Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality, Volume 15, October 31, 2012


School Context, High-Risk Drinking, and Sexual Assault at Two Southern Urban Universities

Laura J. McCormick, MSEd, Doctoral Candidate,
Faculty, College of Undergraduate Studies, Walden University

Jennifer L. Fagen, Ph.D., Associate Professor,
Department of Sociology, Social Work and Criminal Justice, Lamar University

Anthony P. Kontos, Ph.D., Assistant Research Director,
UPMC Sports Medicine Concussion Program, Associate Professor, Department of Orthopaedic Surgery, University of Pittsburgh

Riley Venable,
Faculty, Texas Southern University

Peter B. Anderson, Ph.D.,
Faculty, College of Health Sciences, Walden University

Address all correspondence and requests for additional information to Laura J. McCormick, MSEd, laura.mccormick at waldenu.edu


Does school context interact with high risk drinking (defined as having 5 or more drinks at a sitting 2 or more times in the past 2 weeks) to impact the risk for being sexually assaulted and for sexually assaulting others?  The responses of students attending a Predominately White Institution (PWI) were compared to the responses of students attending a Historically Black University (HBCU) to selected items on the CORE Drug and Alcohol Survey to measure frequent high-risk (or binge) drinking and sexual assault.  At both institutions frequent high-risk drinkers were more likely to have been sexually assaulted (Chi-square [4, n=523] = 13.145, p=.001), and to be perpetrators of sexual assault (Chi-square [4, n=527] = 8.181. p=.008.  These results were consistent for both men and women.  Overall, the incidence of frequent high-risk drinking was much lower among the HBCU students than the PWI students (Chi-square [4, n=536] = 5.425, p=.012).  The prevention of sexual victimization is discussed and recommendations are provided.


Sexual assault and acquaintance rape continue to be a problem on college campuses in the United States.  Hingson, Heeren, Winter, and Wechsler (2005) estimated that each year 97,000 college students are victims of sexual assault or acquaintance rape, 400,000 have unprotected sex, and 100,000 students report having been too intoxicated to know if they consented to having sex.  Sexual assault is defined as any type of sexual activity that the recipient does not want or agree to, and usually includes touching or intercourse against a person’s will (Kahn, Jackson, Kully, Badger, & Halvorsen, 2003).

There is a well established link between sexual assault and high-risk drinking (also called binge drinking; Abbey, Zawacki, & Buck, 2005; Berkowitz, 1992; Koss & Dinero, 1988; Koss & Oros, 1982).  High-risk drinking is defined as 5 or more drinks in one sitting for men and 4 or more drinks for women (Nelson, Naimi, Brewer, Bolen, & Wells, 2004). Alcohol consumption (especially high-risk drinking) and sexual assault tend to co-occur regardless of who consumed the alcohol and regardless of the gender of the perpetrator or victim (Abbey, 1991; Anderson, Spruille, Venable, & Strano, 2005; Berkowitz, 1992). In fact, approximately 50% of all sexual assaults on college campuses involve alcohol consumption by the perpetrator, the victim, or both (Abbey, 2002).

Alcohol Consumption and the College Culture

Alcohol consumption is a common experience in the college culture. Participation in high-risk drinking appears to be acceptable to, if not expected by, undergraduate college students (Young, Morales, McCabe, Boyd, & D-Arcy, 2005). Wechsler and Wuethrich (2003) suggested that the consumption of alcohol is believed to be a “rite of passage” on many college campuses. Drinking games, in which large quantities of alcohol are consumed by players, are extremely popular in college. According to Borsari (2004), college students report four common reasons for playing drinking games: intoxicating oneself, intoxicating others, meeting new people, and competition.
Although men tend to play drinking games more often than women, men and women tend to drink similar amounts while playing drinking games (Borsari, 2004). Additionally, women drink more during drinking games than during other drinking occasions. McCabe’s (2002) and Piane and Safer’s (2008) studies of the drinking behaviors of college students revealed that men and women were just as likely to report binge drinking (i.e., high-risk drinking) and “drinking to get drunk.” Research indicates that rates of frequent binge drinking have significantly increased in the past decade, with nearly 40% of college women reporting binge drinking, and 20% reporting binge drinking 3 or more times in the previous 2 weeks (Wechsler et al., 2002). In a study by Young et al. (2005), college women reported a belief that drinking heavily would make a favorable impression on their male peers. They also reported that being able to drink “like a guy” gave them a sense of equality with their male peers. 

