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How to Talk to Your College Students about Drinking & Sexual Assault

Dear Readers,

Millions of young people across the country are headed to their college campuses this week. As they eagerly settle into their dorms and start their new classes, many of them will be happily looking forward to their new-found freedom. However, this freedom can be both overwhelming and even dangerous, especially when drugs and alcohol are involved.

For example, an Australian study surveyed over 2,000 college students for 4 years and found that women who binge drink are more likely to be victims of sexual assault. They are also more likely to forgo safer sex practices such as condoms.

Sadly, binge drinking is become increasingly common, particularly among young people and college students. According to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, about 90% of teenage alcohol use is binge drinking (which is defined as drinking 4 or more drinks in 2 hours or less), and the highest rate of binge drinking in the country occurs among people ages 18-21.

While binge drinking is risky for men, excess alcohol use can be particularly scary when it comes to women. While many women might be able to drink like ‘one of the boys,’ the truth is that male and female bodies process alcohol differently. Men tend to weigh more but they also have less body fat, which means that that their bodies are more efficient at processing alcohol. Fatty tissue is not effective at breaking down alcohol, which is why a woman can drink less than a man but still end up more intoxicated than him and for a longer period of time. In other words, don’t be fooled just because you are drinking the same amount (or even less) than your date or male companions—the alcohol can hit you harder and faster, and that can lead to major risks, both in the present and down the road.

For example, studies have shown that women who drink to excess are more likely than men to experience the harmful effects of alcohol, including cirrhosis, brain damage, cancer and heart damage. And, as mentioned above, women who binge drink are more likely to be victims of sexual assault: Research published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol found that college students were more likely to be raped if both the victim and the perpetrator used alcohol (1 in 20 college women are sexually assaulted each year).

Parents can use studies such as these as teachable moments when talking to their kids about binge drinking and the risks of alcohol abuse. With the recent graduations, many parents are now getting ready to enjoy one last summer with their teens before sending them off to their first year of college. It can be a daunting endeavor, especially when you consider the risks out there. That’s why it it’s important to talk to your kids (both young men and young women) about alcohol abuse and the long-term risks of ‘partying’.

Remember to tell your teens to:

• Avoid communal punch bowls and only drink cocktails that you make yourself. GHB (‘roofies’) is odorless and tasteless, and it can be slipped into your drink in a mere moment. Make your own drinks and then keep them with you: Setting it down on the bar while you hit the dance floor could be a recipe for disaster.
• Have a glass of water between drinks. Set a limit on how much you want to drink (i.e. 2 beers) and then stick to it.
• Don’t try and drink like one of the boys. Listen to your own body and don’t give into peer pressure when it comes to downing drinks or taking shots. Know your limits.
• Don’t accept rides from people you just met, and resist the urge to go home with the cute guy you just met. No matter how ‘normal’ someone appears, a stranger is a stranger, and you should never put yourself at such grave risk. Get his number and meet up him later for lunch or coffee: Any guy worth your time will respect your wishes and won’t pressure you to come home with him.

Lastly, it’s crucial for us all to remember that the onus for decreasing sexual assault shouldn’t be on the victims, but on the perpetrators themselves! While there are many things young women can do to keep themselves, we have to also demand safer college campuses with harsher punishments and penalties for rapists, and we have to also start talking to young men about what consent really looks like. Sexual abuse isn’t a “woman’s problem,” it’s a problem society as a whole needs to address.

Dr. Laura Berman

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