Banning Drinking Won't Stop Campus Rape

Aggressive efforts to restrict collegiate alcohol consumption may drive risky drinking underground
Laura Bittner/Flickr

As the University of Virginia hastens to show that it's taking its campus rape scandal seriously, administrators have floated a series of dramatic—but possibly dangerous—solutions: student drinking bans. Board members have called on the school to crack down on underage drinking, forbid hard liquor at fraternities, or even eliminate alcohol in fraternities altogether, and university President Teresa Sullivan agrees the school needs to curb student drinking. “Serving sweet-tasting but high-proof punches to women while the guys sip a few beers is often described as the prelude for taking advantage of the women,” Sullivan said in a speech to students on Monday. “I want Friday and Saturday nights in the spring to look different from the way they have looked this fall.”

Research shows that alcohol is consumed by either the victim, the perpetrator, or both in almost half of all sexual assaults, says Kathleen Parks, a senior research scientist at the University of Buffalo. Yet colleges that aggressively restrict drinking risk creating an additional big, ugly problem: shifting alcohol use from fraternity houses to dorm rooms, off-campus apartments, and backyard parties, where there is even less potential for school supervision. I know that from experience. 

Cornell University, where I went to college, faced its own problems with student drinking. After a student died in February 2011 during an alcohol-fueled pledging stunt, the university enacted controversial reforms that continue to spark debate, including rules that prohibit freshmen from attending parties at fraternities that serve alcohol in the fall.

What happened next was exactly what some UVA students, who represented their peers at an emergency board meeting last week, have warned would happen there should the school move forward with aggressive alcohol bans. Drinking at Cornell spilled from fraternity balconies and lawns into "annexes," or run-down apartments that students crammed into on weekend nights. On-campus parties that would have required certain procedural safeguards—registering events with the university, having "sober monitors" on scene, abiding by fire codes—gave way to uncontrolled, off-campus parties that drew the ire of town residents.

Perhaps the most dangerous effect of the reforms was the fuel it gave to the "pre-game" culture. For a story I wrote for the school newspaper, a student recounted crowding with his friends into a freshman dorm and going "shot for shot" before heading out to a fraternity party. After 10 shots of liquor, his blood alcohol content was at 0.178, and he collapsed outside a campus building. He was treated at a hospital and discharged the next morning with a costly ambulance bill and calls from a furious mother as fallout from the evening. 

There’s a name for what my classmate and his friends were doing: “underground drinking." In an analysis of fraternity culture, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln researcher found (PDF) that “there is a sense that removing the ease of access [to alcohol] not only heightens the adventure, but also frames the stories of edgework as heroic.” The prelude to a night out—the pre-game—may also be brought to new extremes when students feel they won't readily have access to alcohol after they leave their dorm or a friend's apartment. A forthcoming study in Addictive Behaviors shows that when students pre-game, they are more likely to engage in “extreme drinking” (have more than eight drinks for women, or 10 for men), drink enough to pass out, and have blood alcohol content top 0.16.

To be sure, some schools have found success in banning alcohol. Bowdoin College, which prohibits liquor with more than 10 percent alcohol content from being consumed in its dorms, has reportedly seen fewer than 20 drinking-related hospitalizations a year from 2005 to 2010, according to the Dartmouth. Bowdoin, with about 1,775 students, has a more intimate, easily controlled student body than 14,898-undergraduates-strong UVA. Other schools that have flirted with similar alcohol policies, such as Stanford University, have conceded that alcohol use did not decline significantly since policies were implemented. “We’re at war with vomiting, we’re at war with blackouts, we’re at war with people doing things that harm themselves or other people,” a school official told the Dartmouth.

Researchers note a link between alcohol and sexual assault. Yet there are also data to show that simply cutting off access to alcohol may backfire by encouraging students to drink more, longer, and harder. Alternate approaches advocate acknowledging that underage drinking will happen and trying to educate students about the risks. “Harm reduction approaches to alcohol problems are at least as effective as abstinence-oriented approaches at reducing alcohol consumption and alcohol-related consequences,” a 2002 study concluded (PDF). In her speech, Sullivan mentioned issues besides alcohol that the school plans to address in its response to sexual violence: improving the climate for survivors of sexual assault and training bystanders to intervene before an assault occurs. She notes that banning hard drinking alone is unlikely to fix the school's sexual assault problem. What's worrying, however, are the new problems that such a ban might introduce.