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (2004/2005), African American youth are less likely to drink than their non-Hispanic White counterparts, but college might be a time when they “cross-over” to heavy and problem drinking.  As adults, African Americans, especially males, report rates of problem and heavy drinking that is greater than non-Hispanic Whites. Ernst, Hogan, Vallas, Cook, and Fuller (2009) concluded that African American college students were more likely to be high achievers with more self-control than their White counterparts and that these qualities explained their significantly lower levels of drinking (69% vs. 78%) and binge drinking (42% vs. 56% in the past month).  Their student respondents attended the same colleges and we wondered if we would find the same results with students from different colleges; one Predominately White Institution (PWI) and one Historically Black University (HBCU).  At the high school level differences in drinking behaviors between  ethnic groups has been related to school context.  Boticello (2009) conducted an analysis of data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health and concluded that being in a school that was socioeconomically advantaged, had a high proportion of Non-Hispanic Whites, and was located in a suburban vs. urban location contributed to high rates of intoxication and heavy drinking.  At the middle school level the school factors of level of use within the grade and perception of peer use were significantly related to seventh and eighth graders alcohol consumption (Shih, Miles, Tucker, Zhou, & D’Amico, 2010). 

Sexual Assault

The purpose of this study was to test whether sexual assault was related to high risk drinking at two different types of urban universities; one PWI and one HBCU each located in the South. Typically, the characteristics of the perpetrator and victim of sexual assault are analyzed as both proximal (e.g., close or immediate) and distal (e.g., distant or long ago) behavioral influences. Proximal influences are timed close to the assault and include heavy use of alcohol, being present in high risk situations, or being in contextual situations that can be misinterpreted as sexual (Abbey, Zawacki, Buck, Clinton, & McAuslan, 2001). Distal influences are removed from the assault, predate the assault, and include gender, patterns of alcohol or other drug use, personal attitudes, past experiences, and perhaps certain personality characteristics (Abbey, McAuslanm, Zawacki, & Buck, 2002). 

Abbey et al. (2002) proposed that alcohol may increase men’s focus on proximal feelings of sexual arousal rather than on more distal cues, such as the potential for later punishment. College women who have consumed even a moderate amount of alcohol demonstrate impaired decision-making abilities (Loiselle & Fuqua, 2007). More specifically, a woman’s use of alcohol may increase her focus on nonthreatening (disinhibitory) cues and reduce the saliency of threat (inhibitory) cues (Nurius, 2000). Since disinhibitory cues are generally stronger and more immediate than inhibitory cues, disinhibited social behavior is likely to occur. As such, it is not surprising that intoxicated women report participating in higher levels of consensual sexual activity with the perpetrator immediately prior to a sexual assault and offering less resistance than non-intoxicated women (Testa, Livingston, & Collins, 2000). However, men and women, including those who engage in high risk drinking do not always follow traditional patterns that cast men as the sexual aggressor/assaulter and women as sexually helpless/passive (Anderson & Struckman-Johnson, 1998). In fact, research by Johnson and Stahl (2004) on college students’ participation in drinking games revealed that sexual manipulation motives for play were predictive of sexual behaviors in women as well as in men.

Research indicates that men are most likely to be sexually assaulted by women in situations where alcohol has reduced the inhibitions of both the woman and the man (Struckman-Johnson & Struckman-Johnson, 1998). A study by Anderson et al. (2005) demonstrated that both men and women were more likely to be sexually assaulted after engaging in high-risk drinking.

Perceived Intent and Communication of Consent

We intended to examine gender differences in both assaulting and being assaulted.  If men and women perceive and communicate sexual intent differently this may be an avenue that allows for some explanation of our results and offer a potential for future research and interventions. Research indicates that gender differences exist in perceptions of sexual intent. Abbey et al. (2005) suggested that these differences may be explained by gender role socialization. American gender role norms invite men to be forceful and dominant and women to be demure and passive. For example, men’s traditional responsibility for initiating sexual behavior entails that they interpret a potential sexual partner’s cues in order to decide whether or not they should make a sexual advance. Likewise, drinking for men has been a means of expressing traditionally defined masculine behaviors (stamina and power; Young et al., 2005). Young et al. (2005) also suggested that traditional gender role expectations for women (i.e., wife and mother) have had a restraining effect on women's sexual and drinking behaviors.

