Drugs, Alcohol & Sexual Assault On College Campuses

by | Last updated Sep 8, 2021 | Published on Aug 20, 2021 | Addiction | 0 comments

Sexual Assault On College Campuses

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Colleges and universities are thought of as beacons of hope and self-betterment, but these institutions of higher learning also have a dark side. Sexual misconduct is a frighteningly common occurrence at even the most prestigious of establishments. It affects both male and female students, undergraduates and post-grads. A driving force behind these assaults? Substance abuse. Drugs and alcohol lower inhibitions, impair judgment and otherwise incapacitates individuals. Intoxication of any type can interfere with a person’s ability to provide or retract consent, resulting in things quickly going too far. This combined with numerous other social risk factors is why sexual assault on college campuses is so common.

 

Campus Sexual Assault Statistics (2021)

Sexual assault is an umbrella term that includes multiple forms of violence: rape and attempted rape, fondling or unwanted sexual contact, coercion to participate in a sexual act. There are estimated to be an average of 463,000 victims a year, both men and women, within the United States. College students, however, face an even greater likelihood of experiencing sexual violence. 

 

Who’s at risk of sexual assault on a college campus?

Unfortunately, these numbers are likely much higher as the majority of sexual assault experiences, on a college campus or otherwise, go unreported. 

  • More than half of all sexual assault victims are between the ages of 18-34. 
  • Female college students aged 18-24 are three times more likely to experience sexual violence compared to the general population of women, occurring in 1 out of every 5 students.  
  • Male college students of the same age are five times more likely to be sexually assaulted than their non-student counterparts. 
  • Transgender, genderqueer, and nonbinary college students also face higher rates of sexual assault, with 21% compared to straight, similarly aged college students. 
  • College women are twice as likely to be sexually assaulted than robbed. For women in the general American population, robberies are more likely.  
  • 32% of 18-24-year-old nonstudent women report sexual assault compared to only 20% of female college students of the same age.
  • More than half of all sexual assaults on a college campus take place in the Fall semester, from August-November and college students face the most risk during the first months of their first and second semesters 
  • There is no discernible difference in the rates of sexual assault between different races and ethnicities

 

Who are the attackers?

As is the case with sexual assault statistics from the general U.S. population, the majority of the attackers in sexual assault cases were a friend or even a romantic partner, not a random stranger. According to the report from the Association of American Universities on Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct:

  • 15% of female rape victims’ assailants were previously involved with (romantic or otherwise), 29% were someone they were currently involved with, and 32% were acquaintances. The same trend held for both males, transgender/queer, and students who declined to identify their gender.
  • Approximately one-third of all surveyed student victims said that their attacker was someone they recognized or knew of, but wouldn’t consider a friend.

 

Substance Use & Sexual Assault Among Students

The relationship between drugs, alcohol and sexual assault is undeniable. There have been numerous studies on the topic, all of which point to the same conclusion: The overwhelming majority of incidences of sexual assault amongst the general population involved alcohol. With college being a hotbed for binge drinking and other unsafe patterns of alcohol consumption (18-24-year-olds are the most like to do so), it’s no coincidence that rates of sexual assault are also highest for this same age range.

 

What percentage of college sexual assaults involve alcohol?

Depending on which study you reference, they stated that between 50 and 70% of all campus sexual assaults involved alcohol. In the largest survey of its kind (33 universities, over 100,000 students were involved), over 60% of students that identified as women, men, and transgender/queer claimed that the person they were assaulted by was drinking shortly before the incident took place. 

Additionally, upwards of two-thirds of those same individuals (between ~70% and 85%) said to have consumed alcohol themselves. While date rape and the use of drugs to incapacitate victims do happen, most victims willingly consumed alcohol or other drugs before the incident. Both victims and attackers have claimed that things wouldn’t have gone as far as they did if they weren’t under the influence. 

 

The Connection Between Drugs, Alcohol and Sexual Assault

While substance abuse itself cannot be entirely blamed for such behavior, it significantly increases the odds of inappropriate and nonconsensual sexual contact. Disinhibition, reduction of anxiety, impaired judgment-making skills. These are just a few ways how consumption of any mind-altering substance can influence why attackers and their victims act and react the way that they do. 

