Addressing Sexual Assault and Ignoring Binge Drinking
Last fall, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill requiring colleges that receive state money to use an affirmative consent standard in sexual assault cases. Following suit, in October, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo introduced an affirmative consent policy to be used at all 64 State University of New York (SUNY) campuses.
As stated in California’s policy, affirmative consent seeks to ensure that a person has given “affirmative, conscious, and voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity. Lack of protest or resistance does not mean consent, nor does silence mean consent. Affirmative consent must be ongoing throughout a sexual activity and can be revoked at any time.” Under this policy, an individual is incapable of providing conscious and affirmative consent when they are incapacitated by alcohol or other drugs. Therefore, this policy prevents accused perpetrators of sexual assault from claiming they had affirmative consent if they knew the victim was incapacitated “due to the influence of drugs, alcohol or medication.”
Amid mounting pressure from the federal government, student activists and sexual assault survivors, colleges and universities across the nation are taking a critical look at how they handle sexual assault cases. Few, however, have sufficiently examined the importance of addressing binge drinking as part of the much-needed conversation on reforming campus sexual assault policies.
Although drinking does not cause sexual assault, there is evidence that alcohol use creates an environment in which sexual assaults are more likely to occur. Studies show that 50% to 75% of all sexual assaults on college campuses involve alcohol. Prevention efforts should focus on the misperception that alcohol can be used as an excuse to commit sexual assault and that women who drink are acceptable targets, rather than focusing on how women should avoid being assaulted or raped.
While lip service is given to alcohol prevention on most college campuses, the sense that binge and other forms of excessive drinking is a normal and acceptable part of college life is a major barrier to safeguarding the health and well-being of students across the nation, as documented in CASAColumbia’s report “Wasting the Best and the Brightest.”
Although implementing affirmative consent policies is a significant step toward ensuring the health and safety of students, its effectiveness may be limited unless strong measures are taken to address the culture of drinking across college campuses and the misguided assumption that excessive drinking can provide an excuse for sexual assaults. What is desperately needed is an open and honest discussion on campuses about sexual violence, consent, risky alcohol use, and the intersection among them, that takes a rational public health approach to these critical issues.
Kristen Pappacena, MA
Kristen Pappacena is a Research Associate at CASAColumbia