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6 September 2004
Sexual Woes At College Blamed On Drinking
by George Atkinson

About half of all college students share a pastime that could play havoc with their futures - heavy drinking. Booze binges put them at risk for everything from date rape to sexually transmitted diseases, serious injuries and even death. Kegs of beer and shots of tequila have become such an intrinsic part of college life that a substance abuse researcher from the University of Michigan is warning students and parents alike to heed the latest research and take steps to prevent the negative consequences that stem from heavy drinking.

"People commonly think of drinking in college, in particular heavy drinking, as a rite of passage - implying that it's common and those who don't do it are missing out on something," says Robert Zucker of the U-M Health System's Addiction Research Center. "But the research data we now have paints a picture that there are all sorts of negative experiences that are associated with binge drinking, ranging from loss of life to being involved in something you will never be able to live down."

Zucker notes that a broad range of studies have shown higher risks of all kinds of problems among college students who engage in what researchers call "binge drinking". This level of heavy alcohol consumption, which corresponds to about five drinks in two hours for men and four drinks in two hours for women, is common among college students. The binge-drinking rate is higher for male students than for women - 52 percent compared with about 35 percent.

Researchers think heavy college drinking is due to students being at a stage in life when they're exploring new experiences and new relationships. They're in circumstances where drinking is more commonly accepted and encouraged, including events related to athletics, fraternities and sororities.

Zucker says that bad experiences happen more often to binge drinkers than to those who drink less or not at all. "The list of troubles is very, very long, and can range from things like suicide and paralyzing accidents to unprotected sex, date rape, failure in academic activities, impaired social relationships, and getting into fights that can be very hard to live down."

About 1,400 college students die each year from alcohol-related incidents. Another 500,000 are hurt under the influence of alcohol, and about 600,000 students are assaulted by another student who has been drinking. More than 70,000 students are sexually assaulted or raped in alcohol-related incidents, and 100,000 get too drunk to know afterward if they consented to have sex or not. About 400,000 college students have unprotected sex under the influence of alcohol, putting them at risk of unplanned pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease.

"That's a level at which students need to ask themselves, 'Why am I drinking as much as I am?', and 'Can I drink less than this?'," Zucker says. "The level of intoxication, or blood-alcohol content, that a student will reach in a binge is high enough to impair judgment and decision-making, and to slow reflexes."

"Parents always ask me, 'What can I do, or how would I even know that I should do anything,' and I have a straightforward answer for that," he explains. "You need to talk, and you need to look. And if you see things that are troubling to you, it's all the more reason to look. You need to engage in a dialogue about what the level of your son or daughter's drinking or drug activity is, and get a feel of whether it seems OK, or whether it might be moving into a binge pattern. Young people don't usually tune their parents out completely, though they may not respond immediately to what we're saying. It's the dialogue that's important, even if you don't get immediate agreement."

For more information, visit College Drinking Prevention: National Institute on Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse

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