Universities Target Rape Prevention Through Alcohol Awareness Program

Wendy Norris, a Denver-based freelance reporter, is a regular contributing writer working on special assignment to RH Reality Check

Just a month into the fall semester and news outlets are
already reporting dozens of alleged sexual assaults on college campuses across
the nation.

Every year, more than 71,000 American college students
between the ages of 18 and 24 are victims of alcohol-related sexual assault
or date rape
, according to a 2005 Boston University research study. And
upwards of 110,000 male and female students reported being too intoxicated to
know if they consented to having sex.

Yet, experts say the full extent of the problem is largely
underestimated since fewer than 10 percent of sexual assaults are ever reported
to police. 

Which makes the national rape and non-consensual sex
incidences among college students all the more shocking.

To Jane Curtis the challenge is not to convince young people
not to partake in drinking but to heighten LGBT and straight students’ personal
knowledge about risk-taking behavior and awareness of non-alcoholic campus

Last year, Curtis, who heads the University of
Colorado-Boulder’s Alcohol and Other Drugs Program, convinced school
officials last year to take part in AlcoholEdu, confidential online alcohol
awareness for incoming freshman that integrates information about sexual
assault risks.

A Boston-based public health company developed the program
in 2000, and today reaches more than 500,000
students at 500 American colleges and universities each year — or about 20
percent of the total private nonprofit and state-backed four-year degree
granting schools. The modules also anticipate the students’ educational needs.
As respondents reply to questions, teetotaling students take a different
curriculum than those who admit to some, heavy or binge drinking. Curtis notes
that the online segments can also be customized to embed information and links
to campus-specific resources.

The sexual assault section begins in chapter two. The module
runs the gamut from reading student-generated questions in an advice column
format, busting common myths, discussing consent and boundary-setting, and
providing tips on how to intervene in situations that could lead to unwanted sexual

In just its second year of implementation at CU-Boulder,
more than 3,500 students, or nearly 70 percent, of first-year students
participated in the voluntary program this semester. And Curtis said it’s
already having a dramatic effect.

"There is a greater understanding that the person who
is sexually assaulted is less responsible for the event," said Curtis
since students learned that both perpetrators and victims have frequently
consumed alcohol prior to the incident and that giving true consent is unlikely
when under the influence.

She also noted another encouraging trend: 260 students asked
to get more information from student organizations advocating for sexual
assault prevention on campus.

To Nathan Wickstrum, AlcoholEdu is decidedly not like D.A.R.E.,
the anti-drug and alcohol program ridiculed by kids as a modern-day
"Reefer Madness" scare tactic favored by local police departments.
Instead, it’s geared toward interactive game-savvy young people with a blunt,
no holds-bared reality television sensibility.

The Ojai, Calif., native and CU-Boulder freshman was
impressed with the sexual assault module. "It was one of the main focuses
of the program. They [explained] very specific forms of it and how to be okay
before you do anything with anyone," said Wickstrum who participated in
the program before he arrived on campus in August. "When we got to school,
we covered it again in an actual class setting and most kids were taking it
very seriously."

Obtaining thoughtful responses is critical to the
science-based Web tool because it feeds the world’s largest database on college
student drinking behavior.

Those responses, segmented by campus respondents, are
provided to schools to improve specific policies on alcohol use and enhance
personal safety for students.

Based on first year data, CU-Boulder is already expanding
alcohol-free student activities, like the Sobriety Weekend Challenge,
coed-intramural sports and events that integrate students into the Boulder
community at-large, that challenge the campus party culture that frequently
lead to risky situations.


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  • katoleary

    Alcohol doesn’t rape people; people rape people.
    I think a big reason why so many rapes occur on campus is that a lot of young men simply do not understand what rape is. Instead of telling people not to drink, we need to teach them to respect other people’s bodies and boundaries and to gain enthusiastic consent before engaging in sexual activity. We also need to get away from the idea that heterosexual sex is something that men get from women, rather than a consensual, enjoyable activity for both parties.

    “There is a greater understanding that the person who is sexually assaulted is less responsible for the event” — what does this even mean? Because the way I’m reading it — that sexual assault victims are in any way responsible for their assaults — is extremely disturbing.

