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College poll shows link between alcohol and sex assaults

Heavy drinking is a prime factor, students assert

WASHINGTON — Beer pong, body shots, and keg stands. Fraternity parties, house parties, and bar crawls. College, for many students, is a generously spiked four years.

And with all that alcohol comes an increased risk of sexual violence, according to a Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll that provides new evidence of the link between intoxication and sexual assault.

Heavy drinking is one of the best predictors of sexual assault in college, according to the poll of 1,053 current and recent college students.

Analysis of the results found that women who say they sometimes or often drink more than they should are twice as likely to be victims of completed, attempted, or suspected sexual assaults as those who rarely or never drink. Several male victims also pointed to alcohol’s role in their assaults.


Stuart Dunnings III, a county prosecutor in Michigan whose purview includes 50,000-student Michigan State University in East Lansing, said many of the rape cases that come across his desk involve two young people who had been drinking.

‘‘Alcohol is the date-rape drug,’’ Dunnings said. ‘‘That’s what I tell people.’’

East Lansing was awash in alcohol on the sun-soaked last day of final exams before graduation this spring. When a bar offering cheap pitchers of beer opened early, at 10 a.m., the line of students waiting to get in stretched down the block. Multiple house parties studded each block near the Big Ten campus; knots of students gathered on front lawns and porches, their plastic cups and beer bottles littering the neighborhood.

Though the legal drinking age is 21, students say alcohol lubricates university social life from the beginning of freshman year. It is ‘‘liquid courage’’ that drops inhibitions and makes it easier to meet people, including those who might be interested in hooking up — the ubiquitous term for casual sexual encounters.


But the combination is combustible: The nation’s campuses are filled with concentrations of young people who are exploring their sexuality, inexperienced drinkers enjoying newfound freedom from their parents while gaining access to seemingly unlimited amounts of beer and liquor.

‘‘There is this idea in our college culture that alcohol and sex should always be available,’’ said Kyra Stephenson, an anti-sexual-violence activist who graduated from Michigan State last month. ‘‘The whole context around alcohol is this is something we do to facilitate sex.’’

In interviews with dozens of students who responded in the poll that they had experienced unwanted sexual contact while in college, most said they had been drinking before the incident. That’s consistent with the poll’s finding that two-thirds of survivors said they had been drinking before their assaults.

Some said they had been too drunk to know or articulate what they wanted and what they didn’t want. Some said they were so intoxicated they lost awareness, coming to find they had been raped while blacked out.

Others said they suspected they had been assaulted but were too intoxicated to remember the details and never found out for sure.

One student interviewed by The Post said she was 19 and a freshman at Boston University when she attended a fraternity party. She said she gravitated toward the only guy she knew. They played beer pong, in which players throw or hit
table-tennis balls into cups of beer, which opponents are then required to drink.

‘‘He made sure I was drinking the entire time, even though I was probably already in an unsafe condition,’’ she said.


She got nervous when he began to touch her, but she didn’t want to make a scene: ‘‘I know it sounds so stupid, but when you’re really young and these cool frat guys invite you over, you don’t want to do anything to mess that up.’’

She has only the vaguest memory of going upstairs. She awoke around sunrise the next morning, alone in a tiny room, her clothes on the floor. ‘‘I don’t know that I had sex, but I have a feeling I did,’’ she said.

She took a morning-after pill and got tested for sexually transmitted diseases. She didn’t report the incident, though she wishes now that she had. When she later saw the man on campus, they made eye contact, and she had a panic attack.

‘‘I didn’t feel OK. I wasn’t fine,’’ she said. ‘‘To see somebody in the dining hall and freak out all over again. . . . I didn’t feel fine at all.’’

Students are more likely to consider alcohol a problem on campus than sexual assault, according to the poll.

Nearly 40 percent of students said that when they drink socially, they sometimes or often drink alcohol more than they should, according to the poll. Another 3 in 10 said this happens ‘‘rarely,’’ and another 3 in 10 said they never drink more than they should or don’t drink at all.