Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality, Volume 8, April 4, 2005


The Relationships Between Heavy Episodic Drinking,

Sexual Assaulting and Being Sexually Assaulted

for Southern Urban University Students


Peter B. Anderson and Briana Spruille
University of New Orleans
Riley H. Venable
Texas Southern University
Donald A. Strano
Slippery Rock University


Several studies have linked heavy episodic drinking to multiple negative outcomes for college students.  Those outcomes include accidents, injury, addiction, and sexual assault.  The focus of this article is sexual assault.  Responses to the CORE Alcohol and Drug Survey were used to measure heavy episodic drinking and "being taken advantage of sexually" or "taking advantage of someone sexually" (referred to as “sexual assault” throughout this article).  Results of ANOVAs revealed that, for women, being sexually assaulted was related to heavy episodic drinking and for men, sexually assaulting and being sexually assaulted were both related to heavy episodic drinking.  These results are in agreement with past research and provide new data about the relationship, for men, between heavy episodic drinking and being sexually assaulted.  Suggestions for future research include researching initiators' and receivers' reports of sexual assault to explore the question of gender, especially as it relates to males as receivers of sexual assault. 

There are many factors that contribute to the practice of unhealthy and unsafe sexual behaviors (including assaulting others or be assaulted) among college men and women.  Andrea Parrot (1998) reported that insensitivity to others' feelings, ambiguous sexual norms, differing personal expectations, alcohol use, and peer pressure can interact and contribute to sexual assault.  Many studies have demonstrated a connection between alcohol consumption and sexual assault (Abbey, 2002; Abbey, et. al., 2001; Berkowitz, 1992; Brecklin & Ullman, 2002; Giancola, 2002; Koss & Dinero, 1988).  In Harvard University's 1992 survey of over 12,000 college students, 2% stated that they had sex when they were too drunk to give consent (Contemporary Sexuality, 2002).  The focus on alcohol consumption in general has meant that few articles specifically cite heavy episodic drinking as a contributing factor in sexual assault (CBS News, 2004; Contemporary Sexuality, 2002).  Similarly, the focus on men as assaulters has resulted in little study of women as sexual assaulters of men (Anderson & Struckman-Johnson, 1998; Struckman-Johnson, Struckman-Johnson, & Anderson, 2003).  Sexual assault is defined as any type of sexual activity that the recipient does not want or agree to.  Sexual assault usually includes touching or intercourse against a person's will (Kahn, et. al., 2003).  Heavy episodic drinking is defined as 5 or more drinks in one sitting for men and 4 or more drinks for women (Nelson, et. al., 2004).  The purpose of this study was to test the relationships between heavy episodic drinking and individuals' sexual experiences, specifically their experiences with sexually assaulting or being sexually assaulted. 


Victim' and Assaulters' Characteristics

Typically, the characteristics of the assaulter and assaulted are analyzed as both distal and proximal behavioral influences.  Distal influences are far removed from the assault and include personality characteristics, attitudes, past experiences, and patterns of alcohol use.  Proximal influences are temporarily close to the assault and include risky situations and contexts, and pre-assault drinking (Abbey, et. al., 2001).  Gender is both a distal characteristic that is typically unchanging and a proximal factor used in predicting the likelihood of assaulting or being assaulted.  Perpetrators of sexual assault have been described as men who are more hostile toward women and less empathetic compared to other men (Seto & Barberee, 1997).  They were also more likely to endorse statements that were used to justify rape, such as "women say 'no' when they really mean 'yes'".  Victims have been reported to be women who are more likely to have experienced childhood sexual abuse, have frequent sexual relationships and to be heavy drinkers (Seto and Barberee).  Alan Berkowitz (1992) conducted research on the personality characteristics and behaviors of men who sexually assault.  Berkowitz believes that the assaulters' attitudes and beliefs define conditions in which he would be willing to assault an acquaintance sexually or to believe that the assault was justifiable.  In his research, most college men who committed sexual assaults did not see their actions as assault and believed that they could justify their actions for themselves and to others.  Being able to predict the occurrence of sexual assault is much easier for the assaulter than for the assaulted.  Berkowitz describes the assaulter as a man who grew up in an environment that supports the objectification of women and encourages them to behave in violent and coercive ways. In addition, when alcohol is used by both parties of a sexual assault, men are perceived as less responsible and women are perceived as more responsible for what happens (Hammock and Richardson, 1997).

