|Alcohol, Consent Education, and Sexual Violence on College Campuses: Opportunities for Prevention?|
|by Kate Walsh, Ph.D.,|
University of Wisconsin-Madison
Sexual assault, defined here as any non-consensual, unwanted sexual contact (e.g., groping, fondling) as well as attempted or completed oral, vaginal, or anal sexual penetration, is a significant problem on college campuses with 20-28% of women and 7-12% of men reporting a sexual assault during college (Fedina et al., 2018; Mellins et al., 2017). Rates are significantly higher among transgender, non-binary, and genderqueer students as well as those who identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual. Sexual assault is associated with risk for short and long-term physical and mental health problems (Dworkin et al., 2017) and is a significant economic burden, both to individuals and to society (Peterson et al., 2017). College students who experience sexual assault are more likely than their non-assaulted peers to drop out of college and those who remain in college report a negative impact of assault on their academic performance and career attainment following graduation (Mengo & Black, 2016; Potter et al., 2018). In the Centers for Disease Control’s systematic review of 140 primary prevention programs, only three were found to have any impact on sexual violence perpetration and none were at the collegiate level (DeGue et al., 2014). Identifying avenues for primary prevention of sexual violence among college students is of paramount importance.
Alcohol and Sexual Assault
A significant proportion of campus sexual assaults occur in the context of alcohol use (Abbey, 2002, Krebs et al., 2007; Lorenz & Ullman, 2016). For example, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the Association of American Universities data indicated that female survivors had been drinking alcohol in nearly 80% of penetrative sexual assaults and perpetrators had been drinking in 72% of assaults (Cantor et al., 2019). Unfortunately, state statutes addressing sexual assault are often inadequate for addressing campus sexual assault because half of the states do not include drug and alcohol intoxication as a mechanism of incapacitation (DeMatteo et al., 2015). Unsurprisingly, campus sexual assault survivors are also less likely to report their assaults to either campus authorities or law enforcement compared to same-age, non-student survivors of sexual assault (Sinozich & Langtson, 2014).
Meta-analyses also have indicated that approximately 60% of women who have had experiences that meet the behaviorally specific definitions of rape do not label their experiences as rape (Wilson & Miller, 2016). These findings have been explained using rape script theory, which asserts that most people think of “real rape” as an isolated assault by strangers where force and violence are the primary methods used (Kahn et al., 1994). However, the vast majority of sexual assaults are committed by people who are known to the survivor and many methods including incapacitation or verbal coercion or pressure may be used (Basile et al., 2011; Fedina et al., 2018; Mellins et al., 2017). When a person’s experiences does not match the narrow and less common script associated with “real rape,” they do not label their experiences as rape or sexual assault (Littleton et al., 2007). Assaults that involve alcohol or drug incapacitation are significantly less likely than those involving force to be acknowledged as rape or sexual assault, and survivors of these experiences may not be aware that they can report and/or receive services (Walsh et al., 2016). Indeed, at University of Wisconsin-Madison, among the 70% of penetrative assault survivors who did not access a resource, the most common reason for not accessing a resource was that they did not consider the assault “serious enough” and 53% of those who did not consider it “serious enough” indicated that alcohol or drugs had been involved (Cantor et al., 2019).
Sexual Consent and Sexual Assault
In addition to lacking acknowledgment of of substance-related incapacitation within many state statutes, the majority of state statutes also lack an explicit definition of sexual consent (DeMatteo et al., 2015). Failure to clearly define sexual consent not only contributes to the likelihood that survivors will not identify their non-consensual or unwanted sexual experience as an assault but also diminishes the likelihood that any reports made will result in charges and prosecution. Sexual consent has been defined for research purposes as a dynamic process that encompasses 1) a person’s internal feelings of willingness, which may include desire, wantedness, safety, etc; 2) their external communication of agreement or non-agreement, which may be active verbal statements, active nonverbal behaviors, passive verbalizations or behaviors, and lack of resistance; and 3) their interpretation of their partner’s behavior as willingness (see Muehlenhard et al., 2016 for review).