 

Attackers:

  • Become more prone to impulsive behavior
  • Develop misperceptions about their victims sexual intent
  • Experience impaired decision making, judgment, and their ability to properly communicate (i.e. asking for consent 
  • Become more aggressive and often feel justified in their aggression

 

Victims:

  • Experience impaired judgment that may cause them to interact with a person they wouldn’t otherwise (i.e. go to their attackers home)
  • Have a diminished ability to resist

 

Drugs Enhance Misconceptions That Often Lead To Rape or Sexual Assault

The larger problem is not necessarily alcohol or drug use, but the preconceived notions held regarding rape and sexual assault. Traditional American gender roles reinforce toxic beliefs that men should be forceful and dominant, and that “no” means that they just need to “try harder”. Women are largely believed to be responsible for setting limits on sexual activity and that it is their fault when the man oversteps those bounds.

More than half of males believe that it is acceptable to pressure or force sexual intercourse if they were kissing, if they had dated for a long time, or if they felt she led him on. A smaller group felt such behavior was acceptable if they had been drinking alcohol or met at a bar. Additionally, male college students who acknowledged committing actions that met the definition of sexual assault (not necessarily only on campus) felt that their forcefulness was an act of seduction.

These perceptions that attackers hold of their victims and themselves are only exacerbated when drugs are involved. Lowered cognitive abilities lead to greater opportunities for already likely misperceptions and miscommunications, and lowered inhibitions that make attackers more likely to act on their impulses.

To sum up an incredibly complex relationship about an incredibly complex issue: drugs and alcohol muddle the brain and make a bad situation much worse. Sexual expectations and perceptions vary drastically between the two genders and gender roles further the harmful stereotypes that make assailants feel entitled to others’ bodies and victims feeling that they are to blame. 

 

Coping Mechanism for Sexual Assault Victims

Studies have shown that sexual assault victims, particularly rape victims, are significantly more likely to use drugs to cope. They are:

  • 10 times more likely to have used hard drugs
  • 6 times more likely to use cocaine  
  • 5 times more likely to abuse prescription drugs (non-medical use)

Such unhealthy coping mechanisms can quickly spiral into dependence or drug addiction.

 

Drugs & Alcohol: Far From Blameless

Upon entering college, students face incredible freedom, often for the first time. This coupled with a tremendous amount of peer pressure can lead to situations where they are more likely to use drugs and alcohol as a means of numbing their anxiety or fitting in with the crowd.

The overlap between a proclivity for heavy drinking and a high risk of being sexually assaulted is no coincidence. While it would be an overstatement to say that drugs and alcohol cause college sexual assaults, it cannot be denied that consuming alcohol or drugs even amongst friends can cause an attack that leads to both physical and emotional harm.

Are you a college student struggling with addiction? 

Resources for College Students Struggling with Addiction

A College Student’s Comprehensive Guide to Drug Abuse

College Drug Addiction: Dealing with Drug Dependence in School

Sources:

https://www.nsvrc.org/sites/default/files/2021-04/aau-report_rev-01-17-2020.pdf

https://www.rainn.org/statistics/campus-sexual-violence

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4484270/

https://www.drugabuse.gov/sites/default/files/sexualassault.pdf

https://www.womenshealth.gov/relationships-and-safety/sexual-assault-and-rape/college-sexual-assault

https://www.wcsap.org/sites/default/files/uploads/resources_publications/research_advocacy_digest/RAD_v8_i1.pdf

https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh25-1/43-51.htm

Written by: Tyler Fordham

Written by: Tyler Fordham

Tyler is a writer with dual degrees from the University of South Florida. Having grown up with an alcoholic father, she understands both the subtle and not-so-subtle ways that addiction can affect the family unit. This Miami native has become a champion of mental health and an active believer in the power of positive thinking. When she isn't at the beach, Tyler enjoys running, jigsaw puzzles, and snuggling with her cat, Poof.

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