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Heavy drinking is a significant indicator of on-campus sexual assault across the country. Alcohol lubricates university life for college freshmen through seniors, despite the legal U.S. drinking age of 21. Unfortunately, many college students may not realize that approximately 50 percent of reported cases of sexual assault involve alcohol consumption by the perpetrator, survivor or both.

Despite these sobering statistics, drinking in college remains something of a college ritual. But drinking has harmful consequences. Nearly 100,000 students between the ages of 18 and 24 report experiencing alcohol-related sexual assault or date rape. Perpetrators who commit sexual assault are more likely to do so when they are drinking alcohol.

When are on-campus sexual assaults most likely to occur?

Approximately 50 percent of on-campus sexual assaults occur in the “red zone.” The red zone is a period in which women on college campuses are most likely to be assaulted. The period between August and Thanksgiving Break in November is when students are most vulnerable to experiencing unwanted sex. This period is of particular concern to first-year college students.

How does alcohol contribute to sexual assault?

Alcohol has psychological, cognitive and motor effects that influence both aggressive and sexual behavior. In addition, the substance tends to lower inhibitions while encouraging aggressiveness—particularly in men. Intoxicated people tend to focus more on noticeable cues rather than noticing and reacting to the more nuanced cues of their intended victims. As a result of the effects of alcohol, some people are more likely to commit sexual assault because they are more focused on their own sexual arousal and entitlement than the victim’s cues that suggest discomfort. There is also a lack of awareness about the possibility of punishment.

Studies show that approximately half of college sexual assaults involve alcohol use. Typically, alcohol consumption rates are higher for rape than for any other type of sexual assault.

The Excuse: “Alcohol made me do it.”

Alcohol is often viewed as an aphrodisiac. This means that many perpetrators hold the opinion that alcohol will increase the sexual wants of their victims. In the published 1993 study, Alcohol and Violent Pornography: Responses to Permissive and Nonpermissive Cues, researchers found that college men who perpetrated on-campus sexual assault when they were intoxicated were more likely to believe that alcohol led to an increase in male and female sexuality than men who committed sexual assault when sober. This prompted researchers to believe that men who commit sexual assault when alcohol is involved can later justify to themselves that the alcohol made them act accordingly.

Although alcohol and sexual assault often co-occur, this does not prove that alcohol use causes sexual assault. There are several situational influences that can prompt a person to commit sexual assault. For example, college fraternities often encourage heavy drinking and the sexual exploitation of women. When these two ideas converge, they can create an environment where on-campus sexual assault is likely to occur.

Who is likely to commit a sexual assault?

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reports that an indicator of the likelihood a perpetrator will commit sexual assault is if they believe stereotypes like a drinking woman is sexually available or an appropriate target.

Further, an aggressor may feel entitled to commit sexual assault or rape a victim if they feel “led on.” Generally, men who carry these characteristics are more likely to commit sexual assault:

  • Those who are more hostile toward women
  • Low empathy toward women compared to other men
  • Endorse traditional stereotypes about gender roles
  • Justify rape or sexual assault by saying “women say no when they mean yes” or similar sayings
  • Hold adversarial beliefs about the relationship between men and women
  • Consider the use of force in interpersonal relationships acceptable
  • Experienced abuse or violence as a child
  • Delinquency in adolescence
  • Have peers who view rape as acceptable
  • Early and frequent dating and sexual experiences

While most studies focus on men as aggressors, there is research that suggests women do commit rape at higher rates than previously thought.

Combating on-campus sexual assault

As we’ve noted, sexual assault continues to be a serious problem for young people ages 18-24. Women in the age group 18-24 in college are three times more likely to experience sexual violence than women of all ages.

Campus Education Programs

Campus education programs focus on prevention. Many programs are designed for young women in their first year of university. This is because that is when a female college student is at her highest risk of sexual assault. Further, these programs teach women to be aware of men’s behaviors. Although these programs do reduce the likelihood of an individual experiencing sexual assault, they don’t change overall campus attitudes about sexual assault, nor do they address those likely to perpetrate rape or sexual assault. These programs tend to be controversial because they require women to be held responsible for men’s behavior.

Civil Sexual Assault Lawsuits

In many cases, criminal sexual assault cases don’t lead to justice. This is because criminal cases carry the highest burden of proof under the law known as “beyond a reasonable doubt.” In essence, if a jury has any doubt that the sexual assault was consensual, they may not convict an aggressor.

Civil lawsuits don’t require a criminal conviction. While there is no cause of action “sexual assault,” the survivor can file a lawsuit for:

  • Assault/battery
  • Intentional infliction of emotional distress
  • False imprisonment
  • Negligent infliction of emotional distress (for witnesses and bystanders)

In addition to suing the assailant, a survivor may choose to sue a third party. In instances of on-campus sexual assault, a survivor may sue the university.

Increase excise tax

A lesser-known tactic to reduce on-campus sexual assault is to raise the alcohol excise tax. In Texas, for example, increasing the alcohol excise tax by just 10 cents will reduce the number of sexual assaults by 5,270 incidences. The thinking behind raising alcohol excise taxes is that if alcohol is more costly, people will drink less.

The Carlson Law Firm Can Help

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) estimates that at least 95% of campus rapes in the U.S. go unreported. These unsettling statistics of alcohol’s influence in on-campus sexual assaults show a darker side of college life that few people have an interest in discussing. Theoretical explanations of alcohol’s influence on sexual assault aside, there is no excuse for sexual assault of any kind on college campuses. 

When a sexual assault occurs, it can be difficult to prove in a criminal court. However, in civil lawsuits, the bar for proving an assault is much lower.

The Carlson Law Firm has a sexual assault attorney who can help you determine if filing a civil suit against your perpetrator or the university where the assault occurred is the right step. Contact us today to schedule a free, confidential, no-obligation consultation.

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