Current alcohol theory contends that cognitive deficits are the primary cause of alcohol’s negative effects (e.g., aggression and risky sexual behavior; MacDonald, MacDonald, Zanna, & Fong, 2000). According to MacDonald et al. (2000), alcohol disrupts higher-order cognitive processes, including conceptualization, planning, and problem-solving, causing intoxicated individuals to focus on the most salient cues in a situation and to minimize peripheral cues. Thus, if a man is sexually attracted to a companion, potential signs of reciprocated sexual attraction will be the most salient to him.

In terms of communication of consent, studies have indicated that nonverbal behaviors are used more frequently than verbal behaviors to both initiate and consent to sex (Beres, Herold, & Maitland, 2004; Hickman & Muehlenhard, 1999). Research by Abbey et al. (2005) revealed that intoxicated male participants perceived their partner as behaving more sexually and recalled more of their partner’s positive than negative behaviors than did other participants. Another theoretical perspective offered by Felson and Burchfield (2004) is that being drunk places a person at greater risk of sexual assault because it disinhibits the offender.  These findings offer potentially conflicting information for developing prevention strategies. For example, if the offender’s drinking places the victim at greater risk, both men and women need to understand that their judgment regarding a companion’s sexual cues is impaired when they are intoxicated, and that in most jurisdictions, a perpetrators’ intoxication cannot be used in court to defend their actions (Abbey et al., 2005). If the victim’s intoxication places them at greater risk, then men and women need to monitor their own drinking behavior and recognize their greater vulnerability when they are drinking.  If both offenders’ and victims’ drinking place men and women at greater risk of sexual assaulting and experiencing sexual assault, then both men and women need to monitor their own drinking to avoid perpetration and victimization while also paying attention to others intoxication that may place them at risk of being victimized.

Overview of Study and Hypotheses

Sexual assault on college campuses is a complex problem that requires further research in order to develop effective prevention strategies. Moreover, it is imperative to identify the specific situational factors that interact with drinking behaviors and contribute to the risk of sexual assault. Therefore, a study was conducted to examine the relationship between high-risk drinking, campus context, and college students’ experiences with sexual assault. The 3 specific questions we selected from the CORE survey will allow us to isolate the specific relationships we want to test for this study.


1. Students attending the HCBU will be less likely than students attending the PWI to report high risk drinking as measured by question #14 of the CORE survey (yes = having 5 or more drinks at a sitting (i.e., binge drinking) 2 or more times in the past 2 weeks). 
2. College men and women at both campuses who report high risk drinking are significantly more likely to be victims of sexual assault, as measured by question #21o (i.e., due to your drug use or drinking have you been taken advantage of sexually) of the CORE survey, than those do not report high risk drinking.
3. College men and women at both campuses who report high risk drinking are significantly more likely to be perpetrators of sexual assault, as measured by question #21n (i.e., due to your drug use or drinking have you taken advantage of someone sexually) of the CORE survey, than those who do not report high risk drinking.



The participants were undergraduate students at two Southern Urban commuter universities. Campus # 1 is a Predominately White Institution (PWI) with approximately 12,000 students. Three hundred eighty four students from campus #1 participated in this study. The students were predominately European American (59.3%), with 22.7% African American, 8.2% Hispanic, 5.9% Asian or Pacific Islander, and the remainder self identified as “other.”  They were predominately female (63.3%). Campus #2 is a Historically Black University (HBCU) with approximately 9,600 students. One hundred sixty-two students participated from Campus #2, with the sample being predominately African American (85.6%), followed by Asian or Pacific Islander (4.9%), European American (4.2%), Hispanic (2.1%), and the remainder “other.”  The respondents from this campus were also predominately female (65.2%).


