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Freshman Drinkers at Risk for Sexual, Physical Abuse

Year in Review: 2008

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David McBride, director of Student Health Services, says most of the female victimization he sees on campus is alcohol-related.

Through December 24, BU Today is looking back at the mostpopular stories of the year. We’ll be back with new stories for the newyear on Monday, January 5. Happy holidays!

Women who start drinking during freshman year of college or who increase theirconsumption once on campus face a greater risk of sexual or physicalassault than nondrinkers, according to a new study from the Research Institute on Addictions at the University at Buffalo.

Thestudy is the first to explore the connection between spikes infreshman-year drinking and the likelihood of assault. Researchersinterviewed almost 900 students, before and after freshman year. Amongthe results: 22 percent of female first-years who began drinking oncampus or who increased their alcohol intake were victims of assault. Ofthose, 13 percent experienced severe physical victimization and 38percent experienced severe sexual victimization.

The study’s findings were published last month in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs. Experts at BU don’t find the results surprising.

“Wesee across the board, with both men and women, that the biggest spikein alcohol use is that transition between high school and college,”says David McBride, director of Student Health Services.“And we’ve known, in research as well as observationally, that most ofthe victimization we see is associated with alcohol use.”

The University at Buffalo study, titled A Dangerous Transition: Women’s Drinking and Related Victimization from High School to the First Year at College,looked at several groups of drinkers, including those who abstained the year prior tocollege, as well as continuing drinkers, defined as women whodrank in high school and freshman year in college. Of the high schooldrinkers, 57 percent increased their consumption once on campus.

Fewerthan 2 percent of those who abstained from drinking on enteringcollege reported physical abuse, and 7 percent reported sexual abuse.For freshman drinkers who began to drink more heavily, those numbersshot up to 7 percent and 19 percent, respectively.

For new drinkers,lower physical tolerance and social inexperience raise exposure todangerous situations, according to the study. The loosening effects ofalcohol on behavior may also cause amateur drinkers to be more aggressive andreactive and more likely to call attention to themselves. A history ofphysical victimization and psychological symptoms such as anxiety anddepression also played a part in increasing the likelihood of physicalvictimization, researchers found.

The study also identifiedfactors that increased the risk of sexual victimization, includingpreexisting psychological symptoms and the number of sexualpartners before college. Researchers also noted that students whoincrease their drinking are less likely to recognize, avoid, or defendagainst sexual aggression.

“The difficult thing about alcohol andsexual assault is that men use alcohol as a tool to lower someone’sdefenses,” McBride says. “Many times men identify women whom they planto assault. It’s not necessarily all about women making decisions notto binge drink. There are two very significant sides to the story.”

David Rosenbloom, director of Join Together, an alcohol and drug policy and prevention program at the School of Public Health,says the findings of the Buffalo report are consistent with othernational college-drinking reports. “A number of studies have shown thatcollege drinking is closely associated with violence against women,” hesays. In the 2004–2005 academic year, Rosenbloom helped conduct a studyat BU on Web-based alcohol screening and intervention. More than halfthe freshman class participated. A side resultshowed 24 percent of respondents regrettedcertain sexual situations after drinking, Rosenbloom says.

Thepast 5 to 10 years have seen a sharp rise in young women drinkers,he says, as well as in the amount they consume. The main reason? Marketing.

“Youngwomen are the principal target of marketing for the beer and distilledspirits industry, both of which were seeing shrinking markets,”Rosenbloom says. “They’ve both targeted women as their growth area, soyou have all of the sweet drinks that were created with young women inmind.”

He says part of the problem on college campuses isalcohol-friendly environments, from permissive dorm atmospheres to theparty-friendly scheduling of classes and sporting events, as well asthe dearth of nonalcoholic alternatives. Addressing alcohol issues inhigh school, before students arrive on campus, is critical, he says, asis acting quickly and decisively when problems emerge freshman year.

“Thereis this period at the beginning of freshman year where you have kids whoare new to drinking and kids who have been drinking heavily in collegeand they reinforce each other,” Rosenbloom says. “Freshman year isquite crucial.”

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Caleb Daniloff can be reached at cdanilof@bu.edu.

This story originally ran February 22, 2008.

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