Ruth Bass: Alcohol is the real demon on campus


RICHMOND -- Before colleges come anywhere near solving the problem of campus rapes and other kinds of sexual assault, they need to solve their alcohol problem: Too many college men and women getting drunk on a regular basis.

It is sometimes impossible to sort out statistics on the Internet because people make up numbers, and no one is required to cross their hearts and hope to die before they post a pile of stuff.

But when the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism says four out of five college students drink, and half of those who drink are into what’s called binge drinking, attention needs to be paid.

Binge drinking is defined as five or more drinks for a man and four or more for a woman within two hours. Hard to imagine that both the man and the woman are not drunk by that time.

The National Institute also reports that 1,825 college students between the ages of 18 and 24 die every year from alcohol-related, unintentional injuries. And 690,000 of that same age group are annually assaulted by a student who has been drinking. Sexual assault or date rape will be involved in 97,000 of those cases.

So, a young woman reports that she was raped. The accused male says she consented. She says she was drunk and did not consent. It’s a he-says, she-says case, no witnesses, and if the parents get involved, both sets will be outraged and defensive.

We do not, in this society, blame victims. And that’s the touchy part of these situations. In most cases where drunkenness is a player, the rules side with the young woman. But while it may not be politically correct, it is time for more young women to be told outright that they are responsible for themselves and that being incapacitated may quickly turn them into a victim.

Many colleges failed decades ago when they turned a blind eye to campus drinking, providing it was pretty much out of sight and causing no trouble. They decided on this laissez faire approach when the times demanded that parents let go of their offspring and colleges would no longer be in loco parentis. No curfews, no lights out, etc. Just grow up.

This happened even though probably 75 percent of the student body was underage and therefore was violating the law by purchasing alcohol and consuming it. (Admittedly, the colleges acquired students who had already spent their mid teens at keg parties in remote fields or at houses where parents weren’t home.)

According to a recent article in The Atlantic magazine, alcohol is a devastating element in fraternity life with or without the sexual assault element. The story says, "Kids fall -- disastrously -- from the upper heights of fraternity houses with some regularity. They tumble from the open windows they are trying to urinate out of, slip off roofs, lose their grasp on drainpipes, misjudge the width of fire-escape landings." The writer, Caitlin Flanagan, cites specific examples ranging from Washington State on the West Coast to the Ivy League’s Cornell University.

Without going back to the puritan days of New England’s colleges, something has to be done about campus drinking before the assault problems can be solved. Actually, if rules are made and enforced about alcohol, the other things will probably take care of themselves, except for what one Internet source describes as the "shrewd -- and sober -- sexual predator who lurks where women drink like a lion at a watering hole." And while people tackle the delicate problem of telling young women they must take care of themselves, the tougher issue is to convince the more aggressive males on campus that their sense of entitlement is an insult to the women they want to pursue. They’ve carried that attitude around for centuries.

A good beginning is to treat all rape cases as felonies. Nobody wants to go to prison.

Ruth Bass is author of two historical novels. Her web site is


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