  • jenlabarbera

    I think the doubt in the responses on twitter and in katoleary’s comment is well-founded; every alcohol awareness program that incorporates rape "prevention" that I’ve ever seen is along the lines of "Don’t get drunk, or you’ll get raped!"

    Yes, there is a correlation between alcohol usage and sexual assault, but every program I’ve seen aimed at college students takes this correlation as a starting point for "awareness"…for potential victims.
    College students should be able to get drunk without worrying about getting raped. Programs that claim that women are putting themselves at risk by getting drunk are flawed and play into victim-blaming myths.


    A college freshman who gets drunk and sexually assaulted did not get raped because she got drunk. She got raped because a rapist decided to rape her.


    That said, I would be interested to see the actual presentation and language of this program. There is potential for alcohol awareness programs to incorporate education about meaningful consent & its relationship to alcohol consumption. I’ve never seen an alcohol awareness program successfully do this. But it is possible. Maybe this one is different?

  • jodi-jacobson

    and to katoleary for the one above.

    They are critically important points and we encourage further discussion by you and others.

    The publication of this article is not meant to convey support/criticism of this program one way or the other.  Rather, we want to spur discussion about rape, rape culture and the ways in which programs are addressing rape, either throught these or other means, and have a vigorous public discussion about why these approaches are or are not hitting the mark.

    We will ask Wendy Norris whether it is possible  to get hold of the curriculum and link to it.


    Best, Jodi Jacobson

  • wendy-norris

    Jane Curtis isn’t at all suggesting that rape victims are responsible for their assaults.


    She’s talking about how the sex assault education module is creating greater awareness among freshman about mutual sexual consent (troublingly a novel concept for some) and that drunkeness is not an excuse to take advantage of another person nor should it alleviate a perpetrator from his/her responsibilities for committing a crime.


    But there’s also an undeniable need on campuses that young men and women are too often finding themselves in risky situations because of serious impairment. That more than 70,000 students report an alcohol-related sexual assault is stunning.


    I’d suggest clicking the link to Curtis’ department to learn more about the AlcoholEdu curriculum which does not advocating tee-totalling but responsible drinking and provides local resources for students concerned about binging, date rape, poor academic performance and other problems associated with the pervasive alcohol culture on college campuses. 

  • anonymous99

    "…what does this even mean? Because the way I’m reading it — that sexual assault victims are in any way responsible for their assaults — is extremely disturbing."  You’re really missing the point here.  I taught my daughter that when she crosses the street, even with a "walk" sign she should look both ways before crossing.  Should she fail to do that and a drunk blows through a red light and runs her over it’s clearly the drunk’s fault that she was run over.  He or she should be held responsible for the accident.  That fact will be of little comfort to her and her family and friends when dealing with her injuries however.  Had she been more careful when crossing the street she could have prevented this from happening to her.  Perhaps you’ve heard of defensive driving?  Same concept.  I would think any good program like the one discussed in the post should make the point to young women that being drunk DOES make you more vulnerable to sexual assault (as well as myriad other types of crime and accidents).  If you’re drinking responsibly (or not drinking at all) you’ll be much more able to prevent yourself from being taken advantage of.  This is a far different type of message than what you’re accusing the program of.  Honestly, I think young women are perfectly capable of understanding this message and applying it in their own lives.

  • anonymous99

    "College students should be able to get drunk without worrying about getting raped."  Maybe in some fantasy world you can conjure up in your head.  "Programs that claim that women are putting themselves at risk by getting drunk are flawed and play into victim-blaming myths." For the real world, young women need to be alerted of the dangers of being drunk (and not just in regard to sexual assault either).  You too are missing the point.  See my post above.

  • wendy-norris

    The link to the curriculum is in the story at University of
    Colorado-Boulder’s Alcohol and Other Drugs Program


    Click on the link in the left navigation column: How to access the program. The sexual assault information is contained in Chapter 2.


    I’d be interested in your thoughts on the program after taking a look at the curriculum. 

  • jenlabarbera

    Liss over at Shakesville just posted this fantastic breakdown of the rape culture, and it gets at why I and a lot of anti-violence advocates I know will always come at programs aimed at rape "prevention" with a whole lot of skepticism.  More often than not, they do play into this rape culture, as explained much better than I ever could.


    Rape Culture 101. Go read.