The Effect of Alcohol on Sexual Harassment

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ALCOHOL-RELATED sexual assault is a common occurrence on college campuses. A college student who participated in one of our studies explained how she agreed to go back to her date's home after a party: "We played quarter bounce (a drinking game). I got sick drunk; I was slumped over the toilet vomiting. He grabbed me and dragged me into his room and raped me. I had been a virgin and felt it was all my fault for going back to his house when no one else was home." A male college student who forced sex on a female friend wrote that, "Alcohol loosened us up and the situation occurred by accident. If no alcohol was consumed, I would never have crossed that line."

This article reviews the literature on college students' sexual assault experiences. First, information is provided about the prevalence of sexual assault and alcohol-involved sexual assault among college students. Then theories about how alcohol contributes to sexual assault are described. After making suggestions for future research, the article concludes with a discussion of prevention and policy issues.

Incidence and Prevalence of Sexual Assault among College Students

The term sexual assault is used by researchers to describe the full range of forced sexual acts including forced touching or kissing; verbally coerced intercourse; and physically forced vaginal, oral and anal penetration. The term rape is typically reserved for sexual behaviors that involve some type of penetration due to force or threat of force; a lack of consent; or inability to give consent due to age, intoxication or mental status (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1995; Koss, 1992). Less than 5% of adolescent and adult sexual assault victims are male, and when men are sexually assaulted, the perpetrator is usually male. Thus, most research focuses on female victims and male perpetrators.

Rates of sexual assault reported by college women

The most methodologically rigorous study of sexual assault prevalence was completed by Koss et al. (1987), who surveyed 6,159 students from 32 colleges selected to represent the higher education enrollment in the United States. They used 10 behaviorally specific questions to assess women's experiences with forced sexual contact, verbally coerced sexual intercourse, attempted rape and rape since the age of 14. In this survey, 54% of the women had experienced some form of sexual assault. Fifteen percent of the women had experienced an act that met the legal definition of completed rape; an additional 12% had experienced attempted rape. Of these women, 17% had experienced rape or attempted rape in the previous year. Only 5% of the rape victims reported the incident to the police; 42% told no one about the assault.

Similar prevalence rates have been found in studies conducted at colleges throughout the United States (Abbey et al., 1996a; Copenhaver and Grauerholz, 1991; Mills and Granoff, 1992; Muehlenhard and Linton, 1987). Most of these studies have been cross-sectional. In the prospective study that followed students for the longest period of time, Humphrey and White (2000) surveyed women from one university beginning in the fall of their first year and ending in the spring of their fourth year. Annual prevalence rates were alarmingly high, although they declined slightly each year. In their first year of college, 31% of the women experienced some type of sexual assault; 6.4% experienced completed rape. In their fourth year of college, 24% of the women experienced a sexual assault; 3.9% experienced completed rape. Greene and Navarro (1998) reported that none of the college women in their prospective survey reported their sexual assault to any college official. Women who reported their sexual assaults to authorities often labeled their treatment by the system as "a second rape." Awareness of the derogatory manner in which many victims are treated deters others from reporting.

A few studies have focused on prevalence rates among minority students....
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