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Campus drinking culture adds challenge to sexual-assault prevention

Wednesday, May 7, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 1:07 p.m. CDT, Friday, May 9, 2014
Large crowds fill Harpo's Bar & Grill on April 24. According to research, alcohol consumption is often linked to sexual assault. Colleges across the nation are implementing programs like MU's Green Dot to teach students to intervene when they see someone being victimized.

COLUMBIA — It's Western night at an MU fraternity house, and young women filter through the straw-littered doorway into a dark, cavernous basement room.

The only light comes from neon lasers, Christmas lights and the flash of cellphone cameras.

More coverage of campus sexual assault

At the Columbia Missourian, our ongoing coverage of the problem of sexual assault aims to educate readers and encourage productive dialogue. Read our discussion guide.

Effects of alcohol consumption

In studies where men are randomly assigned to drink alcohol and presented with a written scenario describing an acquaintance sexual assault situation, those who were intoxicated were more likely to:

Further studies have shown that intoxicated men are significantly more likely to indicate that they would use force in a situation similar the assault incident presented in a written scenario if they already have high levels of:



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As the students dance on hay bales, young men mix a cocktail in large orange coolers — the kind you see on the sidelines at sporting events. The men add vodka and Kool-Aid mix until they find a palatable combination. They dip plastic cups into the concoction and hand them to the students who approach the bar.

Not everyone needs a drink. Some people have their own. A young man has a bottle of soda in one hand and a 60-ounce handle of vodka in the other. He takes a swig from each and hands them over to the young woman next to him, who follows his lead. Another young man carries two beers, drinking them and pouring them into the mouths of passing women.

For the most part, the young women are in clusters as they dance and take pictures. When a young man stumbles up and gets too close, they link hands to form a human chain and disappear into the crowd.

Outside, a group of five young women stand huddled together in the chilly night air. One has a phone pressed to her ear and she says, firmly, "Don’t ever do that again. I don’t want you walking home by yourself."

The idea of looking out for one another may seem instinctual, but it is also one administrators are working to instill in students at colleges across the country.

Nearly one in five women is sexually assaulted in college, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A much lower number of incidents are actually reported. Only two reports of "non-consensual sexual behavior" were made to MU's Office of Student Conduct in 2012, according to previous Missourian reporting. The offenders in both cases were punished.

The recently much-publicized case of Sasha Menu Courey, the MU athlete who took her own life after she was allegedly sexually assaulted, was typical of sexual assaults perpetrated by and against students. As described in a story published by ESPN, it involved heavy drinking.

The White House released a report April 29 that provides guidance for universities in addressing, preventing and reporting cases of sexual assault. The report cites bystander intervention programs, ones that train people witnessing violence to intervene on another person's behalf, as "among the most promising prevention strategies." At MU, that takes the form of the Green Dot Mizzou program, as well as Life Is Not A Spectator Sport.

The report contains one reference to alcohol, in a section on training campus officials who deal with sexual assault. Yet, alcohol plays a role in at least half of all sexual assaults involving college students, according to Wayne State University research.

The challenge facing campus sexual assault initiatives is how to overcome the student culture of drinking and the belief that drinking leads to sex, according to the research.

Attitudes about social drinking can be formed in boys and girls as young as age 5, said Antonia Abbey, professor and chairwoman of cognitive, developmental and social psychology at Wayne State University. So, in effect, the green light for social drinking goes on long before young people become college students.

Red dot, green dot

The basis of Green Dot Mizzou is that any power-based personal violence — partner violence, sexual violence or stalking — leaves a metaphorical "red dot" on the campus map. The program emphasizes students' need to intervene before "red dots" are created, making those sites "green dots" instead, according to the program’s Facebook page.

A green dot represents any time a person witnessing violence has shown intolerance for the way another person is being treated. Green-dot acts can range from pulling a friend away from a high-risk situation to posting an anti-violence poster in a residence hall.

"Ultimately, the goal of Green Dot Mizzou is to prevent violence from happening on our campus and in our community," said Danica Wolf, MU Relationship and Sexual Violence Prevention Center coordinator, in an email. "To accomplish that goal, we need to have 100 percent campus participation in the program."