Women as the Assaulter

In the few studies of women who assault men, women assaulters were more likely to have experienced past sexual abuse, to hold stereotypical attitudes about male sexuality, and to believe that typical female roles are restrictive (Anderson, Kontos & Tanigoshi, 2002 Shea, 1998).  Research by E. Sandra Byers and Lucian O'Sullivan (1998) and Peter Anderson (1998) revealed that women commonly initiate sexual activity using both positive (i.e., seductive) and negative (i.e., coercive or physically forceful) strategies.  It is most common for men to be sexually assaulted by women in situations where alcohol has reduced the inhibitions of the woman and the man (Struckman-Johnson & Struckman-Johnson, 1998).  There is a double standard that exists in society that says intoxicated women are raped, whereas intoxicated men are rapists.  This double standard is consistent with believing that men are the sexual aggressor/assaulter and women are sexually helpless/passive (Macchietto, 1998). 

Measuring Sexual Assault

Sexual assault, in some cases, is very difficult to measure.  It is difficult to observe, experience, or recreate a sexual assault experience.  Some studies use surveys and questionnaires, while others use laboratory investigations.  In one study, it was concluded that college student surveys employed the most accurate measures of sexual assault by asking the largest number of behaviorally specific questions (Koss and Oros, 1982).  The authors suggested that 50% of college women had been sexually assaulted, 27% of college men had committed sexual assault, and 8% had committed rape or attempted rape.  Half of all sexual assaults were committed by men who had been drinking alcohol, and half of all sexual assault victims were drinking alcohol at the time of the assault.  These results suggest that alcohol consumption by assaulters and the assaulted tend to co-occur.  Reports of the co-occurrence of alcohol consumption and sexual assault are consistent among studies of alcohol and sexual assault with both male and female assaulters (Abbey 2001 and 2002; Struckman-Johnson, Struckman-Johnson & Anderson, 2003; Berkowitz, 1992; Koss and Oros, 1982). 

In another article, that summarized research on the role of alcohol in college students' sexual experiences, at least 50% of college students'sexual assaults were associated with alcohol use.  Koss and Dinero (1988) reported that 74% of assaulters and 55% of the assaulted in their national sample of college students had been drinking alcohol.  The author states that it is difficult to examine hypotheses about the effects of intoxication because in 97% of alcohol-related sexual assaults, both the assaulted and the assaulter have consumed alcohol.  One strong recommendation for future research was that a more precise measurement is needed of the amount of alcohol consumed in sexual assault situations and not just whether alcohol was consumed.  Measuring the impact of heavy episodic drinking is a step in that direction. 


Men and women who report heavy episodic drinking are both more likely to commit sexual assault and to be sexually assaulted than men and women who do not report heavy episodic drinking. 



The subjects were 140 men and 240 women ranging in age from 18 to 63 years (M = 21.7).  The majority of the respondents were Caucasian (51.7%), 28.4% were African American, 7.7% were Hispanic, 6.3% Asian or Pacific Islanders and the remainder were classified as other.  Based on the 14 day enrollment records for the University in the Spring of 2001, the survey sample was slightly under representative of Caucasians, Hispanics, and Asians (total school = 56.4%, 6.0%, & 5.4% respectively) and over representative of African Americans (total school = 22.6%).  The sample was also younger than the general student population (M = 24.3 years). 


This study was conducted on the campus of a Southern urban commuter University with a student population of approximately 16,000 using the CORE Alcohol and Drug Survey, Long Form (CORE Institute, 2001).  The entire survey is three pages long with 23 questions covering demographics, alcohol and drug use, peer and campus norms and attitudes, and consequences experienced from alcohol or drug use.  Following approval by the Human Subjects Committee, questionnaires were distributed to a stratified random sample of students in classes intended to mirror the student population for age, gender, and ethnicity.  Students were informed about the voluntary and anonymous nature of the research before being asked to complete the questionnaire.  Only selected demographics and questions about heavy episodic drinking (#15) and sexual assault (#21, n & o) were examined for this study.  

Statistical Analysis

SPSS v.11.0 was used for the statistical analysis, which consisted of an ANOVA to analyze the variance between males and females and whether they had been taken advantage of or had taken advantage of someone sexually after heavy episodic drinking (p < .05).


The variance between males and females and whether they had been taken advantage of or had taken advantage of someone sexually after heavy episodic drinking was computed.   The hypothesis was partially supported.  Males were more likely to take advantage of someone sexually (p < .01) and to be taken advantage of sexually after heavy episodic drinking (p < .001).  In contrast, females were more likely to be taken advantage of by someone sexually (p < .001) but not more likely to take advantage of someone sexually after heavy episodic drinking (ns). 


