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Displaying increasing prevalence in the United States, recent years have sparked an area of widespread research on sexual assault in the college and university campuses. According to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN), the United States’ largest anti-sexual violence organization, the likelihood of a rape victim being a female college student is four times greater than any other age group. The Campus Sexual Assault Study (CSA) funded by the United States Department of Justice explains that “nearly 1 in 5 women experienced an attempted or completed sexual assault since entering college”. Young students in the U.S., between the ages of 16–24, are considered to be in greatest danger of sexual assault, and its severity is only increasing.. The heightened risk of such misconduct in correlation to this age demographic displays a parallel, aligned with students in their late teens entering college and university years. With recognition of postsecondary bounds fostering sexual assault, we must understand: What on campus is triggering such conduct? In a time of self discovery and experimental decisions, the party scene in the social life of students poses repercussion of ‘reckless behavior’, specifically when under the influence of alcohol. Impairing our cognitive functions and self awareness, the integration of alcohol abuse within the party culture of American college and university campuses encourage sexual assault, facilitating imposed peer pressure, heightened occurrences of unreported rape and ultimately an incapability of communicating consent.
Upon transition into the university and college lifestyle, students find themselves faced with new sexual norms harboured by the collective social behavior. As a female university student explained, ”there is pressure because everybody else is doing it. You have sex to fit in”. Peer encouragement to engage in sexual behavior is conspicuous on campus, and imposes itself amongst the university crowd. Joan Z. Spade, author of “Schools and Society” and publisher of several journals related to university rape culture, explains that men who “sleep around” are perceived as “champions” by their fellow peers, and boasting about such “achievements” generate a personal sense of pride. It was admitted by another college student that ‘‘sometimes you don’t say no because you don’t want to look stupid”. The desire to be accepted stimulates this norm, thus creating the widespread and broad based college and university mindset to fit in. As sex seems to be routine on campus, it bustles in the party scene thriving amongst hormonally charged young adults. “With at least one-third of first-year students on campus residing in “party dorms” and one-quarter of all undergraduates belonging to fraternities or sororities”, campus life seems to revolve around the party scene. However, the lively experience of attending a party exhorts irresponsible alcohol usage, which may impair one’s ability to be in complete command of his or her actions. This results in unwanted sexual contact, which may lead to ‘party rape’, the “result of fun situations that shift — either gradually or quite suddenly — into coercive situations”. Posing as a significant impact, the casual presence of alcohol influences misconduct of sexual behavior.
More than 90 percent of all accounts of campus sexual assault go unreported, with the presence of alcohol making victims less likely to speak out. The subsidiary factor of alcohol usage contributes to an impulsive result of self blame, weighing heavily on the inflicted individual. Avoiding recognition and acceptance, the casualty often tries to skew the episode, telling themselves what had happened was not a form of sexual assault. The presence of alcohol in these occurrences make “victims less likely to report an assault because of fear that others will perceive the rape as [was] their fault”. Pressure to drink in social context on campus is apprehensive to an extent, as having too much to drink puts you in a place of vulnerability. This ‘place’ is perceived by students as a self inflicted position, seemingly inviting the consequence of a possible negative outcome. With the stereotype that a ‘partygoer’ engages in heavy drinking, this subjects the individual in that seat to becoming more susceptible to manipulation. Following sexual assault, credibility is diminished when one tries to report such a case, as the abuse of alcohol inhibits the ability to remember details. The CSA Study discovered that more than half of the sexual assaults that occur on a university campus involve alcohol consumed by the victim, the perpetrator, or both. In addition, 82 percent of all victims in an investigated campus sexual assault survey reported being drunk prior to their victimization. As the usage of alcohol increases one’s risk of sexual assault, constant self awareness helps to steer clear from those who try to potentially take advantage of the situation. A controversial case arose in 2015, when nineteen-year-old Brock Turner sexualy assulted an intoxicated and unconscious female student. When the case went to court in 2016, “Turner defended himself on sexual assault charges by blaming the party culture and prevalence of alcohol and drugs on the Stanford campus”. With additional allegations of non-consensual sex placed against Turner, he denied this accusation claiming that proper consent was communicated by the victim to engage in sexual contact. The ability to give consent under the influence of alcohol is very contentious, and an ongoing dispute remains.
The lax attitude that students associate with sex produces a casual perception of sexual behavior even under the influence of alcohol, which inevitably results in assault. A male undergraduate from a large midwestern university explained in an interview that he had driven several intoxicated women home in the past on multiple occasions who couldn’t remember much of anything, though sex had occurred. He also explained that “rarely if ever had [has] a night of drinking for his roommate ended without sex”. A freshman student revealed that if the legal definition of rape implied that an intoxicated individual was unable to give consent, than rape on campus “happens all the time”. The way intoxicated sexual assault is perceived from individual to individual varies based on their understanding and perception of consent, but more importantly the situation and circumstances by which consent is communicated and authorized. According to Elizabeth Monk Turner, a professor of sociology and criminal justice at the Old Dominion University, “the ambiguous understanding and definition of ‘consent’ promotes confusion among students identifying, experiencing, and reporting sexual assault”. As an area of research moving away from seclusion and as charges of intoxicated sexual assault on campus persistently escalate, post secondary institutions are beginning to compile and propose the appropriate definition that can be universally applied, as well as what this entails. The legal terms of sexual consent influenced by substance usage in the United States declare that “individuals who are incapacitated because of the effects of alcohol or drugs are incapable of consenting”. The College of the Holy Cross in Worcester has begun to give members of their campus judicial panel a mandated three hours of training in regards to sexual assault. Backing judicial legislation, a focal policy in this Massachusetts institution states: “Consent may never be given by one who is incapacitated as a result of alcohol. Silence may not be taken to imply consent”. In a study done on collegiate rape culture, a first year student identified a complication in regards to certain circumstances challenging the aforementioned campus policies. She questioned, how should a situation be handled when both individuals are inebriated and unaware of their actions? In this case, another challenge is added when trying to identify the perpetrator versus the victim, with both sides susceptible to the same vulnerability under intoxication. A varied perspective from a male Senior stated, ‘I don’t care whether alcohol is involved or not; that is not rape. Rapists are people that have something seriously wrong with them’. This clear misunderstanding in regards to the true definition of sexual assault and lack of education only begins to demonstrate the need for reform and preventative solutions to the problem of rape and sexual assault on post secondary campuses, as well as how alcohol and other substances plays into sexual conduct.
Current preventative solutions adopted by universities often include generic fundraisers such as ‘Rape Awareness Week’ or sponsored speakers such as police officers all in the effort to recognize and draw attention the issue. Rather than identifying the problem, an effort to educate proper conduct and consequence would be far more beneficial for a long term initiative. Joan Z. Spade believes that we must “examine the situations in which women and men meet and restructure these settings to provide opportunities for respectful interaction”. By facilitating positive gender relations, a sense of mutual respect will be established in hopes of moving away from the tolerance of sexual assault. The CSA Study proposed that a sexual assault prevention program regarding substance usage was necessary after concluding that “the majority of sexual assaults occur [occurring] when women are incapacitated due to their use of substances, primarily alcohol”. By “combining sexual assault prevention education with alcohol and drug education programing”, students will understand the injurious effects on their cognitive functions and ability to make rational decisions. By realizing how the influence of alcohol complicates sexual interaction and the way it can be perceived by either individual, this could make students think twice about a situation they may choose to engage in. Education through such prevention programs should span across all college and university years so as to instil an impactful message in the minds of young adults, and avoid occurrences after graduation and through adulthood.
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