In a large representative sample of college students, 9% of students reported having sex with their partner when their partner may not have consented since starting college (Walsh et al., 2021). Numerous factors, including relationship to one’s partner (Jozkowski et al., 2014; Walsh et al, 2019), sexual precedence (i.e., whether the people involved had engaged in sexual behavior together before; Humphreys, 2007; Willis & Jozkowski, 2019), and whether substances were consumed by either partner (Jozkowski & Wiersma, 2015; Walsh et al., 2019) have all been shown to relate to complex patterns of internal consent feelings and external consent communication strategies. Qualitative studies of consent among college students highlight several challenges to clear and active communication about consent, including social norms around “drunk sex,” as well as cisgendered heterosexual “scripts” that ascribe the role of initiating sexual activity to men, the role of accepting or refusing sexual activity to women, and leave lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and queer+ (LGBTQ+) students out of the conversation entirely (Hirsch et al., 2019). College students also describe reliance on indirect language (e.g., “do you want to go back to my room?”) to ask about consent and passive cues (e.g., going along with it) to indicate consent (Hirsch et al., 2019). The latter example is especially problematic because some studies have found that passive consent cues are unrelated to internal feelings of consent and thus passivity should not be used by partners to infer consent (Willis et al., 2019). To this end, some feminist scholars have highlighted the value of communicative sexuality, which moves away from using passive cues to infer consent and towards using a variety of active cues to infer consent (Beres, 2014; Pineau, 1996).
To address concerns about unclear communication about consent and create standards for consent communication, some states like California have enacted affirmative consent laws (DeMatteo et al., 2015). However, affirmative consent standards have been critiqued for not acknowledging that direct, nonverbal communication can be effective, as well as for failing to address verbal coercion tactics that result in unwanted encounters that are verbally agreed to (Pugh & Becker, 2018). Furthermore, students describe affirmative consent practices as awkward and uncomfortable (Shumlich & Fisher, 2020), suggesting that social norms may need to change to encourage people to communicate more directly.
One way that social norms around sexual consent may change is via education on these topics. Importantly, beginning conversations about sexual consent at the college level is inadequate as many people have already had sexual contact before college (Finer & Philbin, 2013) and a substantial number of people have already experienced sexual assault before college (e.g., Walsh et al., 2012). However, sexual consent discussions are missing from sex education at the K-12 level (Willis et al., 2019), leaving students woefully underprepared to engage in sexual relationships and communication about sexual relationships with others. In a recent national survey, young adults (age 18-24) endorsed pornography as the most common source they turn to when learning about how to have sex (Rothman et al., 2021). This is concerning because, with the exception of feminist pornography, which is typically expensive and difficult to find relative to free and widely available mainstream pornography, most pornography does not depict explicit discussions of or communication about consent. Although programs like bystander education (e.g., Gidycz et al., 2011) include elements of consent, they are often constrained to a single session of information that typically outlines definitions or policies. In one study that taught students about consent as a primary prevention strategy, those who received a longer consent education program with a discussion of policy and an interactive activity to reinforce learning retained more knowledge of consent compared to the control condition and those who received a shorter consent education program (Borges et al., 2008). However, knowledge gain may not be sufficient for behavior change. Students would likely benefit from ongoing developmentally appropriate education throughout their school years that allows opportunities for even greater immersion and engagement with the topic (e.g., role-playing difficult conversations where people are balancing competing concerns and pressures).
Developing comprehensive and interactive programming to teach students about consent and healthy relationships is unlikely to curb all instances of sexual violence. However, programming that provides students with information about how to engage in sexual relationships; how to clarify encounters and situations within an encounter that are ambiguous; opportunities to explore their personal sexual desires, boundaries, and goals; and opportunities to practice having awkward conversations and try out responses to different scenarios could be impactful and empowering in helping students develop the skills to navigate sexual consent with intentionality. Programming of this kind may result in fewer ambiguous encounters characterized by a lack of agency and/or miscommunication and could help students develop skills that can be generalized to situations in which they are negotiating consent under the influence of alcohol.
This author did not have any financial interests to declare.
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