All students were administered the CORE Alcohol and Drug survey, Long Form (CORE Institute, 2001). After approval by the appropriate Human Subjects Committees, the surveys were administered anonymously in classes selected through a stratified cluster sampling technique. Administration occurred on both campuses in the spring semester of 2006. The classes chosen were intended to mirror the total student population on each campus in terms of age, gender and ethnicity. Only questions related to gender, high-risk drinking (q.14), having been taken advantage of sexually (q.21n), and having taken advantage of someone sexually (q.21o) were used in this analysis.

Statistical Analysis

SPSSv.16.0 was used for initial data cleaning and all analyses. After initial calculation of the means and frequency distributions for the samples from Campus #1 and Campus #2, a Chi Square analysis was performed on the sample from each campus with frequency of high-risk drinking and with gender as the independent variables; and having been taken advantage of sexually, and having taken advantage of someone sexually used as dependent variables. Owing to the ordinal nature of the data for Questions 14, 21n, and 21o a very high number of empty cells were recorded.  As the literature supports a binary cutoff for question 14 (Preseley & Meilman, 1992), this data was recoded in binary form. The incidence of a positive result of being sexually assaulted or sexually assaulting was also very low, yielding more empty cells than the authors thought manageable through a Yates correction procedure. These questions were also recoded to binary form (never, once or more). All analyses were performed at the p<0.05 level. 



1. Students attending the HCBU will be less likely than students attending the PWI to report high risk drinking as measured by question #14 of the CORE survey (yes = having 5 or more drinks at a sitting 2 or more times in the past 2 weeks).  This hypothesis was accepted. Chi-square (4, n=523) = 13.145, p=.001

2. College men and women at both campuses who report high risk drinking are significantly more likely to be victims of sexual assault, as measured by question #21o of the CORE survey, than those do not report high risk drinking. This hypothesis was accepted. Chi Square (4, n=536) = 13.145, p=0.01

3. College men and women at both campuses who report high risk drinking are significantly more likely to be perpetrators of sexual assault, as measured by question #21n of the CORE survey, than those who do not report high risk drinking. This hypothesis was accepted. Chi Square (4, n=527) =8.181, p= 0.008.


Hypothesis one was supported.  Students attending the HCBU were less likely than students attending the PWI to report high risk drinking indicating that school context matters. 

Hypothesis two was supported.  In both campus populations, men and women who self-reported high risk drinking were more likely to have been sexually assaulted.

Hypothesis 3 was supported.  Men and women on both campuses who self-reported high risk drinking were more likely to have perpetrated a sexual assault.

The results of hypothesis one do not support the “cross-over” to problem drinking proposed by the National Institute of Alcohol and Alcoholism (2004/2005).

Interestingly, while alcohol abuse is a major problem on most college campuses, research published in The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education indicated that Black college students are less likely to use and abuse alcohol than are White college students. In 1994, a study of 40,192 college students conducted by researchers at the CORE Institute at Southern Illinois University found that the averages of weekly consumption among Black students is only one third that of White students.  Meilman, Presley, and Lyrela (1994) found that Black students reported binge drinking at rates less than half that of White students. They found that Black students consumed 1.8 alcoholic drinks in comparison to 5.6 drinks per week for White students. The study surveyed binge drinking for a time period of two weeks prior to the study. The study found that 45.4 % of White students reported binged drinking during the two-week period prior to the study, as compared to 21.9 % reported by Black students. Students were also encouraged to report the adverse consequences that they experienced the previous year due to alcohol and other drug use. Black students reported lower percentages of adverse consequences than White students (Meilman et al., 1994).

This difference becomes more profound when looking at entire student populations at HBCUs versus PWIs (Meilman, Presely, & Cashdin, 1995). Both Black and White students drink less alcohol and less frequently at HBCUs. White students seem to take on attitudes similar to their Black peers, while Black students at PWIs drink more than Black students at HBCUs (these Black students appear to take on attitudes similar to their White peers).

The fact that both men and women high risk drinkers were more likely to experience sexual assault (hypothesis 2) is consistent with previous research by Abbey et al. (2005), Berkowitz (1992), Koss and Dinero,(1988), and Koss and Oros (1982). All of these research reports supported the link between high risk drinking and being sexually assaulted, regardless of who was drinking. Felson and Burchfield (2004) argued that being drunk places a person at greater risk of sexual assault because it disinhibits the offender whether the offender is engaging in high risk drinking or not.  The result that high risk drinkers were more likely to perpetrate sexual assault (hypothesis 3) also supports previous reports (see Anderson et al., 2005; Struckman-Johnson & Struckman-Johnson, 1998). These authors also argued that drinking is a proximal influence on sexual assault and that disinhibition is part of that influence. 


