Alcohol Abuse or Alcohol & Abuse: The Complicated Relationship Between Alcohol and Sexual Assault on College Campuses

Posted by On Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Recent surveys and studies have shone light on the sexual assault epidemic on college campuses. They have reinforced the high number of college students who will experience sexual assault as well as the campus culture that often perpetuates an unsafe and unsupportive environment for potential victims and survivors. On December first, Dr. Thomas Plante published an article on Huffington Post titled, Sexual Assaults on College Campuses: Focus on Alcohol. This is just one of many pieces that argues that to combat sexual assault, colleges must combat alcohol use and abuse by their students. It is true that alcohol use is a very real problem on campuses. As Dr. Plante points out, around 20% of college students admit to binge drinking. Many students die from alcohol poisoning or alcohol related events every year, and “too many college students feel compelled to drink in excess while in college.”

As Sarah Hepola, author and former Salon editor, says, “College presidents have long considered alcohol to be one of the biggest problems they face on campus—the cause of traffic accidents, injuries, even death, not to mention a sampler plate of jackassery.” Hepola goes on to say, “Alcohol is also involved in a great number of campus sexual assault cases…However, alcohol is also a primary reason people dismissed the gravity of campus sexual assault for so long. “A bunch of drunk kids getting their kicks” was the carpet under which a great deal of real human pain was swept.”

While Dr. Plante’s claims that alcohol abuse is an issue on college campuses that needs to be addressed is extremely valid, and has validity in that it often has a strong association with sexual assaults, it should not be at the core of sexual assault prevention efforts. Cultural norms and beliefs stemming from sexism create an environment that perpetuates sexual assault. Focusing exclusively on alcohol can distort the message that perpetrators are responsible for their actions and inadvertently perpetuate misperceptions about the nature of sexual violence. Suggesting that alcohol is at the core of the sexual assault epidemic risks excusing the actions of someone under the influence of alcohol as simply bad behavior. It ignores the idea that a drunk perpetrator is still a perpetrator and a non-consenting drunk person is still non-consenting. Addressing the underlying rape culture is the only way to truly combat sexual assault.

One of the many problems associated with drinking is that it lowers people’s inhibitions. Many say that people are more likely to say and act like “their real selves” when under the influence of alcohol. A sober person can remind themselves that sexual assault is illegal and causes harm, but there is still something happening in their minds that allows sexual assault to even be an option. Drinking may bring these feelings to the surface and allow them to culminate in a way that they would not in a sober mind, but a broader rape culture is at fault for them existing in the first place.

Dr. Antonia Abbey’s research titled Alcohol-Related Sexual Assault: A Common Problem among College Students stresses the point by saying, “The fact that alcohol consumption and sexual assault frequently co-occur does not demonstrate that alcohol causes sexual assault.” Abbey goes further to say that, “The causal direction could be the opposite; men may consciously or unconsciously drink alcohol prior to committing sexual assault to have an excuse for their behavior.” While alcohol is often a factor in campus sexual assault, there is no research showing that there is a causational relationship between the two. Abbey continues to demonstrate this by pointing out that there may be personality traits that exist in individuals who both drink heavily and commit sexual assault, such as, “impulsivity, or peer group norms.”

Alcohol is certainly a part of that environment, but it does not have a causational relationship. Focusing on alcohol is like putting a bandage on a wound. It can have an impact on the aftercare of a gash, but it has nothing to do with the gash being created in the first place. Figuring out how to eliminate the things that cause the wound is not an easy feat. However, this must be the focus of sexual assault prevention. Everything else is just a bandage – a reaction to harm, which is helpful, but not a solution on its own.

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