Sexual Assault: Another Outcome of College Drug Culture

Wednesday, November 23rd, 2011

In the wake of the recent Penn State scandal, I was inspired to see Angela Rose of PAVE (Promoting Awareness, Victim Empowerment) on CNN last week, discussing the upcoming National Day of Action to Shatter the Silence of Sexual Violence. This event, which will take place November 30th on college campuses across the United States, focuses on sexual assault prevention and awareness—including the disastrously high level of underreporting by victims of these crimes. The known statistics are terrifying: one in four college women have survived rape or attempted rape.

As a female college grad approaching my five-year reunion, my immediate reaction to this important event was “it’s about time!” Sure, back at my progressive liberal-arts college we had a few sexual assault awareness groups, but this was not the national norm—and a large-scale Day of Action like PAVE’s is entirely unprecedented. The program, which includes a web-based curriculum and promises to help students and staff promote justice and create a safe, supportive campus community, is exactly what our country needs. My only hope is that the day’s educational events will also point a finger at what may well be the greatest instigator of sexual crimes in college: substance abuse.

More than 75% of college students who experience unwanted intercourse are under the influence of alcohol or drugs at the time, and two-thirds of rape victims know their attacker. A surfeit of substances and people you already know? Sounds like a keg party to me. College parties can be particularly dangerous because of how easily students dismiss them as safe; after all, they’re on campus, surrounded by kids their own age, no creepy sexual-offender-types have wandered in, and they’re not even going to accept a drink from a stranger. It’s all good, right?

Wrong. Simply avoiding a roofie doesn’t mean you’re immune to assault. All an attacker needs is for you to get drunk enough that your judgment is compromised and your reflexes slowed—enough that they can interpret your “no” as a “maybe.” And drunkenness doesn’t just create victims. It can also fuel attackers, who use it as an excuse to avoid responsibility for their aggression; 75 percent of men involved in college campus rape are under the influence of alcohol at the time of the incident, and a baffling 84 percent of those men believe that what they did was “definitely not rape.”

I have high hopes for November 30th, and I hope the National Day of Action to Shatter the Silence of Sexual Violence will be the catalyst that our country needs to amp up prevention and awareness of these terrible crimes. But perhaps more importantly, I hope the day’s programming will teach college students – some of the nation’s best and brightest young people – to reconsider their drinking habits and the potential consequences of those behaviors. “One in four” is a frightening statistic; but even one incident of sexual violence, on campus or elsewhere, is one too many.

Emma Edelman
Blog Editor
Phoenix House

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  • Morgan

    This title and connection to the Penn State scandal didn’t really make sense because Penn State was a key example of the fact that alcohol and other drugs really don’t cause sexual violence. Rather it is a behavior that some people choose to do. The Penn State scandal also highlighted the inaction of others ranging from witnesses, bystanders, University officials, public school officials, and criminal justice system officials who were not responsive. While they have been forced to be responsive now, unfortunately the public outcry doesn’t happen when the victims are not male children but rather young college women who are shamed and blamed for the assault, especially if they chose to drink (but did not choose to be assaulted, just like those little boys didn’t).

  • eedelman

    Great points, Morgan. You’re right that substance abuse is not always a driving factor in sexual violence in general. Among college students, however, it often plays a role–statistics show that more than 75% of assault victims at college are under the influence of drugs or alcohol. You also shine light on an important problem: the fact that the public often shames/blames college women who are assault victims. Let’s hope activism and education at events like tomorrow’s will change this!