Similar intervention programs are being promoted on college campuses across the country. For example, the University of Massachusetts' program uses posters, videos, residence adviser training and skits performed for freshmen to promote bystander intervention.

A letter issued by the U.S. Department of Education in April 2011 — often referred to as the "Dear Colleague" letter — said, among other things, "Schools should take proactive measures to prevent sexual harassment and violence."

Green Dot was launched at MU before the "Dear Colleague" letter. It began in 2009 after RSVP Center staff learned about the program at a national conference. The staff brought the creator to train campus personnel to implement the program, Wolf said in an email.

Bystander intervention programs, once just a trend in violence prevention education, have now become the national standard, Wolf said in an email.

However, researchers have suggested that efforts to change the societal messages that form beliefs about sexual behavior and the effects of alcohol that perpetuate sexual violence are needed, in addition to programs like MU's Green Dot.

What Abbey's Wayne State University research, and others like it, considered to be sexual assault might not meet a legal definition of rape, but the definition included situations in which a man acknowledged knowing that a woman had not consented to sexual contact.

A wide range of sexual acts and types of force were included in the research, corresponding to the CDC's definition of sexual violence. The CDC defines sexual violence as any sexual act that is perpetrated against someone's will.

The researchers considered both physical and verbal strategies of coercion — including taking advantage of a person who was intoxicated — to be acts of sexual aggression.

Other studies have found that 10 percent to 15 percent of male college students have committed some sort of sexual aggression within the past year, Abbey said.

"A really important finding is that sexual aggression is much more common than people realize," Abbey said.

There is evidence that drinking alcohol contributes to the use of force, Abbey said. Studies have shown that when presented with written accounts of sexual violence, men who are intoxicated are more likely to think the man in the scenario acted appropriately. They are also less likely to consider the scenario a rape and more likely to say they would act in a similar manner.

"That doesn't mean that being drunk justifies the use of force or having sex with someone who is also drunk if they can't consent," Abbey said. "Perpetrators are always responsible for their own behavior."

Besides alcohol consumption, other factors predict whether a man could eventually commit an act of sexual violence. They include childhood abuse, an impulsive personality or an inability to empathize.

Still, Abbey said, people are ultimately responsible for their actions. At the same time, knowledge of the risk factors for sexual assault gives policymakers tools for addressing sexual violence and preventing assaults.

"Understanding causes lets us work on developing targeted interventions, so we can try and change that person's future behavior," she said.

Education about consent

The contribution that drinking makes to sexual violence goes beyond the intoxicating effects of alcohol. Men's and women's pre-existing beliefs about sex and alcohol include expectations of having sex when partying and drinking, according to Abbey's 2002 study.

"If you know the research on self-fulfilling prophecies, then you know that beliefs have a lot of power over shaping how we perceive an event, how we act and the responses we receive from others," Abbey said. 

Changing beliefs about alcohol and reducing sexual objectification are crucial to reducing men's sexual aggression against women, she said. That entails educating boys beginning in middle school and continuing throughout high school and college about the importance of consent.

"People in our society, and many others, tend to have developed beliefs about alcohol's effects by age 5. Youth learn these messages from parents, movies, billboards, songs, older siblings, etc.," Abbey said. "We need to take a societal perspective on heavy drinking and sexual aggression."  

There is some evidence that society's perspective on sexual assault is changing, if changes in the law are any indication. Recent updates to Missouri's laws on sexual crimes represent the evolving way people view consent issues with respect to sexual assault, said Colleen Coble, chief executive officer of the Missouri Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence.

Since August 2013, the law has defined first-degree rape as occurring when a person has sex with another person who is incapacitated, incapable of consent or lacks the capacity to consent. The use of force to compel another person to have sex is also first-degree rape.

Second-degree rape is defined as having sex with another person while knowing that the other person does not consent.

Before the changes, the law reflected an outdated conception of rape as involving physical force or drugging a potential victim, Coble said. But the law didn't speak to the issue that today is seen as defining rape: consent.

The changes to the law now mean someone who takes advantage of another person who is drunk and becomes unconscious can be charged with rape, Coble said.

