Recently cyberspace erupted into the feminist equivalent of a civil war over the connection between binge drinking and sexual assault. After Slate columnist Emily Yoffe wrote a column using statistics that showed a link between drinking on college campuses and incidents of sexual assault, and arguing that we have to warn young women on the very real dangers of excessive drinking, she was pilloried by some female writers. The ensuing fallout resulted in dozens of rebuttal columns, at least one column in Yoffe’s defense, and a debate that can essentially be summed up as follows:
“Stop blaming drunk victims for their assaults.”
“But I’m not blaming them, I’m trying to give helpful advice so other women won’t be assaulted in the future.”
“That’s victim blaming.”
“How about blaming the men?”
Well here’s another idea. How about blaming colleges?
If colleges allowed students to smoke incessantly in dorms and other school buildings around other students, concerns about the impact of second-hand smoke would likely raise legal questions. But despite the fact that binge drinking has become the norm on many college campuses over the last two decades, colleges have continued to turn a blind eye to the problem, and have so far faced no major repercussions for doing so. Even though the number of injuries and sexual assaults has skyrocketed alongside binge drinking numbers, and even though institutions of higher education have been warned by experts that they are endangering students by not proactively tackling the problem.
Gloria Allred, the high profile lawyer who often takes on cases involving women, is representing seven women in a Title IX complaint against the University of Connecticut, which they claim did not adequately handle their sexual assault complaints. In an interview with She the People, Allred declined to comment on whether alcohol played a role in any of the assaults of her clients, although in a statement one of her clients says she was drugged. She did comment however on the responsibilities of colleges when it comes to drinking and student safety. “I do think there is a correlation between abuse of alcohol — especially among minors but not limited to minors — and injury, victimization, violation against students. All kinds of violence. So it’s yet another reason that colleges need to monitor and make sure that their own regulations and the laws are being followed because it can lead to injury to students and failure to provide a safe campus. Not to mention exposure to legal liability to the university.”
The Centers for Disease Control found that between 1993 and 2001, binge drinking skyrocketed 56 percent among 18- to 20-year-olds. A multi-year study of 24,000 women at more than 100 college campuses published by College Alcohol Studies at the Harvard School of Public Health in 2010 found 72 percent of campus rape victims reported being intoxicated.
In an interview with “She the People” earlier this week, Toben Nelson, one of the study’s authors, said that while the connection between alcohol and sexual assault is very clear, convincing young people to alter their behavior must go beyond explaining the connection.
“Telling [women] not to drink is not an effective intervention,” Nelson said. “What we really need to do is create the conditions so there’s less drinking among women and among men to reduce the risk of women being in a vulnerable position and men making poor decisions around their sexual behavior because alcohol is a drug that causes poor decision-making. So we need to reduce and put more restrictions on that fairly dangerous drug and those are the kind of interventions that are going to foster an environment that is less conducive to sexual assault.”
Nelson went on to explain that his research, as well as others, have found that even in examining student data across multiple years, there are colleges and universities in which binge drinking thrives more than others.
“Despite the fact that we surveyed different students in different years there was basically the same level of binge drinking at those schools. And what that suggests to me is that there is something about that school that is helping to facilitate binge drinking among college students,” he said.
Nelson’s research found that schools in which binge drinking is heavy among adults in the surrounding community, and compliance for carding minors and enforcing the legal drinking age in the state is lax tend to have campuses where binge drinking thrives. If students know they will not have a tough time getting alcohol in the surrounding community they may be more likely to do so, or to choose a school where such an environment makes a party atmosphere more likely. (Think of the yearly “Top Party Schools” List.”)
“Restrictions on alcohol sales and consumption probably make the biggest difference in how much binge drinking [goes on] and related consequences including sexual assault,” Nelson said. He explained that in 2002 the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism College Drinking Taskforce came out with a series of suggestions for college campuses based on its research, for decreasing binge drinking. Among the recommendations: have systems for intervention and screening for students most at-risk for binge drinking and work directly with the community on compliance issues such as insuring retail outlets are following the law and not serving underage patrons or already intoxicated patrons.
But Nelson added, “Probably the most advantageous intervention that one can do to address alcohol is increase the price of alcohol through limiting drinks specials or increasing taxes on alcohol which are typically very, very low. Increasing those are very effective yet virtually no colleges are working on those issues and those have been known for more than a decade.” While colleges cannot control the prices of alcoholic beverages they can engage community stakeholders on these issues, such as working with local officials and businesses to ensure enforcement of underage drinking laws and on coordinating effective strategies for deterring excessive drinking among students.
When asked if colleges are abdicating their responsibility on this issue he replied, “I don’t think colleges and universities are doing as much as they could be around these issues.”
“She the People” emailed the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) for comment on what role the AAC&U believes colleges and universities should play in actively discouraging binge drinking on colleges. Jennifer O’brien, Bringing Theory to Practice, a project in partnership with the AAC&U, replied, “The statistic that binge drinking is on the rise on college campuses obscures the fact that most students do not binge drink. As a national project we are prioritizing wellness issues that are at the heart of student learning and engagement, not the self-injurious behaviors of smaller subpopulations of students.”
Allred believes that “colleges and universities have a duty to make their campuses safe and part of making that safe is to enforce any regulations that they set forth … the regulations of the campus and the requirements that they have in reference to alcohol, drugs, prevention of sexual violence and also to abide by the laws that are there that exist for the protection of students.” She noted that this is not a gender specific issue, because she is currently representing a male college student who was assaulted, although she declined to discuss specifics of that case.
“I do think that often for many colleges and universities, while they give lip service to making their campuses safe there is a failure to enforce their own regulations and law that are in place for the safety of students,” she said. “That includes the use and abuse of alcohol, use and abuse of narcotics and protection of students both male and female but mainly female from sexual violence which can often accompany the abuse of alcohol and narcotics but of course is not limited to the use of alcohol and narcotics.”
Asked if there if there is a similarity between a university being sued after a student was injured as a result of an alcohol fueled on campus party and the example of a bar being sued for serving a heavily intoxicated person who drives drunk and kills someone, Allred said that such a comparison is “not far-fetched.”
As unfair as it is women will likely face more of a burden than young men for protecting themselves, until there is a high-profile lawsuit or pressure from either parents or legislators forces colleges and universities to create safer environments for students.
In an interview with She the People, Scott Berkowitz, founder and president of Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), said that if colleges cracked down on binge drinking it would make a difference in the battle to end sexual assault. “ It’s only one of many factors so it’s not going to solve the problem. It would certainly help start reducing the number.”
He also said that we have to be able to talk honestly about how to keep women safe. When asked why people get more offended when a young woman is advised not to binge drink to reduce her risk of being sexually assaulted, but no one is offended if a man or woman is told to lock their door to reduce their risk of being burglarized, he replied: “I think the people who yell and scream and say you can’t talk to women and can’t talk about self-protection—I think they’re wrong and that standpoint is dangerous. In a perfect world we’d be able to just fix this problem from the other side but we’re a long way from that point so in the meantime we’ve got to do everything we can to reduce risk.”