College campuses have a problem with alcohol and a problem with sexual assault but they aren’t the same problem. Nor can they be solved using the same educational theories and methods. The connection between the two issues is undeniable, but how we think about it, talk about it, and how we choose to educate in light of that connection are currently a challenge. The strong and differing opinions are based in a desire to solve both problems so let’s keep trying to find what works and quit trying to use patches to alcohol programs as sexual violence prevention.
Alcohol education on college campuses has developed and progressed over the past 30 years with the help of grants from the federal government and many other sources, including the industry that makes and sells alcohol. According to the BACCHUS Network, there are 26 federal grant-making agencies and over 900 individual grant programs that award over $350 billion in grants each year to study or educate about alcohol abuse. This money allows alcohol education to receive institutional support and dedicated campus resources. There are many institutes, councils, research centers, and coalitions that study the problem. The result is a great deal of expertise and understanding about student alcohol abuse, and there’s some indication that the educational efforts have led to a reduction in binge drinking. This is a good thing. Yet there has been no corresponding reduction in sexual assaults.
This should not be a surprise to anyone. None of this work on alcohol has studied sexual perpetrator behavior. That is not the goal. The goal is to help students understand why they drink and reduce the amount they drink. The hope was that this would reduce assaults.
We are now devoting much more time, energy and money to the study of sexual assault perpetration and the best ways to educate in order to prevent assaults from happening. There have been decades of work in this field, too, resulting in knowledge about approaches and methodology that are promising.
Sexual predators use alcohol as a weapon but it is only one of the weapons they use. They also use common beliefs about drunk sex and drunk women as a weapon, and as a cover, for their crimes. Predator motivations are power over another, and sexual gratification obtained by violating another. Alcohol is not a factor in these motivations; it does not contribute to the beliefs about violation. These beliefs and motivations are present with or without alcohol.
The alcohol industry however, does contribute a factor in sexual violence, not through the product they make but through the promotion of that product. One of their primary advertising techniques is to connect drinking and sex, and, for heterosexual men, to link drinking to obtaining stereotypically beautiful women. These advertising messages contribute to a culture that supports beliefs about drunk sex and drunk women and blurs the lines between sex and sexual assault. This culture supports the sexual predators who act on those beliefs. These messages influence some young men to believe they need alcohol in order to obtain what they want, and that using alcohol and obtaining what they want is what makes them a man. Some young women are also influenced to believe that’s what makes a man.
It is the culture that perpetuates sexual violence which must be explained and discussed with students. They need to understand how this affects all of us and what we all do to either support or oppose this culture.
After her talk at the Dialogue at UVa: Sexual Misconduct on College Campuses, Catherine Lhamon, the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights at the Department of Education, was asked about the connection between sexual assault and alcohol. She was clear that alcohol abuse was a problem on campuses and we should continue to do all we can to prevent it. Then she said, “but sexual assault and sexually hostile environments persist totally independent of the use of alcohol and the culture change has to be focused on not assuming that alcohol and drugs are an excuse or a conduit.”
Prevention of sexual assault requires an examination of gender roles, discussions of consent, and yes, discussions of the culture that includes beliefs about alcohol. That is not alcohol education, nor should it be. The time is long overdue to treat these issues separately, to recognize the different goals, and to stop confusing students by telling them that ending alcohol abuse will end sexual violence, because it won’t.
Carol Mosely, Director
We End Violence