Alcohol and sex can create a dangerous mix on campus
As Kansas University and other institutions grapple with sexual assault among students, alcohol is a complicating factor.
And it will remain that way, national experts on campus rape say, until changes occur in cultural norms and attitudes that allow or even encourage students to go to bars and parties, get drunk and have sex.
Drinking and sex “are two things that shouldn’t be happening together,” said David Lisak, a leading authority on campus sexual assaults. “As much as people may find it hard to imagine, we have to move away from going to bars all the time to look for sexual partners. I think that is where we are headed.”
National and local media, as well as student groups, are scrutinizing KU in the aftermath of claims by a female sophomore that the university inadequately handled her 2013 rape allegations. The university is among 76 colleges and universities nationwide under investigation by the federal government for their handling of sex assault reports.
A White House task force said earlier this year that nationally one in five female students is assaulted. In many of those cases, alcohol was involved, several legal and academic experts said.
Female students often worry about someone slipping a date-rape drug into their drinks, but they forget that alcohol is the most widely used predator drug, said Jennifer Jordan, prevention director for DCCCA, which works on prevention and treatment of alcohol and drug dependency.
“Students tell each other, ‘hold on to your drink, keep it covered to make sure they don’t slip anything into it,'” Jordan said. “That is a misconception. If you drink enough, date rape can be the consequence.”
Not only does a drunken student become an easy target for a predator, but her drunken state can mean she can’t give details about what happened — especially whether she clearly gave consent to have sex. That affects a criminal investigation and successful prosecution, Jordan said.
“Many times the victims are foggy about whether they gave consent,” Jordan said. “Unfortunately they drank alcohol to the point they can’t remember. I’m not blaming them, but they are putting themselves in an unsafe situation that could have been prevented.”
Students often bristle at the idea that alcohol consumption should be a factor in rape investigations, calling it “blaming the victim.” Emma Halling, acting student body president at KU, said it falls in the same category as saying a woman enticed a rapist by being inappropriately dressed.
“That is putting the burden on the woman,” Halling said. “It actually doesn’t solve the problem.”
Students drink socially, but they also drink because they are stressed over a number of issues including possible rape, Halling said. An annual survey by the university shows the anxiety levels for this year’s class of students are the highest they have ever been, Halling said.
“We have unresolved stress and have no where to turn so students use alcohol,” she said.
District attorney Charles Branson said “victim blaming” is a term he’s aware of and that it concerns him when it comes to criminal prosecution of rape cases. He said the defense often focuses on a rape survivor’s actions, such as what she was wearing or how much she drank, in a way that can appear blaming.
But in a typical campus rape case addressing alcohol is key, he said. For one, in cases where the victim is incapacitated and thus incapable of giving consent, incapacity has to be proven in court.
“There is no way we can get around talking about how much alcohol was consumed,” Branson said.
Lisak conducted one of the best-known studies of sexual assault while he was an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts in Boston in 2002. Because rapes are under-reported he wanted to find sex offenders who were “hiding in plain sight.”
Of the 1,800 men surveyed, about 6 percent, or 120 men, said they had raped an acquaintance. Of those 120, about 80 had done it several times, on average about six times.
Those men admitted that they used alcohol as a weapon, Lisak said.
“They deliberately get their targets intoxicated through various kinds of ways,” Lisak said. “The victims are willing to get intoxicated to a certain point. Then getting them more intoxicated is easier … When you are intoxicated, your judgment is in error.”
Trying to limit alcohol
Over the years, KU has worked to lessen over-consumption of alcohol and its consequences.
In 2009 two students died as a result of drinking. Dalton Hawkins, 18, of Shawnee, was found dead after falling off the roof of the three-story Watkins Scholarship Hall. Jason Wren, 19, of Littleton, Colo., was found dead inside Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity after a night of drinking margaritas, beer and whiskey. He had had multiple alcohol violations.
KU investigated and issued a report that included information on alcohol use on the Lawrence campus from surveys by the National College Health Assessment done in 2003 and 2006.
The survey from 2006 found that 21 percent of students acknowledged binge drinking three to five times over two weeks. More than 45 percent of students said they had been drinking and driving.
More than half the students said they had done something they regretted while drinking, and 46 percent had experienced forgetfulness, the survey found.
As part of that 2009 report, KU implemented new alcohol policies, including:
- Alcohol assessments for incoming students known as alcohol.edu. Each student is required to take the online assessments within six weeks of attending his or her first class.
- Parental notification for students under 21 with alcohol and drug violations.
- An amnesty program for students who seek medical assistance for people experiencing alcohol-related emergencies.
At the time, some students reacted strongly against the recommendations. The Student Senate, for example, said the university was over-reaching and was forgetting that most students are adults.
In addition, with much fanfare, the university created the Community Alcohol Coalition, with members including some of the city’s most important officials. But what the coalition did is unclear. A university official and others said they could not remember if the coalition generated a report.
Success, then no funds
From 2010 to 2012, several agencies — including Douglas County law enforcement agencies, the state department of revenue, alcoholic beverage control and KU Office of Public Safety — received state grant money to create the Fake ID 101 task force to conduct stings.
The task force was active. For example, on Oct. 26, law enforcement officials raided an Oread neighborhood house party with more than 200 guests. Police seized several kegs of beer and more than $800 in proceeds from the sale of alcohol, including to minors. Twenty-nine citations were written for crimes including possession of alcohol by a minor, fake IDs and unlawful hosting of minors.
The program was praised as a success during its two years, with more than 75 citations written to bars for serving underage drinkers and more than 100 individuals cited for fake IDs. But the grant money ran out, and the program faded, Jordan said.
“Unfortunately we don’t have a grant to do specific enforcement,” Jordan said.
With national publicity about a rape investigation stirring protests on campus, KU Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little announced Thursday new efforts aimed at preventing and responding to sexual assaults, including student education and a task force to review policies, practices and sanctions on sexual assault and make recommended changes. Alcohol education was not mentioned.
Students have resisted stronger sanctions on alcohol use.
“Efforts to get students to approve extending KU’s jurisdiction beyond campus borders have repeatedly been blocked,” said Erinn Barcomb-Peterson, a KU spokeswoman.
Tim Caboni, vice chancellor of public affairs, says the conversation about drinking and rape is an important one.
“For many years there has not been a real interest in taking a close look at how that student code (regarding alcohol) could be changed, revised or improved,” Caboni said. “Given the conversation we are having now, we may have an opportunity to get some real positive movement.”
Special report: Sexual violence on campus
More stories from the Journal-World’s Sept. 14, 2014, focus on an alleged rape of a woman in a KU residence hall and the issue of sexual assault here and on campuses nationwide.