Though national reports may illustrate a correlation between alcohol use and sexual assault, recognizing the problem is just half the battle for universities trying to create a safer campus.
Antonia Abbey, a professor at Wayne State University who has been researching alcohol’s prevalence in sexual assault cases since the early 1980s, said alcohol plays a large role in sexual assault, but emphasized it is not the cause of sexual assault.
In addition, Abbey noted many perpetrators have multiple risk factors for committing sexual assault — such as different attitudes about women, anger and aggression — that contribute to a pre-inclination toward sexual assault.
“If somebody already has some of these risk factors and then they’re drinking, I think that can be that kind of final igniter that puts them over the line,” Abbey said. “But, it’s not like alcohol is going to make someone be sexually aggressive who doesn’t have any of those risk factors.”
Abbey said the impairments and questionable decision-making alcohol can cause adds to the risk factors for a perpetrator committing sexual assault. Abbey cited a research study in which women, after drinking, were randomly assigned to read a story that featured common characteristics of a date rape. These stories were embedded with risk cues, such as a man giving a woman a lot to drink at a bar. Abbey said the results displayed alcohol’s role in missing cues that could warn of potential risks.
“Women are often not as good as noticing those cues or saying that they would kind of have a plan to act on those cues,” she said.
However, she emphasized that these circumstances do not provide an excuse for the perpetrator’s actions or for placing blame on the survivor.
“It is the acknowledgement that alcohol affects our ability to think clearly, to think well,” she said. “When you’re drinking, you may not think things through as clearly as when you’re sober and that can put you in situations that sometimes are dangerous.”
Abbey said in sexual assaults involving alcohol on college campuses, the perpetrator and the victim are often both drinking. However, she said, it is hard to measure whether each person was equally intoxicated.
“It’s really hard to assess how intoxicated someone is, exactly,” she said. “It does seem that there are some perpetrators that will kind of look for somebody who is really fall-down drunk.”
According to a report submitted to the U.S. Department of Justice in 2007, 89 percent of sexual assault survivors reported drinking alcohol and 82 percent said they were drunk at the time of the incident. The research report was a web-based survey conducted from January 2005 to December 2007, which surveyed over 6,800 undergraduate students.
Holly Rider-Milkovich, director of the University’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center, and Mary Jo Desprez, director of Wolverine Wellness, both said alcohol is a tool, but not the cause of sexual assault.
“Our University is not unique in that we do see alcohol play a significant role in the majority of sexual assaults that are reported on our campus,” Rider-Milkovich said.
Rider-Milkovich stressed that statistics on sexual assaults involving alcohol are hard to determine due to their underreported nature. However, she said she thinks there is a high incidence of alcohol involvement in sexual assault on college campuses.
“My hope that it is due to all of the efforts that are happening on our campus and nationally to raise the profile of this issue to create a safer, more supportive environment for students to report the information and for our campus adjudication processes to be more effective,” Rider-Milkovich said.
According to the University’s Division of Public Safety and Security’s Annual Report for 2014-2015, SAPAC received 44 reports of sexual assault in 2011, 34 in 2012 and 35 in 2013.
Despite sexual assault being an underreported crime, Desprez said she is satisfied that this issue has garnered national attention. She also said college students coming forward and discussing their circumstance with their University promotes dialogue for other universities.
“I don’t think sexual assault is just happening right now,” Desprez said. “We are getting better at reporting it so sometimes we see those reporting numbers go up, it’s actually a good sign. It means your campus is doing more to make people aware of what it is. I would get more nervous if I looked up a campus and said they had none.”
Desprez added that universities and college students should challenge the idea of having an unlimited amount of alcohol at social events if it’s know to be a tool that can be used in sexual assault. She also said responsibility falls both on the people who are drinking and people who are hosting a social event. She cited “jungle juice,” or fruity mixed drinks, as a particularly significant problem at parties because people may not realize how much alcohol they are consuming.
“You serve some sort of a common source of alcohol that has lots of fruity flavors in it and people have no idea how much alcohol they’re having, that doesn’t allow people to make the best choice for themselves about what they want happening to them that night,” Desprez said.
Desprez said alcohol is overemphasized in collegiate social settings.
“I think the goal would be to right-size it, not demonize it,” she said. “But right-size the role alcohol plays because what that allows us to do is acknowledge that we have thousands of students … who don’t drink for whatever reason.”
LSA junior Alyssa Gorenberg, executive vice president of the University’s Panhellenic Association, said she partnered with SAPAC to bring workshops related to consent, alcohol awareness and the University’s sexual misconduct policy to sororities. Gorenberg said this workshop was piloted with 11 out of the University’s 17 sororities. She said these workshops were facilitated by sorority members and a SAPAC volunteer.
“What we talked about in the workshop in terms of alcohol is that if you consume alcohol, you’re not legally allowed to give consent,” Gorenberg said. So, it was more informing girls of their options.”
In an e-mail to The Michigan Daily, LSA sophomore Chloe Horowitz, president of the University’s chapter of Kappa Alpha Theta sorority, said the Panhellenic Council does its best to educate students on alcohol awareness and how to drink safely through informative workshops. However, Horowitz said not enough is being done to address this issue.
“I think that Theta individually, along with the whole Greek community, could be doing more to address this issue,” she wrote. “We could host more events to raise awareness on prevention, and just to spread the word in general. I would love to see Greek life working to make the campus a safer place, and I know we’d like to be involved in whatever way we can.”
Gorenberg added that the Office of Greek Life is committed to improving this issue on campus through multiple efforts across all four Greek councils.
“I think sexual assault will always be an issue until we eliminate it entirely,” she said. “In especially the Office of Greek Life across all four councils, we’re doing a lot of work to combat the issue. I think we always want to be doing more.”
In January, University President Mark Schlissel announced a student survey on sexual assault as a way to hear students’ concerns on the campus climate. During fireside chats and in interviews with the Daily, Schlissel has identified alcohol abuse and sexual misconduct as two of the most pressing issues facing the campus. In September, the University shortened Welcome Week to curb unsafe drinking, and Schlissel has pledged to propose revisions to the University’s Sexual Misconduct Policy by the fall.
Desprez praised Schlissel’s efforts to address issues regarding alcohol and sexual assault.
“When you see a president saying, ‘I think that (something to focus on),’ I think what you are hearing him say is we have genius on this campus, that we would like to be realized and we understand that alcohol harms,” Desprez said.