Prevalence and Psychosocial Correlates of Alcohol-Related Sexual Assault among University Students

Article excerpt


While there is a great deal of evidence linking personal alcohol use with negative psychosocial consequences among college students, the effect that others' heavy drinking has on non-drinkers or moderate drinkers has only recently been explored (Hingson, Heeren, Winter, & Wechsler, 2005; Perkins, 2002; Wechsler, Lee, Nelson, & Lee, 2001; Langley, Kypri, & Stephenson, 2003). Those negative experiences that students (whether drinking or abstaining) suffer which result from someone else's drinking are termed "secondhand effects" (Wechsler, Lee, Nelson, & Kuo, 2002; Wechsler et al., 2001; Langley et al., 2003). There is concern that these alcohol-related effects may be amplified on college campuses with high drinking rates and school policies that require undergraduates, especially freshmen, to reside in on-campus housing. One serious negative secondhand effect which warrants more attention is alcohol-related sexual assault.

As defined by the National Center for Victims of Crime, sexual assault takes many forms including attacks such as rape or attempted rape, as well as any unwanted sexual contact or threats (NIAAA, 2007). Integrating data from a number of national surveys of college students in 1998 and 2001, Hingson et al. documented that over 400,000 students (8%) reported unprotected intercourse as a result of their alcohol use, and almost 100,000 students annually reported being victims of date rape or sexual assault (Hingson et al., 2005). This figure may not include the over 100,000 students who reported having been too intoxicated to know if they consented to having sex (Hingson et al., 2005; Hingson, Heeren, Zakocs, Kopstein, & Wechsler, 2002). Thus, at least half of college students' sexual assaults may be associated with alcohol use (Abbey, Zawacki, Buck, Clinton, McAuslan, 2001; Collins & Messerschmidt, 1993; Crowe & George, 1989). More specifically, over one-half of all sexual assaults are committed by men who have been drinking alcohol, while approximately 50% of victims also report alcohol use at the time of the assault (Abbey et al., 2001). Furthermore, women in college who use drugs, attend a university with high drinking rates, belong to a sorority, and drank heavily in high school appear at greater risk for rape while intoxicated (Mohler-Kuo, Dowdall, Koss, & Wechsler, 2004). According to reports by the Centers for Disease Control, roughly 1 in 4 adolescents suffer from sexual abuse in a dating relationship (Choose Respect, 2007).

To compound the issue of alcohol-related sexual assault, in overwhelming numbers, college students (including those under the legal drinking age) report not only use of alcohol but binge drinking (Johnston, O'Malley, & Bachman, 1996; Shalala, 1995). Furthermore, despite numerous intervention efforts, recent trend data suggest that from 1999 to 2002 the proportion of college students who engaged in heavy episodic or binge drinking remained high and relatively constant, increasing from 41.7% to 43.2% (Hingson et al., 2005). Corroborating evidence of the persistently high prevalence of heavy alcohol use during a period of increased prevention efforts comes from the Harvard School of Public Health study of trends in binge drinking (Wechsler et al., 2002). The College Alcohol Study (CAS) surveyed students at 119 four-year colleges in 1993, 1997, 1999, and 2001. Little change in overall binge drinking was evidenced at the individual college level; interestingly, the percentages of both abstainers and frequent binge drinkers increased. Alcohol abuse thus remains a major health problem on college campuses with serious negative consequences for individual drinkers, and serious negative secondhand effects for those around them (Wechsler et al., 2002).

The role of alcohol both as a precipitating and explanatory factor for sexual aggression among males has been well-articulated, as has its role in increasing female vulnerability and risk of victimization, partially due to the lowered awareness of risky situations, impaired judgment, and/or ability to resist assault (Larimer, Lydum, Anderson, & Turner, 1999). …