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Freshman Drinkers at Risk for Sexual, Physical Abuse

22 percent of women surveyed report assaults


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

Women who start drinking 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 raises 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 has 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 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.”

Click here for more resources on campus.

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


8 Comments on Freshman Drinkers at Risk for Sexual, Physical Abuse

  • Anonymous on 02.22.2008 at 9:16 am

    I wish that instead of finding new ways that women can avoid “victimization,” they would start studying ways to reduce perpetration. Why do WE, as the victims, need to alter our behavior? Why do WE have to stay away from alcohol…and why don’t the authors of this study make a distinction between casual drinkers who may have 2 drinks at a party starting in their freshmen year and binge drinkers? I would also LOVE to know what they mean by this: “The loosening effects of alcohol on behavior may also cause amateur drinkers to be … more likely to call attention to themselves.” I’m *sure* they’re not placing part of the blame for sexual assault on the women here.

    Let’s stop forcing the victims to change their lives and start teaching the perpetrators to change theirs instead please.

  • Melanie Pennison on 02.22.2008 at 9:50 am

    Who are the Perpetrators?

    The aritcle, with its statistics-laden jargon, discusses which women are most likely to be victimized. It states how young women who drink heavily or who start to drink heavily in freshman year as well as those with a higher number of previous sexual partners are predisposed to the likelihood of victimization. So the message one gets from the article is this: Young women, be chaste and don’t drink too much or the big bad men will take advantage of you because of your wicked ways. Isn’t this blaming the victim? What are the statistics about those who perpetrate assault on these young women. Shouldn’t we be targeting them? Shouldn’t we say “Men who are X are much more likely to commit violence against women.” Also, there is much talk about the increased alcohol consumption of college-age women, but what about college-age men? Is is OK for young men drink heavily in their freshman year? Don’t get me wrong, there is a definite correlation between alcohol consumption and sexual assault. But one of the first concepts one learns in epidemiology is that correlation does not equal causation, and alcohol does not cause assault. Perpetrators who prey on young women cause violence, hence they should be the ones targeted. I would expect a much more progressive and enlightened view from BU. As a MPH student, this article disappoints me because it does nothing to get at the root of the problem: gender inequality that predisposes violence against women. Both sexual and physical violence are manifestations of a need for control over victims by perpetrators. So why not try to prevent violence by targeting the perpetrators, who are overwhelmingly males? Well, then again it is much easier to blame women because, after all, “boys will be boys.”

  • Anonymous on 02.22.2008 at 10:30 am

    This study/article is useless. Not only does this study “prove” exactly what we’ve all known this ENTIRE TIME, the fact that it is being presented under the context of “groundbreaking” is quite laughable. However, as for the two prior posters; I don’t think that the article was meant to demean or portray women as the scapegoats. Maybe I was a bit overwhelmed by the done-to-death “alcohol/behavior study” but the fact that you expressed contempt for what seems to me as being one of the many weak arguments presented by this article shows flagrant disregard for the “sexual tolerance” being promoted today. Think outside the box; the author isn’t trying to insinuate moral values for women, I think the actual message is for women to be smarter about what they decide to do at parties. It’s not that women are victims or helpless; it’s just that many males are sick and perverted misanthropes, desperate for ANY chance they can get. Think about it from a different perspective: You and your friends are drinking at a party, because nobody really likes drinking at a dorm. Some guy is gonna try and rape you… don’t you have friends who will stop it? Even if you don’t, there are many many many people who go to parties who absolutely detest those sort of actions. If anything, from my point of view, women “willingly” get into these sorts of situations themselves and find themselves regretting it and reporting it as sexual abuse/rape, or find themselves victimized in situations completely avoidable. I know it doesn’t account for every possible scenario as I could hardly fathom possessing the masses of empirical evidence backing up this study, but its just food for thought.

    P.S. A well placed kick to the groin or an eye gouge is pretty effective against would be attackers.

    Or you can tell him you have AIDS…and that he has it too.