But prosecutors may still not prosecute these kinds of cases, for example, because of perceptions that juries may have about the role of alcohol in such an incident.

"Prosecutors will still rule," Coble said.

Another issue will be determining what level of intoxication a person has to reach before he or she becomes incapable of giving consent, she said.

"It will take a lawyer to develop the right kind of questioning to establish reasonable knowledge of consent or lack of consent," Coble said.

Jonathan Bertz, an assistant prosecutor in the Boone County Prosecuting Attorney's Office, said alcohol consumption is just one factor among many that has to be taken into consideration along with all other evidence in a sexual assault case.

There are cases that can be proved beyond a reasonable doubt where alcohol was consumed by one or two people involved, Bertz said. But every case is different.

Is Green Dot effective?

The MU RSVP Center heavily promoted Green Dot Mizzou through social media in April, Sexual Assault Awareness Month, to boost students' participation. Even MU Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin has been seen sporting a Green Dot pin on his lapel. MU spokesman Christian Basi said Loftin and MU are considering various new ways to address sexual assault and alcohol, but he was not more specific.

Green Dot is working to make students active bystanders, and Wolf, of the MU Relationship and Sexual Violence Prevention Center, said in an email that the most concrete feedback about the program comes from the stories people share about their experiences with Green Dot in person and via social media.

The other feedback about the program comes from a survey that MU's Wellness Resource Center sends out to a random, 25 percent sample of the student population. Dan Reilly, MU prevention and research coordinator, said MU has done a good job educating students compared to most prevention offices across the country. He said most offices fail to get their message out to students.

According to the survey sent out last fall, 73 percent of respondents had heard about Green Dot Mizzou. Of those, 76 percent understood the purpose of the program. Campuses that achieve 30 percent to 50 percent awareness of their prevention programs are considered effective, Reilly said.

The survey didn't ask students specifically about whether Green Dot had changed their attitude toward bystander intervention. Instead, it asked whether students would intervene in various situations.

"We ask a series of questions … regarding student likelihood of implementing bystander behaviors," Reilly said in an email. "Then in subsequent years, we compare the percentage of students who responded favorably to these questions."

Reilly said he had not had time to analyze what the survey reveals about how Green Dot had affected bystander behavior, but he said preliminary results were positive.

Typically, about 1,000 students respond, Reilly said, and women are slightly overrepresented because they are more likely to respond than men.

At a minimum, Green Dot is a good concept that simplifies for students what they can do to intervene,  MU sophomore Gian Wessel said. But some students don't take the program seriously.

"If there’s a guy that’s just bad with girls in general, we might just toss that word around and call him a red dot, but it’s not like the textbook definition of a red dot," Wessel said. "We almost never mean it that way."

His fraternity brothers may take the title Green Dot as a joke, but Wessel said they do prepare to intervene, including designating four to five sober monitors at every party.

MU sophomore Emma Henderson said intervention may be complicated further by the personalities of the people involved. It takes an assertive personality to feel comfortable intervening. It may be difficult to approach someone in a busy social situation who is taller and intoxicated.

"You have to be mentally prepared to do that," she said.

MU senior Casey Platt said it might be difficult to get students to take Green Dot seriously when they are intoxicated.

"I feel like it's a Mizzou culture and also just a college culture where alcohol just is fun, and no matter what happens it's still fun," he said. "Even if something is going wrong, people are just in that fun state of mind. They can't focus on what's serious."

This culture can be seen most weekend nights at any downtown bar where students congregate.

Late one recent Thursday evening, young adults stumble out of Harpo's Bar & Grill at Tenth and Cherry streets. One woman is carried by her friends because she can no longer walk on her own. Another man weaves lazily across the road, seemingly unaware of the oncoming traffic.

A man and a woman stand near the back door of the bar, pressed up against the wall. The man puts his hands under the woman's shirt, and she pulls away. He reaches out and grabs her wrist in an attempt to make her stay. Passersby don't turn to glance back at the scene.

She finally pulls free and runs to the other side of the road. She calls a friend.

"The creepiest guy was just hitting on me," she says. "Yeah, I'm coming home now."

Supervising editor is Katherine Reed.


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