For all the pointers that college women get about keeping safe from sexual assault, the simplest advice might be: Don't drink too much.
“Impulse control seems to go out the window when alcohol is involved,” says Phillip A. Johnson, president of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators and police director for the University of Notre Dame. “I say that not to place the blame on anyone, but it's a factor both on the part of the perpetrator and the survivor.”
A task force of the National Advisory Council on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism listed sexual assault among the consequences of excessive drinking on campus. A statistical analysis on which the task force relied estimated that in 2001, 97,000 students had been victimized by a fellow student who'd been drinking. Moreover, the task force said the excessive-drinking trend — known as “binge drinking,” or having five or more drinks on any occasion in the past 30 days — has grown so widespread on campuses that nothing short of “changing the culture of drinking” among students would turn the tide.
“The consequences of drinking on campus are too damaging to ignore,” the task force said. It cited a research report linking excessive student drinking to 1,647 accidental deaths from car crashes and other causes in 2001, a total that rose to 1,825 in 2005. About 600,000 students suffered assaults in 2001 by other students who'd been drinking, a study cited by the task force concluded.
But the national council's call to action seems largely to have fallen on deaf ears. The share of students who were binge drinking rose from about 42 percent in 1998 to about 45 percent in 2005, a proportion still being cited as valid in 2009.
University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan has warned students there that alcohol abuse can lead to tragedy. According to news reports, heavy drinking marked the prelude to a death last year that left the bucolic campus in Charlottesville shaken and grieving. George Huguely V, a former member of the school's lacrosse team, is awaiting trial on a first-degree murder charge in the death of his former girlfriend, Yeardley Love, who also played lacrosse.
Huguely had a history of alcohol-fueled rages aimed at Love and others. In 2008, he pleaded guilty to resisting arrest and public intoxication after allegedly yelling racial and sexual epithets at a policewoman.
Former University of Virginia lacrosse player George Huguely V is charged with murder in the death of his ex-girlfriend, Yeardley Love. He had a history of alcohol-fueled rages.
When the 2010–2011 academic year began, U-Va.'s Sullivan seemed to be referring to Huguely's record when she urged students to respond to signs of trouble. “If you know someone who is the victim of violence, when do you have an obligation to speak up?” Sullivan asked. “If you know a friend has a serious alcohol problem, do you have a responsibility? And if so, what is that responsibility?”
Responsibility to one's own well-being is an issue as well. College students made up the bulk of the fan base of the alcohol-and-caffeine drink Four Loko that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned late last year after a series of hospitalizations for alcohol poisoning raised an alarm in several states.
Four Loko rode to fame among the young for giving them a buzz, even as it kept them awake to consume more. “It's equivalent to four beers, so it's pretty effective, and it also has energy-drink qualities and it keeps you alive at the party,” Syracuse University junior William Blake, a film major, told the Syracuse Post-Standard in December.
The irony seems to have been unintentional. Four Loko scared state and federal law enforcement and medical authorities precisely because the ease of overindulging led to alcohol poisoning. Nine students from Central Washington University in Ellensburg were hospitalized in October with dangerous blood-alcohol levels after downing Four Loko. So too were 23 students from Ramapo College in Mahwah, N.J.
Both colleges banned the drink. And in November, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, acting on requests from the attorneys general of California and Washington state, effectively banned the alcohol-stimulant combination (an action that also affected at least three other products).
Worries about overintoxication amount to more than adult hand-wringing. In 2008 alone, a non-scientific survey of newspaper reports found that students died of alcohol poisoning at Wabash College, in Crawfordsville, Ind.; California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo; Northwestern University, Evanston, Ill.; and the University of Delaware, Newark. In 2009, a student died of alcohol poisoning at State University of New York, Geneseo, which is considered the state's public honors college. All but one of the deaths — the one at Northwestern — followed fraternity hazing rituals.
Whatever effect the deaths may have had on students who weren't directly involved, they certainly caught the attention of at least one college president. Dartmouth University President Jim Yong Kim, speaking to a faculty meeting last October, seized on the incident at Northwestern, in which 19-year-old Matthew Sunshine was found dead in his dorm room after attending a party in his residence hall. He had needed to be helped to his room after drinking a reported 17 shots of vodka. Doctors found a blood-alcohol level of 0.396. The upper limit for drivers in all states is 0.08.
Early this year, Northwestern reached a $2 million settlement with Sunshine's family. Money aside, the university committed itself to a series of anti-alcohol abuse actions, including funding research on binge drinking. “Hopefully, it'll be a start … of some sort of change in attitude on college campuses,” Matthew's father, Jeffrey, told the Daily Northwestern student newspaper, “so that what happened to our son never happens again.”
But close calls continue. “We've had students here with blood alcohol concentrations of 0.396,” Kim told the Dartmouth faculty at the Hanover, N.H. school, where police had to take seven students to the hospital early last year for signs of alcohol poisoning. “My nightmare is that someone dies with a 0.396 blood alcohol level … because people were scared that calling for help would get the student or themselves in trouble — and then I have to call the parents the next morning, and the mother is a public-health physician and the father is a lawyer.”
Kim has been speaking to students as well, citing issues that go beyond Dartmouth's potential exposure to negligence lawsuits. In September, he warned students that a deal the school arranged with Hanover police to avoid arresting underage drinkers on a first offense — by sending them instead to an alcohol education class — may not last. “Hanover Police did us a big favor,” Kim told members of the class of 2014. “How can I continue to ask them to do that if we have case after case of people going to the hospital?”
— Peter Katel