College Women Drink More Heavily After Assault, Not Before
Recent findings from a group of American researchers indicate that young women in college increase their alcohol intake after exposure to sexual or physical violence, not before violence exposure.
Sexual assaults and physical assaults occur with some frequency on college campuses throughout America. In many cases, short-term alcohol intake plays an important role for both assault perpetrators and assault victims. In a study published in December 2014 in the journal Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, researchers from the State University of New York at Buffalo looked at the connection between sexual/physical assault and college women’s typical patterns of alcohol consumption. These researchers concluded that women in college commonly drink in heavier amounts in the year following a sexual or physical attack, not in the year before a sexual or physical attack.
College and Sexual Assault
Almost one-fifth (19 percent) of all female undergraduates on American college campuses are victims of successful or unsuccessful rape/sexual assault attempts while enrolled in school, according to figures compiled in 2012 by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In addition, well over a third (37.4 percent) of all women raped in the U.S. are in the typical college age range of 18 to 24. Findings from another federal agency, the Bureau of Justice Statistics, indicate that college-age women not enrolled in school have a roughly 20 percent higher rate of rape/sexual assault exposure than women enrolled in school.
Regardless of their educational status, four-fifths of all sexually assaulted college-age women know the person who attacked them; by a slim majority, most perpetrators are in relationships with the women they assault. Attacks are roughly equally likely to occur within or outside the home. Weapons play a role in just 10 percent of all sexual assaults on women. Compared to college-age women not enrolled in school, women attending college tell police about their exposure to rape and other forms of sexual assault substantially less often.
College students traditionally maintain one of the nation’s highest baseline rates for monthly alcohol consumption. Students who attend class on a full schedule drink more often than their part-time counterparts and also drink more than their age peers not enrolled in school. Full-time students also have an unusually high rate of involvement in intoxication-producing binge drinking, as well as alcoholism-promoting heavy drinking. (Binge drinking reflects per-session alcohol intake, while heavy drinking reflects daily and weekly totals for alcohol intake.) The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism estimates that approximately 97,000 cases of alcohol-related rape or other forms of sexual assault occur on U.S. college campuses every year. Alcohol also plays a significant contributing role in almost 700,000 yearly cases of physical assault on college campuses.
Impact on College Women’s Assault Risks
In the study published in Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, the SUNY Buffalo researchers used data from 989 individuals to explore the connection between sexual/physical assault exposure and alcohol use among college women. At the beginning of the study, all of the participants were young women enrolled in their freshman year of school. Over the course of five years, the researchers made annual assessments of each participant’s drinking levels, exposure to sexual assault and exposure to physical assault. All of the women were included in these yearly assessments, whether or not they remained enrolled in school for the full duration of the study.
At every annual assessment, the researchers compared each study participant’s exposure to sexual or physical assault to her level of alcohol intake. After completing these comparisons, they concluded that the amount of alcohol a young woman enrolled in college drinks in one year does not have an impact on her chances of experiencing a severe sexual or physical assault in the following year. However, they also concluded that, after exposure to a severe sexual or physical assault, a young woman enrolled in college typically substantially increases her alcohol intake in the following year.
The study’s authors believe that their findings indicate that there is a one-way connection between college women’s severe sexual/physical assault exposure and level of alcohol consumption, not a two-way or reciprocal connection. The nature of this connection points toward increased alcohol intake as a coping mechanism in the aftermath of severe assault exposure. The authors note that overall sexual/physical assault risks for college women are at their highest in the first year of school and decrease incrementally over time.
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