Stop Teaching Students That Sexual Assault Is a Potential Consequence of Drinking

Approximately one half of sexual assaults involve alcohol consumption by the perpetrator, victim, or both. In higher ed, alcohol educators often assume that students will drink more responsibly if they know alcohol increases their risk of rape. But what if this assumption is wrong? And what if teaching students about sexual assault in the context of alcohol education is doing more harm than good?

The standard alcohol education message is: "Be smart. Be responsible. Don't do something stupid because there are often consequences." Unfortunately, this focus on personal responsibility is completely incompatible with sexual assault prevention. When it comes to sexual assault and alcohol, students interpret the risk reduction message as "don't drink or you'll get raped," or infer that getting raped was your own fault because you were drinking. It's not only college students who think this way. Just recently, tennis pro Serena Williams told Rolling Stone that the 16-year-old rape survivor in the infamous Steubenville case "put herself in that position" because she was drinking.

Blaming the victim is a pervasive problem with sexual assault. For much too long, prevention education focused on individual risk reduction advice like "don't walk alone at night" or consisted of self-defense training workshops. We now understand that stranger rape -- the dark figure lurking in the bushes kind of rape -- is pretty rare. When 85 percent of rapes on college campuses are committed by an acquaintance, teaching women to protect themselves from stranger rape not only misses the point, but implies that rape is the result of a woman's poor decision making or her failure to protect herself. It also provides a false sense of security by suggesting that if a woman follows a set of rules or adheres to a certain dress code, she won't get raped.

Today, college educators still use the risk reduction approach but instead of focusing on stranger danger, they focus on alcohol-related sexual assault. Telling students to watch their drinking so they don't become a target makes sense when the goal is to reduce college drinking; it makes a lot less sense when the goal is to reduce the incidence of sexual assault or improve support services for survivors on campus.

It is critical to cultivate a campus culture where students feel safe and comfortable reporting an assault. When a student reports, that student can be connected to support services. When many students report, their reports help administrators better address the issue, as well as potentially identify and remove sexual predators from campus. However, a therapeutic campus culture is impossible to create when students are led to believe that they were responsible for their own rape because they chose to drink, or that their assault "doesn't count" because they were drunk. It is even worse when a student is afraid to come forward to report an assault because they fear being chastised, shamed, or blamed for their poor judgment by school administrators.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reports that each year an estimated 97,000 college students between the ages of 18 and 24 are survivors of alcohol-related sexual assault or date rape and that 100,000 college students report being too intoxicated to know if they consented to sexual activity. To be certain, alcohol-related sexual assault on college campuses is rampant and must be addressed. Students need help and guidance navigating issues of consent when alcohol or other drugs are involved. I propose that these challenges, however, be approached in the context of sexual assault prevention rather than part of an alcohol education curriculum.

True primary prevention means changing the sexual culture on campus. Rape myths ("She was asking for it," etc.) are still pervasive among students, faculty, and staff. Too many believe that college girls drink because they are "down for sex" or that sexual assault accusations are fabricated because women regret having had drunk sex. Each campus must dispels those myths in order to achieve a community-wide understanding of sexual assault as it actually happens.

Practically, this could mean implementing campaigns like "Consent is Sexy" that promote consent as an integral part of healthy sexuality, not just something to worry about if you've been drinking. The American College Health Association also recommends incorporating bystander intervention skills training (teaching students to look out for their peers and intervene when safe to do so) in order to create a culture in which sexual violence is not tolerated. Instead of warning students not to drink too much lest they get raped, these approaches recognize and reinforce the fact that ending rape culture is everyone's responsibility.

Until a campus community collectively understands the difference between risk reduction and primary prevention, and until it consciously chooses to blame perpetrators rather than survivors, alcohol-related risk reduction messages may cause more problems than they solve.