School context, high-risk drinking, and sexual assault at two Southern Urban Universities.

Author:McCormick, Laura J.


Sexual assault and acquaintance rape continue to be a problem on college campuses in the United States. Hingson, Heeren, Winter, and Wechsler (2005) estimated that each year 97,000 college students are victims of sexual assault or acquaintance rape, 400,000 have unprotected sex, and 100,000 students report having been too intoxicated to know if they consented to having sex. Sexual assault is defined as any type of sexual activity that the recipient does not want or agree to, and usually includes touching or intercourse against a person's will (Kahn, Jackson, Kully, Badger, & Halvorsen, 2003).

There is a well established link between sexual assault and high-risk drinking (also called binge drinking; Abbey, Zawacki, & Buck, 2005; Berkowitz, 1992; Koss & Dinero, 1988; Koss & Oros, 1982). High-risk drinking is defined as 5 or more drinks in one sitting for men and 4 or more drinks for women (Nelson, Naimi, Brewer, Bolen, & Wells, 2004). Alcohol consumption (especially high-risk drinking) and sexual assault tend to co-occur regardless of who consumed the alcohol and regardless of the gender of the perpetrator or victim (Abbey, 1991; Anderson, Spruille, Venable, & Strano, 2005; Berkowitz, 1992). In fact, approximately 50% of all sexual assaults on college campuses involve alcohol consumption by the perpetrator, the victim, or both (Abbey, 2002).

Alcohol Consumption and the College Culture

Alcohol consumption is a common experience in the college culture. Participation in high-risk drinking appears to be acceptable to, if not expected by, undergraduate college students (Young, Morales, McCabe, Boyd, & D-Arcy, 2005). Wechsler and Wuethrich (2003) suggested that the consumption of alcohol is believed to be a "rite of passage" on many college campuses. Drinking games, in which large quantities of alcohol are consumed by players, are extremely popular in college. According to Borsari (2004), college students report four common reasons for playing drinking games: intoxicating oneself, intoxicating others, meeting new people, and competition.

Although men tend to play drinking games more often than women, men and women tend to drink similar amounts while playing drinking games (Borsari, 2004). Additionally, women drink more during drinking games than during other drinking occasions. McCabe's (2002) and Piane and Safer's (2008) studies of the drinking behaviors of college students revealed that men and women were just as likely to report binge drinking (i.e., high-risk drinking) and "drinking to get drunk." Research indicates that rates of frequent binge drinking have significantly increased in the past decade, with nearly 40% of college women reporting binge drinking, and 20% reporting binge drinking 3 or more times in the previous 2 weeks (Wechsler et al., 2002). In a study by Young et al. (2005), college women reported a belief that drinking heavily would make a favorable impression on their male peers. They also reported that being able to drink "like a guy" gave them a sense of equality with their male peers.

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (2004/2005), African American youth are less likely to drink than their non-Hispanic White counterparts, but college might be a time when they "cross-over" to heavy and problem drinking. As adults, African Americans, especially males, report rates of problem and heavy drinking that is greater than non-Hispanic Whites. Ernst, Hogan, Vallas, Cook, and Fuller (2009) concluded that African American college students were more likely to be high achievers with more self-control than their White counterparts and that these qualities explained their significantly lower levels of drinking (69% vs. 78%) and binge drinking (42% vs. 56% in the past month). Their student respondents attended the same colleges and we wondered if we would find the same results with students from different colleges; one Predominately White Institution (PWI) and one Historically Black University (HBCU). At the high school level differences in drinking behaviors between ethnic groups has been related to school context. Boticello (2009) conducted an analysis of data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health and concluded that being in a school that was socioeconomically advantaged, had a high proportion of Non-Hispanic Whites, and was located in a suburban vs. urban location contributed to high rates of intoxication and heavy drinking. At the middle school level the school factors of level of use within the grade and perception of peer use were significantly related to seventh and eighth graders alcohol consumption (Shih, Miles, Tucker, Zhou, & D'Amico, 2010).

Sexual Assault

The purpose of this study was to test whether sexual assault was related to high risk drinking at two different types of urban universities; one PWI and one HBCU each located in the South. Typically, the characteristics of the perpetrator and victim of sexual assault are analyzed as both proximal (e.g., close or immediate) and distal (e.g., distant or long ago) behavioral influences. Proximal influences are timed close to the assault and include heavy use of alcohol, being present in high risk situations, or being in contextual situations that can be misinterpreted as sexual (Abbey, Zawacki, Buck, Clinton, & McAuslan, 2001). Distal influences are removed from the assault, predate the assault, and include gender, patterns of alcohol or other drug use, personal attitudes, past experiences, and perhaps certain personality characteristics (Abbey, McAuslanm, Zawacki, & Buck, 2002).

Abbey et al. (2002) proposed that alcohol may increase men's focus on proximal feelings of sexual arousal rather than on more distal cues, such as the potential for later punishment. College women who have consumed even a moderate amount of alcohol demonstrate impaired decision-making abilities (Loiselle & Fuqua, 2007). More specifically, a woman's use of alcohol may increase her focus on nonthreatening (disinhibitory) cues and reduce the saliency of threat (inhibitory) cues (Nurius, 2000). Since disinhibitory cues are generally stronger and more immediate than inhibitory cues, disinhibited social behavior is likely to occur. As such, it is not surprising that intoxicated women report participating in higher levels of consensual sexual activity with the perpetrator immediately prior to a sexual assault and offering less resistance than non-intoxicated women (Testa, Livingston, & Collins, 2000). However, men and women, including those who engage...

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