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Rape Linked to Heavy College Drinking

Drinking Environments Increase Risks

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Updated February 14, 2004

Rape is more common on college campuses with higher rates of binge drinking – and alcohol use is a central factor in most college rapes, finds a new study released by the Harvard College Alcohol Study.

Overall, one in 20 (4.7 percent) women reported being raped in college since the beginning of the school year – a period of approximately 7 months – and nearly three-quarters of those rapes (72 percent) happened when the victims were so intoxicated they were unable to consent or refuse. These were among the findings of a study of 119 schools nationwide, by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health College Alcohol Study, Saint Joseph's University and the University of Arizona, published in the January 2004 issue of the Journal of Studies on Alcohol.

Most significantly, women from colleges with medium and high binge-drinking rates had more than a 1.5-fold increased chance of being raped while intoxicated than those from schools with low binge- drinking rates. Other significant risk factors for rape were being under 21 years old, white, residing in sorority houses, using illicit drugs and binge drinking in high school.

"This study reveals that a woman's chance of being raped is far more pronounced on campuses where the student body as a whole engages in a high rate of binge drinking and when individuals consume a large amount of alcohol," said Meichun Mohler-Kuo, Sc.D., lead author of the study and research scientist at the College Alcohol Studies at Harvard School of Public Health.

Heavy episodic drinking (or binge drinking) is the number one public health problem among college students – associated with a range of consequences that include lower grades, vandalism and physical and sexual violence. Indeed, frequent and even occasional binge drinkers were more likely to have been raped while intoxicated, the study found. In addition, this is the first study to compare the incidence of rape among intoxicated women on campuses with heavy drinking versus lower binge-drinking rates.

"This study points to an urgent need for more alcohol prevention programs on campuses, along with sexual assault education," said Mary P. Koss, Ph.D., professor of public health at the University of Arizona and a co-author of the study. "Men need education about what constitutes rape, and women should be better informed of strategies to avoid risky situations. Previous research shows that more women get raped while under the influence of alcohol than under the influence of any other so-called ‘date rape' drug, such as GHB and Rohypnol."

According to Henry Wechsler, Ph.D., a co-author of the study and director of the College Alcohol Studies at Harvard School of Public Health, "The findings that some campus environments are associated with higher levels of both drinking and rape can help encourage and better target alcohol and rape prevention programs at colleges."

"Binge drinking isn't a harmless rite of passage but a risk factor in violence against women," said George W. Dowdall, Ph.D., a co-author of the study and professor of sociology at Saint Joseph's University. "Institutions of higher education need to change the culture of college drinking in order to make colleges safer and healthier environments."

The study analyzed data from 119 schools participating in three Harvard School of Public Health College Alcohol Study surveys. The sample of randomly selected students includes 8,567 women in the 1997 survey, 8,425 in the 1999 survey and 6,988 in the 2001 survey.

"College prevention programs must give increased attention to educating male students that one of the first questions they must ask themselves before initiating sex with a woman is whether she is capable of giving consent," write the authors of the study. "College men must be educated for their own protection that intoxication is a stop sign for sex. College women need to be warned not only about the vulnerability created by heavy drinking, but also about the extra dangers imposed in situations where many other people are drinking heavily."

In the study, a college's binge-drinking rate was calculated based on the percentage of students classified as heavy episodic drinkers on campus. Colleges with high binge-drinking rates had more than 50 percent of students reporting to be heavy episodic drinkers and colleges with medium binge-drinking rates had between a 36 percent and 50 percent rate. Low binge-drinking schools were those where less than 35 percent of students reported being binge drinkers.

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