Shocking

05.20.15 9:15 AM ET

Breaking the Booze Taboo in the Campus Sex Assault Epidemic

A new study confirms that sexual assault has reached ‘epidemic levels’ on campus—with how students consume alcohol coming into the spotlight.

Sexual assaults among college women have reached “epidemic levels,” according to a study published today in the Journal of Adolescent Health.

The report found that 18.6 percent of college women experienced attempted or completed rape during their first year of school.

The data echoes the now-famous “one in five” statistic, which President Obama touted when he launched his campus sexual assault task force in January 2014.

That number has been questioned, in part because it included forced kissing and fondling as what was counted as sexual assault. This latest study includes both completed and attempted rape, but it more tightly defines the act as limited to oral, vaginal, and anal penetration.

The study also appears to reveal what few want to say: Alcohol is an unspoken but key factor when it comes to campus sexual assault.

Kate B. Carey, a professor at the Brown University School of Public Health, and her team surveyed 483 women in 2010 entering their first year of college at an undisclosed university in upstate New York.

The attempted and completed rape was separated into two categories: forcible and incapacitated.

“The classic image of rape aligns with this forcible definition that’s through threat or actual physical forces,” explained Carey to The Daily Beast.

But the survey also asked women about rape in which they were “incapacitated, e.g. by drugs or alcohol, and unable to object or consent,” said Carey.

This latter category, where women said they were in an impaired state, comprised noticeably more cases of rape during the first year of college.

Fifteen percent of women said they experienced attempted or completed incapacitated rape during their first year of college, compared to 9 percent who experienced attempted or completed forcible rape.

When taking into account that certain women reported multiple instances of rape, the overwhelming majority of cases were in situations where alcohol or drugs had rendered the women unable to object or give consent: 83 percent of the rapes reported in study’s data sample fell into the incapacitated category.

While the study did not specify alcohol as the only factor that could lead to the incapacitated state, Carey did tell me that other “research has indicated that it is by and large mostly alcohol” at play.

Yet, despite the evidence in the study suggesting that alcohol is linked to sexual assault on campuses, the report provided only a single line regarding it: “Continued engagement in risky drinking behavior should be an important target for prevention.”

Carey was also loath to explicitly recommend that students should cut down on drinking as a strategy for combating sexual assault.

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“As a public health expert, anybody drinking to incapacitation is not a good idea, male or female, because when you’re incapacitated due to drugs and alcohol, adverse events can happen,” Carey said. “Sexual assault is one of them. Falling off a balcony is another.”

The connection between alcohol and sexual assault is not necessarily what is controversial, but how to advise college students—both men and women—can be deeply polarizing.

For those of us who have been reporting on campus sexual assault in recent years, it’s all too clear that recommendations to reduce drinking have become linked to blaming sexual assault victims.

Telling women to cut down on alcohol consumption has become the equivalent of telling a sexual assault victim that she was “asking for it” by wearing a short skirt.

The female blogosphere exploded in 2013 when Emily Yoffe wrote at Slate that we should tell young women to drink less to reduce rape and sexual assault.

Accusations of victim-blaming came fast and furiously. The article ran under a hyperbolic headline: “College Women: Stop Getting Drunk.”

There was such a strong backlash that it became taboo to discuss that, yes, alcohol could be linked to sexual assault—especially at colleges where boozing is so often integral to social life. Why does it seem controversial to tell both men and women that alcohol contributes to potentially unsafe sexual situations?

Heather McCauley, an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh’s pediatrics department, told The Daily Beast that she believes colleges have failed to sufficiently discuss alcohol and sex in relation to each other. “I think alcohol and sexual assault efforts have been disjointed. Specifically, with the campus efforts, I don’t think we’ve made the link,” she said.

She wrote an editorial accompanying Carey’s study, stating: “Implications here are clear: efforts to reduce risky alcohol use on college campuses would benefit from incorporating universal messages about healthy relationships and healthy sexuality.”

I asked McCauley why it is so thorny to discuss the relationship between rape and alcohol, especially on college campuses.

“The approach can be tricky because the tone of that approach can be perceived as victim-blaming,” she said and was quick to add, “Sexual assault is caused by people who sexually assault, not by women who drink too much.”

Discussion of alcohol and sexual assault also raises the still-not-well understood and still not often discussed issue of miscommunication.

“Alcohol does not cause sexual assault, [but] I think it does increase vulnerability to sexual assault. It exacerbates certain factors,” said McCauley. “Alcohol may exacerbate the likelihood that someone misreads the sexual cues.”

Some critics of current campus sexual assault policies have noted a double standard where women can say alcohol clouded their judgment and rendered them unable to give consent.

However, men accused cannot similarly say that alcohol affected their ability to read these social cues.

“A man who has too much to drink and wakes up in bed with someone he wouldn’t have chosen to sleep with when sober may feel embarrassed or queasy, but he is generally expected to move on and perhaps learn from his mistake,” Cathy Young wrote for this site. “A woman who has the same experience is encouraged to see it as devastating, traumatic—and not her fault.”

Whether or not one agrees with that assessment, it certainly speaks to the complicated and highly polarizing feelings around alcohol and sexual assault.

When Bloomberg ran an article last August about male undergrads’ efforts to avoid situations that could be prime for sexual assault and misread sexual cues, such as ones that were alcohol-fueled, the students were criticized by Jezebel.

In particular, Malik Gill, then a junior at Harvard in the fraternity Sigma Chi, was mocked for saying he didn’t feel comfortable offering a female undergrad a beer.

“The frat boy doth protest too much, methinks,” wrote Kara Brown. “Offering a human who voluntarily walks into your party a beer is only predatory if you make it so, or if you think you’ll be unable to control yourself around another human who has consumed a beer.”

Is the role of drinking so polarizing that even an attempt to cut back on alcohol consumption elicits criticism and mockery?

“We’re starting to have a more nuanced conversation about the role of alcohol and drugs and sex, and we’re still working out what the right messages to be giving to young people,” Carey said.