The Best Rape Prevention: Tell College Women to Stop Getting So Wasted

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
Oct. 15 2013 11:55 PM

College Women: Stop Getting Drunk

It’s closely associated with sexual assault. And yet we’re reluctant to tell women to stop doing it.

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The federal government has taken steps to acknowledge the campus sexual assault problem by using the pressure of Title IX, which prevents sex discrimination in education, to require schools to improve programs to protect students from sexual assault and to deal more effectively with it. (Occidental College students filed a Title IX complaint against the school after administrators allowed a serial rapist to continue his studies.) Educating students about rape, teaching them that by definition a very drunk woman can’t consent to sex, is crucial. Also important are bystander programs that instruct students in how to intervene to prevent sexual assault on drunk classmates and about the need to get dangerously intoxicated ones medical treatment.

But nothing is going to be as effective at preventing alcohol-facilitated assaults as a reduction in alcohol consumption. The 2009 campus sexual assault study, co-authored by Krebs, found campus alcohol education programs “seldom emphasize the important link” between women’s voluntary alcohol and drug use “and becoming a victim of sexual assault.” It goes on to say students must get the explicit message that limiting alcohol intake and avoiding drugs “are important sexual assault sex protection strategies.” I think it would be beneficial for younger students to hear accounts of alcohol-facilitated sexual assault from female juniors and seniors who’ve lived through it.

Of course, perpetrators should be caught and punished. But when you are dealing with intoxication and sex, there are the built-in complications of incomplete memories and differing interpretations of intent and consent. To establish if a driver is too drunk to be behind the wheel, all it takes is a quick test to see if his or her blood alcohol exceeds the legal limit. There isn’t such clarity when it comes to alcohol and sex. According to “Prosecuting Alcohol-Facilitated Sexual Assault,” a study by the National District Attorneys Association: “Generally, there is not a bright-line test for showing that the victim was too intoxicated to consent, thereby distinguishing sexual assault from drunken sex.” Bringing these cases is, the study notes, “an extreme challenge.” And college student victims rarely turn to law enforcement. Instead, often days later, they bring a complaint to campus authorities to adjudicate.

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Some think changing the campus drinking culture requires lowering the drinking age from 21 years. The Amethyst Initiative, started by chancellors and presidents of universities and colleges, and the group Choose Responsibility both make the case that since most college drinking is illegal, that gives it the allure of the forbidden, encourages excess, and increases danger because students are reluctant to turn to the authorities when drinking gets out of hand. But changing the drinking age is a policy that’s gotten little traction.

Lake says that administrators often take an overly simplistic approach to curbing alcohol consumption. In the 1990s that meant crackdowns, which he says sent a lot of drinking off campus, probably elevating the risks. He says binge drinking is so entrenched it requires a multifaceted approach that includes coercion, enforcement, and social engineering. For example, he says weekends often begin on Thursday because many colleges have few, if any, Friday classes. “In the alcohol wars, you can see where battlefields are and where booze has beaten the academy,” he says. “The academic program has receded, and they’ve given up on Friday.” He says a full day of classes should be scheduled on Friday, and it should be a standard day for tests and exams. He says since millennials (like young people forever) keep vampire hours, unless there are evening alternatives on campus, those purveying alcohol will win.

And who is it purveying alcohol? In some cases it’s a type of serial predator who encourages his victim to keep pouring the means of her incapacitation down her own throat. Researchers such as Abbey and David Lisak have explored how these men use alcohol, instead of violence, to commit their crimes. Lake observes that these offenders can be campus leaders, charming and well liked—something that comes in handy if they are accused of anything. “They work our mythology against us,” says Lake. “We would like to see our daughters hang out with nice boys in navy blue blazers.”

The three young women I spoke to who were victims of such men attended different colleges, but their stories are so distressingly similar that it sounds as if they were attacked by the same young man. In each case the woman lost track of how much she’d had to drink. Then a male classmate she knew took her by the hand and offered her an escort. Then she was raped by this “friend.” Only one, Laura Dunn, reported to authorities what happened, more than a year after the fact. In her case she was set upon by two classmates, and the university declined to take action against either one. 

One of the rape victims was a senior who had been to a school-sponsored celebration where the wine flowed, then everyone went to a bar to continue the festivities. Her memories are fragmentary after that, but a male classmate came by. She remembers running down the street with him, then being in bed, then waking up the next day with her clothes inside out. She was sickened at herself for what she thought was cheating on her longtime boyfriend and confessed her infidelity to him. Ultimately that led to their breakup.

As she dealt with her shame and guilt, she talked to friends about that night, and the real story emerged. She was so intoxicated that her friends were worried about her when she stumbled out of the bar disoriented and without her shoes. They said they saw her being led away by the male classmate who was not drunk. She came to understand that she had been raped. “Since I realized it wasn’t my fault, I crawled out of a deep, dark hole,” she says. She also knew he’d done it before. “He had this reputation if you were going to be drunk around him, he was probably going to have sex with you.”

The young woman laments the whole campus landscape of alcohol-soaked hookup sex. “Women are encouraged to do it, which ignores all the risks for us,” she says. “You get embarrassed and ashamed, so you try to make light of it. Then women get violated and degraded, and they accept it. Who does this culture benefit? Alcohol predators. It doesn’t liberate anybody.”

I get what all the beer bongs, flip cup, power hours, even butt chugging is about. (OK, maybe not butt chugging.) It’s fun. In Getting Wasted: Why College Students Drink Too Much and Party So Hard, Ohio University sociologist Thomas Vander Ven got an inside look at what he calls “the shit show.” He writes, “To some university students, the decision to drink at college is a redundancy. To them, college means drinking.” Vander Ven documents the pleasure that group intoxication brings: the suppression of inhibitions and self-consciousness, the collective hilarity, the thrill of engaging in potentially perilous adventures, and the sense of camaraderie. Even nursing hangovers and regrets becomes a group endeavor, a mutual post-battle support group. Collective intoxication is intoxicating, one of the reasons that it’s been so difficult to reduce the amount of binge drinking on campuses.

I know many people will reflect on their own bacchanalian college experiences with nostalgia and say the excesses didn’t hurt them—at least what they’re able to remember. So I will present myself as an example that it’s possible to have fun without being drunk. I enjoy moderate drinking and have only been hung over three times in my life. I have never been so drunk that I browned out, blacked out, passed out, or puked from alcohol ingestion. Still, as a young person, I did my share of fun, crazy, silly, stupid, and ill-advised things. But at least I always knew that I was responsible for my behavior, not the alcohol.

Lake says that it is unrealistic to expect colleges will ever be great at catching and punishing sexual predators; that’s simply not their core mission. Colleges are supposed to be places where young people learn to be responsible for themselves. Lake says, “The biggest change in going to college is that you have to understand safety begins with you. For better or worse, fair or not, just or not, the consequences will fall on your head.” I’ll drink (one drink) to that.

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