When parents send their daughters off to college, few think they may return home as victims. Yet roughly 10 percent of women have experienced an attempted or completed rape during their first year at an American college and, often, alcohol is involved. This association is reinforced by findings published in the April issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, namely, that college women have a much greater chance of experiencing victimization – both sexual and nonsexual – on the days they drink.
"This is the first study to look at daily drinking and both sexual and nonsexual victimization experiences using a sample of college women during a number of weeks," said Kathleen A. Parks, senior research scientist at the University at Buffalo’s Research Institute on Addictions and first author of the study. "The methods we used allowed us to compare the likelihood of victimization on drinking days to the likelihood of victimization on nondrinking days. We found that on days when women drank, particularly when they consumed alcohol heavily, they were at a much greater likelihood of experiencing both sexual and nonsexual victimization."
R. Lorraine Collins, also a senior research scientist at the University at Buffalo’s Research Institute on Addictions, said that establishing an association between alcohol and assault is important, though not surprising. "And it’s not just sexual assault," she said, "alcohol use is associated with lots of different types of aggression. For example, male-on-male aggression increases in bar settings, there is a relationship between alcohol use and criminal activity, and violence against spouses is also associated with alcohol use. However," she added, "research should never be dismissed as just ‘common sense.’ A lot of things that appear to be ‘commonsensical’ are not based on data, and one of the things that we really need in order to shape policy and to really understand what’s going on is data. Furthermore," she noted, "sometimes research looks at a commonsensical idea and finds that it doesn’t make sense, so it kind of goes both ways … sometimes research supports common sense and sometimes it doesn’t."
For this study, researchers interviewed 94 college women (32% Freshmen, 36% Sophomores, 20% Juniors, and 12% Seniors) during a six-week period. They used two data-collection methods – the Timeline Followback (TLFB) interview and a modified TLFB-Spousal Violence (TLFB-SV) interview – to assess daily alcohol consumption and changes in the conditional probability of sexual and nonsexual victimization on days of heavy, any, or no alcohol consumption.
"We used the TLFB to determine the days on which the women drank and whether they drank heavily (more than 5 drinks) on any of those drinking days," said Parks. "We concurrently used the TLFB-SV to determine whether they experienced any physical or sexual victimization during that same period. We collected information on all victimization, not just victimization perpetrated by an intimate partner. In addition, the women were interviewed every two weeks in order to enhance the likelihood that they would be able to recall their drinking and victimization experiences accurately."
Parks and her co-author found that the odds of experiencing sexual aggression were nine times higher on heavy days and three times higher on nonheavy days of alcohol consumption compared with days of no alcohol consumption. The odds of experiencing nonsexual aggression were more than seven times higher on heavy days and nearly three times higher on nonheavy days of alcohol consumption compared with days of no alcohol consumption.
"We need to be careful to distinguish between risk for victimization overall and risk for victimization associated with alcohol use," cautioned Parks. "A certain amount of victimization occurs among women when they are not consuming alcohol. What we found was that the risk for experiencing victimization dramatically increased with the consumption of alcohol above the risk that exists when alcohol is not consumed."
Collins said that it is important to remember that sexual assaults occur on women who do not drink, nuns and the elderly. "There often is this tendency to blame the victim," she said. "In a better world, we probably wouldn’t even have to say anything about it because everyone would understand, but since there is this school of thought, it is important to clarify that assault, sexual assault, aggression, what have you, is not something that’s programmed into people. The perpetrator has a choice; they don’t have to attack or assault. The issue is not the woman’s drinking, although obviously the woman’s drinking increases the risk, the issue is the perpetrator’s choice to engage in a particular behavior. My feeling is that if a fabulous-looking woman walked down the street stark naked, that is not justification for someone to attack her, it really is the choice of the perpetrator."
Both Parks and Collins acknowledged that the environment also plays a role in risk for victimization.
"Assault is a violent crime of opportunity," said Parks, "so any environment that provides more opportunity and a reduced risk of being caught increases the likelihood of it happening, for example, on an isolated date, or in a dark parking lot. In addition, our earlier research suggests that public drinking places, such as bars, are risky environments in general for violence. In earlier studies of women who reported drinking in bars regularly (two or more times per month), rates of sexual and nonsexual victimization were substantially higher than in general population studies."
Parks reiterated that women are never responsible for being victimized. "It is the perpetrator who makes the choice to victimize a woman," she said. "However, I believe it is important to let women know what types of behaviors provide perpetrators with increased opportunity to victimize them. Rape-victim advocates often see this as ‘blaming’ the victim. I see this as providing women with information that can empower them to further protect themselves."
Funding for this Addiction Science Made Easy project is provided by the Addiction Technology Transfer Center National Office, under the cooperative agreement from the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment of SAMHSA.
Articles were written based on the following published research:
Parks, K.A. & Fals-Stewart, W. The temporal relationship between college women's alcohol consumption and victimization experiences. (April 2004). Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, 28(4) 625-629.