Over the past several months, the conversation about the potential connections between alcohol on college campuses, risky sexual behaviors, and sexual assault has been re-opened. The question about whether it’s appropriate to tell young women to drink less as a method of protecting them from being raped has been hotly debated. Those debates typically rest upon the assumption that an alcohol-fueled “hook up culture” leads college students to engage in risky sexual behavior.
Reporting on “hook up culture” as a new and concerning trend has become so ubiquitous that it’s now somewhat of a cliche. But in fact, researchers don’t think it’s a new trend as much as a symptom of a larger societal shift in sexual culture that may have begun in the 1960s. There’s no consensus about when “hook up culture” actually first emerged. And even though people assume that substances like alcohol and marijuana automatically lead people to take more sexual risks, the findings from different studies on the subject have actually been conflicting.
A new study provides more evidence that the fearmongering over young women getting too drunk to make good decisions with their sexual partners may be exaggerated. After researchers did a year-long study of young female students at a Northeastern college, they found that alcohol use didn’t lead them to have unprotected sex. “Indeed, among college women, alcohol use and condom use tend to co-occur, because both are more likely in events involving casual partners,” the study concluded.
In fact, the researchers found that the majority of sexual intercourse reported by the participants — who were all in their first year of college — occurred while the women were totally sober. Only 20 percent of the sexual interactions involved drinking. An additional 13 percent involved binge drinking.
That pokes holes in the theory that college students are drinking so much alcohol that their decision-making skills about safe sex are impaired. Instead, as RH Reality Check’s Martha Kempner explains, this study’s results actually lend credence to a very different theory about alcohol and sexual behavior:
There is a second theory about alcohol and sex that the findings of this study do support. Expectancy theory says that individuals’ behavior after drinking is driven by their beliefs about alcohol’s effects on behavior. Essentially, how you behave while drunk is a self-fulfilling prophecy — if you think you are going to take more sexual risks because of alcohol, you probably will. Researchers used a six-point scale to measure women’s expectations and found that those women who believed alcohol use increased sexual risk-taking were somewhat less likely to use condoms in events involving alcohol. This suggests we need to address expectations with women before they drink.
In other words, teaching young people that drinking alcohol always leads them to make unhealthy decisions may actually put them at more risk to make those poor choices. If college students assume that alcohol is linked to risky sex because that’s the only message they’ve received about it, well, they might follow through. Although countless commentators have argued that it’s critically important to tell women about the risks of binge drinking — especially as it relates to sexual health — their good intentions could actually be backfiring miserably.
Of course, that’s not to say that binge drinking isn’t a public health concern. It is, and young adults should be taught how to drink alcohol responsibly. But the media’s depiction of the nature of drinking on college campuses is often misguided.
According to an analysis from Dr. Rebecca Goldin, the research director at a nonprofit organization that seeks to be a resource for journalists reporting on scientific issues, the mainstream media has made young women into the face of a troubling binge drinking problem on college campuses. For a decade, the media has warned about the “new” issue of an “under-recognized” problem among college women. There’s just one problem: There’s not really any scientific evidence to back that up. Surveying the data on the issue, Goldin concludes that binge drinking is not worsening among young women, and several pieces of writing on the subject have misrepresented the studies in this field. In reality, we’re in a period when the rates of alcohol use and abuse are “relatively stable.”
The media also tends to depict heavy drinking and sexual assault going hand-in-hand, as if rape is simply yet another public health risk that accompanies drinking. In that worldview, the young women on college campuses who are supposedly binge drinking at alarming rates are increasing their risk for a variety of negative sexual outcomes — forgetting to use a condom and having unprotected sex, having casual sex that they end up regretting, or even leaving themselves vulnerable to sexual assault. But that’s a fundamental misunderstanding of both alcohol and rape. In reality, rape isn’t an accident that drunk women stumble into. Alcohol is just one of many tools at rapists’ disposal, and research into rapists’ behavior reveals that if alcohol isn’t available, they’ll just use a different one to accomplish their goal of sexual assault.
In this context, reframing the debate about drinking on college campuses is about more than being careful to avoid victim-blaming. It requires a total shift in the way that we view sexually active young adults, and forces us to challenge our pre-conceived assumptions about irresponsible college kids taking big risks.
Because there’s a larger pattern going on here. This isn’t the only area in which society tends to assume the worst about young people’s — and, in particular, young women’s — ability to make responsible sexual decisions. Since our culture remains largely uncomfortable with the idea of young women being sexually active in the first place, that’s perhaps not entirely surprising.
For instance, another “new” issue that often makes the rounds in the mainstream media is the apparent perils that result from mixing sex with new technology. The media is quick to warn that sexting is a big public health concern that kids need to be protected from; and there’s a gender element to this, too, because public awareness campaigns on the topic often focus on dissuading young women from snapping sexy photos of themselves. But the research doesn’t really back up those assumptions, either. Several studies have found that sexting isn’t necessarily associated with any negative sexual behaviors, or even any negative emotions among the kids who are engaging in it.
A more reliable indicator of risky sexual decisions, unintended pregnancy, does remain a real problem in the United States among women under the age of 20. Most adults assume this issue getting worse. According to a recent poll conducted by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unintended Pregnancy, 50 percent of adults think the teen pregnancy rate has been going up, and another 24 percent think it’s stayed about the same over the past two decades. But that attitude gives young people much too little credit. In reality, the teen pregnancy rate has been steadily falling since 1990, and continues to plunge to record lows — something that sexual health experts directly attribute to young adults making good sexual decisions. “The credit for this remarkable national success story goes to teens themselves,” Sarah Brown, the National Campaign’s CEO, pointed out in a statement released this week. “Unfortunately, precious few adults are aware of the good news.”
RH Reality Check’s Martha Kemper draws a similar conclusion about the new study on drinking and condom use. “In general I think this study gives us a view of young women making responsible sexual decision and I hope we all give them credit for it,” she concludes.