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The College Drinking Dichotomy

The College Drinking Dichotomy

Does the WWU Alcohol Policy Protect Against Campus Sexual Assault, or Does It Increase the Stigma That Prevents Reporting? 

By Annaliese Grellmann 

The first four semesters of a female student’s college experience are known as the “red zone.” [1] One in five women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime. [2] 84% of these women have been or will be assaulted as freshmen and sophomores in college, prompting some to label that smaller period the “red zone.” [3] 

The teal ribbon represents sexual assault awareness. Photo by the National Sexual Violence Resource Center 

What makes those two years so dangerous and different from the rest? For many students, especially those raised in Christian environments, college is the first time they experiment with alcohol.  

It’s well documented that at least 50% of sexual assaults involve alcohol. [4] According to a 2015 study on college students, 74% of perpetrators of rape and 55% of victims had been drinking alcohol. [5] Although alcohol consumption is highly correlated with sexual assault, it should not be mistaken for causation.  

Just as alcohol consumption does not cause sexual assault, intoxication does not remove culpability for illegal or immoral behavior. One study that summarized research on the correlation between alcohol consumption and sexual assault suggested that the causal relationship might go in the opposite direction. [6] Perpetrators may intentionally or unintentionally drink more before committing sexual assault, using it as an excuse for their behavior.  

Intoxicated men are more likely to use aggression to get what they feel entitled to. [7] Intoxicated women are more likely to take risks they would normally avoid, such as accepting a ride home from a guy or walking home alone at night. Both parties behave differently than if they were sober, but they are not perceived as equally responsible for those behaviors.  

The first two years of college are the red zone for sexual assault. Photo by the University of Wisconsin.

This same study found that both male and female students perceived the perpetrator as less responsible for the assault when he was intoxicated. [8] In contrast, they perceived the victim as more responsible for her sexual assault when she was intoxicated. Society holds victims responsible for being vulnerable, as opposed to questioning why perpetrators take advantage of their vulnerability.   

These findings can help explain why as few as 5% of women report sexual assault to the authorities. [9] This victim-blaming narrative, widely accepted by both men and women, is potentially worse in communities uncomfortable with conversations about sex. In addition, Christian teachings on sexual purity can increase the stigma that prevents victims from reporting abuse.   

One study found that if women had been drinking, they tended to feel more responsible for their sexual assault. [10] In another study, a woman was quoted saying, “Yes, if I had not been intoxicated… I would have been more in control of myself and the situation.” If the victim was raised in an environment where drinking alcohol was taught to be a sinful behavior, this self-induced guilt can be compounded. 

In addition to personal guilt, societal stigma and fear of reprimand can be barriers to reporting. Policies that prohibit alcohol consumption and premarital sex, like the ones at Walla Walla University, could potentially prevent victims from reporting sexual assault out of fear of being punished themselves. [11] WWU addresses this fear through an amnesty provision in their Equal Opportunity, Harassment, and Nondiscrimination Policy, which states that people who make a report will not be disciplined for any violations of the drug and alcohol policy. [12] Victims don’t have to fear punishment, but the societal stigma surrounding alcohol consumption can still make them hesitant to report.  

Although these policies can create more shame and bar the reporting sexual assault, they also have a protective factor. Less alcohol on campus greatly reduces the risk of sexual assault. One study found that students in fraternities are more likely to be perpetrators of sexual assault than non-fraternity men, while women who lived in sororities are more likely to be victims. [13] WWU has neither fraternities nor sororities.  

Photo by Chicago Says No More.

In a poll on The Collegian’s Instagram account, 32 out of 66 respondents reported using drugs or alcohol while attending WWU. [14] Although approximately half of respondents said they have used drugs or alcohol while a student, there aren’t large, overt, on-campus parties. It’s much harder for violence to occur unnoticed in an apartment with a few friends than at a large party with a hundred strangers.   