  • Juliet Johnson on 02.22.2008 at 10:35 am

    Rape is never a choice

    The presentation of study data in this article is troubling, since, rather than sharing the findings as research of a sociological phenomenon, it seeks to make a normative claim and to incite behavioral change in female freshmen. The article’s emphasis on freshman year as a “crucial” time to decide against binge drinking implies that freshman have the power and responsibility to choose not to be sexually assaulted once informed of the link between drinking and sexual abuse. This false and disturbing notion perpetuates the misconception that young women ‘deserve it’ if they choose to consume alcohol, making it less likely for women to report assaults that occur while they are intoxicated and encouraging rapists to rationalize their acts as acceptable.

    Conflating the separate issues of binge drinking and sexual assault is particularly dubious because of the varying degrees of individual agency associated with them–one may choose to drink, but rape is never a choice. The fact that there is a higher occurrence of sexual assault in women who drink does not mean that women have the responsibility to permanently avoid alcohol for their own safety; rather, college women who are of legal drinking age have just as much of a right to consume alcohol as their male counterparts do. To imply that by drinking women are ‘choosing’ or even ‘risking’ sexual assault is to hold victims responsible for their suffering unjustly. Articles like these that obliquely or explicitly suggest women are intentionally putting themselves “at risk” by drinking are examples of a reprehensible scare tactic that stands to cause more harm than good. Trying to address the underage binge drinking problem by threatening that young drinkers will be raped deters women from drinking at the cost of perpetuating the notion of drunk women ‘asking for’ rape that is responsible for these disturbing statistics in the first place.

  • Anonymous on 02.22.2008 at 2:42 pm

    Rape is an act of violence, not sex

    As a male secondary victim of rape, I couldn’t agree more with most of the posters here, with the exception of the “This study/article is” poster. To the author of that posting: there is a very large difference between a horny guy and a rapist. If rape were so easily preventable, then why do 1 in 4 college women become the victims of sexual assault? You have a very naive approach, and I suggest that anyone who has not formally educated themselves about sexual assault take the opportunity to do so. Somebody who is close to you has been the victim of sexual assault. It is the propagation of ideas like yours that leave too many victims of assault silent and emotionally tortured and allows too many rapists to continue committing violent crimes.

    While this article does imply the false and dangerous notion that sexual assault is the victim’s fault, I hope that this article does raise awareness for college drinkers to understand the staggering statistics of rape and sexual assault, and whether at a party or in their dorm room, to:
    1. Be aware of your surroundings.
    2. Know who you are with. If you will be drinking, be sure you are with somebody that you trust.
    3. Know your boundaries.
    4. If you are the victim of sexual assault, don’t be afraid to speak up.

    Sexual assault is ALWAYS the fault of the person who commits it – it is NEVER the victim’s fault.

  • Anonymous on 02.22.2008 at 4:54 pm


    Way to blame the victim, guys!

    Did you know? The most predictive factor in whether or not a woman will be raped is the presence of a rapist! Shocking, I know…

  • Anonymous on 02.22.2008 at 8:09 pm

    Victimization by default?

    While I agree that fault should never be placed on the victim of sexual assault, what’s wrong with informing young women that certain choices can increase their chances of being in a situation where assault is likely to happen?

    An analogy: no one would claim it was “my fault” if I got mugged when walking home alone at 3am, but one would be perfectly correct to point out that I made an unwise decision to walk home alone.

    Unfortunately, all too often, the idea that “the victim is never to blame” leads to another, erroneous idea: “women (or any victims of assault) are helpless and could not have taken control over the situation.”

    If women assume themselves to be, by default, victims, they are more likely to become so. Sexual assault is, to some degree, preventable, if young women have the self-esteem to make choices in the interest of their own well-being.

  • Anonymous on 02.27.2008 at 9:01 pm


    So who is it easier to take advantage of? A drunk girl or a sober one? I don’t know about placing the blame on the victims, but if you are so drunk you black out and can’t remember anything that happened to you while you were smashed, then you are playing with fire. That is the bottom line. Why put yourself in a situation where you could be taken advantage of? I’m not saying you were out looking for it, but while you can’t do anything to prevent a rappist from doing what he does, you could prevent putting yourself in a vulnerable position.

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