Consistent with past research (Berkowitz, 1992), this study demonstrated that men were significantly more likely to take advantage of someone sexually after heavy episodic drinking and women were more likely to be taken advantage of after heavy episodic drinking.  The data did not indicate that women are more likely to assault after heavy episodic drinking.  A new contribution to the research literature was the finding that men were more likely to be taken advantage of sexually after heavy episodic drinking.  These findings combine to raise more questions about women's sexual behavior after heavy episodic drinking and men's reports of being sexually assaulted.  It could be that men are over reporting their assault experiences, that women are under reporting their experiences, or that men are being assaulted by other men.  Anderson & Sorensen (1999) argued that the impact of social desirability on differences in men's and women's reports of sexually aggressive behaviors is equivocal and that further research is needed to provide substantive evidence in either direction. 

One limitation of this study was that the questionnaire did not separate questions about sexual assault by who did the assaulting.  When asking if you had been taken advantage of sexually by someone or if you took advantage of someone sexually, the researchers did not specify if you had taken advantage of a man or women or if you were taken advantage of by a man or woman.  Abbey (2002) reported that 54% of women and less that 5% of men are sexually assaulted, and when men are sexually assaulted the assaulter is usually male. 

Recommendations for future research include: testing victims' and assaulters' reports of sexual assaults to measure who is being assaulted and who is performing the assault; to research the occurrence of men being taken advantage of sexually by women after heavy episodic drinking; and finding a way to test the intent of the assaulter before heavy episodic drinking occurred.  It would also be important to combine data from several years and different campuses and to consider, with larger populations, variations relevant to class and ethnicity that would impact heavy episodic drinking and sexual assault outcomes.  Finally, combining data from the CORE survey with other questionnaires regarding aspects of sexual aggression related to gender would be valuable new research. 



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Abbey, A., Zawacki, T., Buck, P. O., Clinton, M.A., McAuslan, P. (2001). Alcohol and sexual assault. Alcohol Research and Health, 25, 1, 43-51.

Anderson, P., Struckman-Johnson, C., 1998. Sexually aggressive women: Current Perspectives and controversies. The Guilford Press, New York.

Berkowitz, A., 1992. College men as perpetrators of acquaintance rape and sexual assault:  A review of recent research. College Health, Vol. 40.

Brecklin, L., Ullman, S., 2002. The roles of victim and offender alcohol use in sexual assaults: Results from the National Violence against Women Survey. Journal of Studies on Alcohol. Vol. 63, 57-63. 

CBS News.Com (2004, February 12).  Heavy episodic drinking, rape are related.  Retrieved February 21, from Http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2004/02/12/health/main599904.shtml

Contemporary Sexuality. (2002, May). College heavy episodic drinking results in death and sexual assaults.  Vol. 36, 5, p.8. 

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Kahn, A. S., Jackson, J., Kully, C., Badger, K., Halvorsen, J. (2003). Calling it rape: Differences in experiences of women who do or do not label their sexual assault as rape. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 27(3), p233-43. 

Koss, M., Dinero, T. (1988). Predictors of sexual aggression among a national sample of male college students. Annals of New York Academy of Science 133-147.

Koss, M., Oros, C., 1982, Sexual Experiences Survey: A research instrument investigating sexual aggression and victimization. Journal of Counseling and Clinical Psychology, Vol. 50, No. 3, 455-457.

Macchietto, J. G. (1998).  Treatment issues of adult male victims of female sexual aggression.  In P.B. Anderson & C.J.  Struckman-Johnson (Eds.) Sexually aggressive women: Research perspectives and controversies. NY: Guilford Press.

Nelson, D. E., Naimi, T. S., Brewer, R. D., Bolen, J., Wells, H. E. (2004). Metropolitan-area estimates of heavy episodic drinking in the United States.  American Journal of Public Health, 94(4), p663-672. 

Parrot, A. (1998). Meaningful sexual assault prevention programs for men.  In P.B. Anderson & C.J.  Struckman-Johnson (Eds.) Sexually aggressive women: Research perspectives and controversies. NY: Guilford Press.

Seto, M., Barbaree, H., 1997. Sexual aggression as antisocial behavior: A developmental model. Handbook of Antisocial Behavior, New York, Wiley, 524-533.

Smith, P., White, J., Holland, L., 2003. A longitudinal perspective on dating violence among adolescent and college-age women. American Journal of Public Health, Vol., 93, No. 7, 1104-1109.

Struckman-Johnson, C., Struckman-Johnson, D., & Anderson, P.B. (2003).  Tactics of sexual coercion: When men and women won't take no for an answer.  Journal of Sex Research, 40, (1), 76-86.


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