Alcohol can be seen as an excuse for inappropriate behavior, but only if peer groups share the same belief. [15] WWU’s policy and the Adventist teaching that prohibits alcohol do not allow alcohol consumption to be seen as justification for violence. It’s not simply that drinking alcohol is an unacceptable behavior, it’s that drinking alcohol makes it easier to do things that are.  

See Also

One study found that before committing sexual assault, intoxicated perpetrators focus on the strongest and most immediate cues and stimuli, while dismissing the others. [16] For example, the perpetrator’s sexual desire overrides the contradictory cues from the victim and the knowledge of the consequences that are the result of being accused of sexual assault. This theory suggests that if the costs of sexual assault are obvious and undesirable, then potential perpetrators are less likely to commit a crime because they cannot forget about the consequences.  

Campaigns about the dangers of drinking and driving are examples of a similar successful intervention. [17] Conversations on campus about the consequences of sexual assault, policies that hold perpetrators accountable, and an awareness that the administration follows through on those policies make it more difficult for perpetrators to ignore the possible consequences of their actions.  

There’s a dichotomy between the protection and potential harm of the University’s prohibition of alcohol consumption. If a victim was drinking prior to being assaulted, they might fear punishment from the administration and feel greater shame, which makes them less likely to report. At the same time, since alcohol consumption is greatly concurrent with sexual assault, having less on-campus drinking is highly beneficial.  

The obligation of protection cannot be placed on policy alone. WWU is an institution, but every institution is made up of hundreds of individuals who make choices that leave an impact. How we choose to respond to a victim contributes to the level of shame and stigma they feel. The level of responsibility we place on potential perpetrators influences the decisions they make.  

The individual choices we make compound with the choices of others to create the culture of our campus. The “red zone” does not have to be so distinct, but for that to be true, we each bear some responsibility for making it that way. 

Sources 

  1. Know Your IX. (n.d.). Statistics. https://www.knowyourix.org/issues/statistics/.  
  1. Johnson, A., Thomas, K. H., Shields, M. M., Butcher, & M., Jemsek, J. (2016). Stopping sexual assault on private college campuses: impact evaluation of a prevention and awareness intervention conducted with community partners at a Christian university. Journal of Health Education Teaching, 7(1), 23-31. https://bit.ly/3tRZfwa
  1. Know Your IX. (n.d.). Statistics. https://www.knowyourix.org/issues/statistics/.  
  1. Editorial Staff. (May 8, 2020). Sexual assaults on college campuses involving alcohol. American Addiction Centershttps://www.alcohol.org/effects/sexual-assault-college-campus/
  1. Abbey A. (2002). Alcohol-related sexual assault: a common problem among college students. Journal of Studies on Alcohol, Supplement, (14), 118–128. https://doi.org/10.15288/jsas.2002.s14.118. 
  1. Ibid.  
  1. Ibid. 
  1. Ibid. 
  1. Johnson, A., Thomas, K. H., Shields, M. M., Butcher, & M., Jemsek, J. (2016). Stopping sexual assault on private college campuses: impact evaluation of a prevention and awareness intervention conducted with community partners at a Christian university. Journal of Health Education Teaching, 7(1), 23-31. https://bit.ly/3tRZfwa
  1. Abbey A. (2002). Alcohol-related sexual assault: a common problem among college students. Journal of Studies on Alcohol, Supplement, (14), 118–128. https://doi.org/10.15288/jsas.2002.s14.118. 
  1. Walla Walla University. (2020). Student code of conduct. https://bit.ly/2NmvYt2    . 
  1. Walla Walla University. (2020). Equal opportunities, harassment, and nondiscrimination policy. https://bit.ly/3pcrhPo
  1. Editorial Staff. (May 8, 2020). Sexual assaults on college campuses involving alcohol. American Addiction Centershttps://www.alcohol.org/effects/sexual-assault-college-campus/ 
  1. Instagram poll conducted by @aswwucollegian, 3/2/2021. 
  1. Abbey A. (2002). Alcohol-related sexual assault: a common problem among college students. Journal of Studies on Alcohol, Supplement, (14), 118–128.  
  1. Ibid.  
  1. Ibid.
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