Some might argue that individual students’ misconduct is more to blame for sexual assault than any frat house or party hot spot. But according to a new study published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, party locations do play a role in increasing the frequency of sexually aggressive behavior. The study followed the partying and hookup behaviors of more than 1,000 straight men over four semesters, from the beginning of their freshman year. It found that men’s attendance at “drinking venues”—that is, bars and parties—was a better predictor of their sexual aggression than simply binge-drinking or enthusiastic attitudes toward casual sex.
According to Michael Cleveland, a professor of human development at Washington State University and the study’s lead author, research on campus sexual assault has long found that heavy alcohol consumption is linked to sexual aggression. But researchers weren’t exactly sure of the mechanism behind that link. “A lot of research has shown that once you account for personality differences or individual differences, then the link between alcohol use and sexual aggression or assault kind of disappears,” Cleveland says. Only in recent years have longitudinal studies been able to examine what aspects of binge-drinking culture are most likely to cause sexually aggressive behaviors. In a separate study last year, he and his colleague Maria Testa began to notice that attending a drinking hot spot, not heavy drinking itself, was more strongly correlated with sexual aggression, which led them to design their newest study to focus on that in particular.
That being said, personality differences do seem to play a role in who ends up at certain drinking spots. The more recent study also found that the men who were more likely to hang out at bars and parties were also more likely to engage in heavy drinking and casual sex than their peers who reported hanging out at bars and parties less often.
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To some, these findings may seem a little obvious. “I think if you survey college women, [they] know that when you go to a frat house, you hopefully [think to yourself], Okay, I need to be on edge. This is a danger zone,” says Rory Newlands, a graduate student at the University of Nevada at Reno and the lead author of a critical review of some sexual-violence-prevention programs on college campuses. “If you’re at home drinking alone, you’re probably not going to perpetrate against someone,” she says. “But [it’s different if] you’re going to this environment where you’re already primed to be thinking, like, This is a hookup hot spot, and I’m drinking, so I’m going to have sex.”
This is an example of what Newlands calls “alcohol expectancies,” or the mind-sets that result from imbibing. Research has shown that in laboratory settings, “even sober people who’ve been duped into thinking that they’ve been drinking will still be slower to pick up on [others’] rejection cues and will engage more creepily,” she says.