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Attitudes, more than alcohol use, predict sexual assault

When stories break of alleged sexual assaults, like those seen during the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, people have difficulty trusting firsthand accounts when they hear alcohol was involved. In the discomfort of uncertainty, they are quick to say, “Well, if they hadn’t been drinking, none of this would have happened.”

There is a problem with this reaction.

True, alcohol lowers inhibition, increases aggression, incapacitates both victims and bystanders, and alters the way people interpret others’ words and actions, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) research confirms.

But sexual assault is not merely a chance byproduct of an uninhibited moment. Decades of research show that perpetrating sexual assault reflects a man’s beliefs about women at the time of the assault — particularly as it concerns the most-researched group: college-aged men who sexually assault women (though assault can and does happen between pairings of all types).

To start, men’s personal beliefs — and not their alcohol consumption — best predict whether they will commit sexual assault. In fact, in a 2009 study, Nora E. Noel, a psychology professor at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, and colleagues measured the beliefs of 334 young heterosexual men, administered alcohol to part of the group and watched how they all responded to a video depiction of date rape. Those who had previously expressed their desire for sexual dominance, then consumed alcohol, thought that using force during sex was acceptable and said they’d be willing to act the same way.

And in 2015, Martie P. Thompson, a professor at Clemson University, and colleagues published the results of a study following 795 college-aged men over four years at a large southeastern university. They found that the more men agreed with statements like “I feel that sexual thoughts and feelings are stronger than I am” and “when women talk and act sexy, they are inviting rape,” the more likely they were to sexually assault others. Importantly, as an individual’s beliefs changed, so did their behavior; rises and falls in these beliefs tracked their rate of sexual assaults, meaning they could reject demeaning beliefs about women presently even though they held and acted on them in the past. Heavy drinking, however, had no bearing on their trajectory of sexual assault over time.

Peer pressure, on the other hand, does. For example, the same 2015 study found that the more that men perceive that their friends approve of getting a woman drunk in order to have sex with her, or think that their friends expect them to be having sex, the more likely they are to subsequently sexually assault women.

The cultures of fraternities and other groups can also spread hostile attitudes toward women, as Antonia Abbey of Wayne State University and colleagues noted in a 2001 review of decades of research. At one mid-sized university, seven months into freshman year, John D. Foubert, now dean of the College of Education at Union University, and fellow researchers reported that those who had joined a fraternity were more likely to have committed sexual assault than those who had not joined (8 percent vs. 2.5 percent, respectively), despite both groups showing equal rates of coercive behavior before college.

But it isn’t just immediate peer groups who matter. When society continues to react to reported assaults with, “Well, who knows what happened? They were drunk,” and treats alcohol-involved sexual assault as unpredictable and unknowable, we fail to require men to confront internal beliefs that are risk factors for committing assault. Worse, research from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism shows we create cover for those who drink before committing sexual assault by suggesting others will not hold them accountable for their drunken actions.

Unfortunately, training groups of college-aged men to not commit assault is notoriously difficult because they don’t see themselves as potential rapists — indeed, as University of Arizona public health professor Mary P. Koss told the New York Times, even rapists don’t consider themselves rapists — and they don’t see how the information is relevant to them personally. Thus, identifying the contribution of toxic beliefs should be a part of every national conversation regarding sexual assault.

Alcohol use may be part of the story of sexual assault, and the way our culture uses alcohol could certainly use healthy change. But rather than narrowly focusing on alcohol’s involvement in assault or the difficulty of knowing what happened in the past, to reduce sexual assault we must engage in the uncomfortable work of examining and confronting internal beliefs and dismantle the cultures and structures that support bad ones.

Jenika McDavitt (jenika.mcdavitt@gmail.com) lives in Baltimore and holds a B.A. in behavioral neuroscience from Yale University and an M.A. in clinical-community psychology from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

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