoid getting drunk as a way to avoid sexual assault implies that rape is somehow their fault.

Over time colleges have reported an increase in sexual assaults. A 2010 article in the Washington Examiner explained that “women are increasingly being victimized on college campuses across the Washington region” and “five out of eight campuses in the area indicated an increase in sexual offenses committed from 2007 to 2008. Otherregions relate similar increases, and seem to indicate more every year. This is a long-term trend. Colleges had few reported rapes 20 or 30 years ago, and many reported sexual assaults in recent years.

Sexual assault is, oddly enough, a recent development on college campuses, but students have been drinking for a long time, and often quite heavily. University students were famous for their drunkenness even in the ancient world.

The National Survey on Drug Use and Health shows that just under 40 percent of people between the ages of 18 and 25 binge on alcohol, down slightly from about 42 percent in 2003. About 40 percent of people in college have always been heavy drinkers; surveys conducted since the early 1980s show similar patterns.

It’s true that alcohol is usually involved in college sexual assault cases and therefore it may be a good idea to reduce consumption, but just telling people, male or female, not to drink so much probably isn’t going to do very much because college students like to get drunk.

And they like to get drunk everywhere. Research from 2007 published in Current Opinion in Psychiatry indicated that college drinking was not a problem unique to the United States: “The prevalence of hazardous drinking [among young people] in Australasia, Europe, and South America appears similar to that in North America.”

But something about this is wrong. While we’ve seen a vast increase in reporting of sexual assault on college campuses over the last 50 years, there’s been no noticeable change in alcohol consumption. So what’s really going on?

A few years ago I had an internship in which I worked for an older man who had a rather senior position at the State Department. At one point—I was in college then—we were talking about how college students party. He graduated from Yale, and when he was younger apparently he and his friends would routinely go up to Poughkeepsie to hang out with the Vassar girls. He, who had attended college in the late '50s, said that it was really quite a task, back when he was younger, driving back to New Haven “late at night, in the dark, when you were pretty drunk.”

At the time, Vassar was a women’s college and Yale was a men’s college. Well into the 1970s, gender segregated schools were common.

Even at your average co-ed state school, the domestic arrangements of men and women were largely separate. Men and women still socialized, still drank heavily, and still had plenty of sex, of course, but the stumbling over to the nearest frat party, getting blisteringly drunk, and then going back to your dorm thing—you just didn’t do that the same way.

There are also more women in college than ever before. Total enrollment statistics indicate that women outnumbered men in for the first time in the late 1970s, and their numbers have steadily increased since then. Women have represented about 57 percent of enrollments at American colleges since at least the year 2000.

Co-education became standard in the late 20th century, but there were intricate rules about gender interaction until the 1980s. According to Otis Gates, a Harvard graduate:

For the Class of 1956, parietals—the hours when women were allowed in male dormitories—restricted how they interacted with the opposite sex. According to the rules, women could be in male dormitories until 11 p.m. on Saturdays and from 4 to 7 p.m. on weekdays for upperclassmen. ...

... As members of the Class of 1956 completed their freshman year, they lost the opportunity to entertain women from 1 to 4 p.m., in return for a three-hour extension on Saturday evenings until 11 p.m. Despite the gain on Saturday nights, undergraduates had a net loss of 15 hours per week of parietal hours.

During the “parietal” (a word no longer found anywhere on the average college campus) hours women were often allowed in men’s rooms but the doorway had to be open "the width of a book." (Many students cleverly interpreted this to mean a matchbook.)

Things were very different then. At many private, and even public, colleges there were rules about church attendance and clothing, too, such that “male students were required to wear clean and neat dress slacks (no jeans or shorts), dress shirts (no T-shirts, knit shirts, plaids, or bold stripes), and dress shoes (no slippers, tennis shoes, clogs, or thongs)” to dinner. Many freshmen couldn’t take cars to school based on the belief that “they could be a potential distraction from their course work.”

In such a world, how many drinks you had didn’t matter as much; sexual assault is less likely to happen if people don't even think about going home together.

These rules often come up in discussions with older alumni: “Things were so strict back then; you kids had it easy!” But this isn’t incidental. The Justice Department study indicates that students “who resided in sorority houses and on-campus dormitories were more likely to report experiencing rape than students residing off campus.” And furthermore “freshmen and sophomore women appear to be at greater risk of being victims of sexual assault than are upperclassmen.” And that’s just because, well, they’re more likely to live around them.

None of this, of course, excuses anyone’s behavior. As Gates so succinctly put it in a interview he did for a story in Harvard’s campus newspaper, “This is not to say that one’s interest with the other sex was any different than it is now, but there was a different way that people were expected to interact.” It’s probably true that if no one got drunk we’d see a lot fewer sexual assaults. But it’s not more drinking that’s to blame for more sexual assaults, because drinking hasn’t changed. What has changed is that there is just a lot more unstructured interaction between young men and young women.

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