Although the sample for this study was racially and ethnically diverse, an obvious limitation is its overrepresentation of women students as well as its lack of generalizability to universities located in other (non-Southern) regions of the US.  According to Suitor and Carter (1999), differences in gender norms—which form the foundation for sexual behavior—are particularly pronounced when comparing Northerners and Southerners.  That is, Southerners adhere to more traditional gender norms than those who live in the North.   This does not belie the finding that women and men are more likely to be sexually assaulted when intoxicated.  Those who adhere to traditional gender norms are more likely to have adversarial sexual beliefs, which are connected with rape myth acceptance and a view of sexual intercourse as necessitating a power asymmetry (Yost & Zurbriggen, 2006).   There was also a self-selection bias in this investigation and those students who chose to complete the CORE survey may have been reticent to disclose that they were the perpetrators of sexual assaults.  Moreover, non-respondents may a) be more likely than respondents to have been sexual victimizers and b) differ from respondents in alcohol-related behavior.  Further, social desirability bias may have led to respondents’ marking the responses that were expected of them on the survey.   This is a phenomenon that Biderman et al. (1967) refers to as becoming “test wise.”  Given these limitations, the finding that male and female high-risk drinkers were more likely to be sexually victimized, but not sexual victimizers, may be an inaccurate reflection of actual behavior.  One difficulty with using a pre-existing data set is the limitations imposed by questions asked of respondents. The actual count of respondents who reported being sexually assaulted was low (48; 23 male, 22 female, 3 unknown), and near equally distributed among those who responded to the gender question.

Unfortunately, from the questions asked there was no way to assess if the sexual assaults had been perpetrated by same gender or opposite gender perpetrators. Similarly, the number of respondents answering positive as a perpetrator was also low (23; 12 male, 9 female, 2 unknown); yet, it is impossible to determine if their targets were same or opposite gender. Lastly, the validity of surveys that require self-reports of sexual behavior varies depending upon the time interval between the sexual behavior and completion of the survey. This may be particularly true if the respondent consumed alcohol during the sexual contact (Graham et al., 2003).  Therefore, recall bias is a possible limitation of this investigation.


The findings from the current study have several practical implications related to college life. As indicated in the current and previous studies (e.g., Abbey, 2002), high risk drinking is associated with an increased risk of being sexually assaulted and perpetrating sexual assault (Anderson et al., 2005; Struckman-Johnson & Struckman-Johnson, 1998) among college students.  From an education/prevention perspective, the results of the current study highlight the need for refocusing the dissemination of information and delivery of preventive strategies for sexual assault to target both females and males. Traditionally, the focus of such efforts has been on females as victims. However, given that both females and males are at increased risk for becoming victims of sexual assault and perpetrating sexual assault following high risk drinking, education and prevention efforts should also target males. These efforts may be particularly salient for males, as research suggests that they are less aware and less likely than females to attend such education and prevention efforts (Banyard et al. 2007). Males also may not perceive themselves to be at risk of sexual assault, and therefore take few if any precautionary measures to limit the possibility of assault, particularly while drinking when inhibition and risk assessment decrease. Women may also not see themselves as possible perpetrators and, when intoxicated, may ignore any signals that their male partner is uninterested in a sexual encounter. Possible strategies for accomplishing this goal might include developing educational materials that target both females and males and focus on limiting high risk drinking, and create the association between this behavior set and sexual assault.  From a preventive perspective, the expansion of a sober ‘buddy system’ for males at social gatherings, similar to the advice already given college women, might alleviate the risk for sexual assault associated with high risk drinking for men.

Our hope is that sexual assault prevention programs will be more inclusive of messages about men’s increased vulnerability due to their intoxication and that an increased sense of vulnerability for both women and men may influence all college students to at least refrain from taking advantage of those who are at risk, and at best, go out of their way to protect them when they are presented with that opportunity.


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