Alcohol is becoming a more common source of sexual assault among college students

(The Conversation is an independent and not-for-profit source for news, analysis, and commentary from academic experts.)

Mary P. Koss, University of Arizona

(THE TALK) The Research Brief is a brief overview of interesting academic work.

The big idea

One in three. This is the number of women in college who say they have been victims of sexual assault, either when they were in high school or in college. That’s according to my new peer-reviewed research in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence, based on 2015 survey data.

That number is significantly higher than in the mid-1980s, when I conducted the first such nationwide survey of college students at 32 institutions. Back then the number was one in four. 75% of these incidents involved victims who reported being incapacitated by alcohol at the time of the assault. In the mid-1980s, that figure was 50%.

For the study, sexual assault was defined consistently with the federal definition of rape. This definition goes beyond violent rape. It includes oral, anal, or vaginal penetration when the victim is too drunk to consent.

Among college men, one in 19 admitted to sexual assault during high school or college during the first survey. That number has risen to one in eight.


One thing that hasn’t changed is that the vast majority of college men who responded to the survey say they committed the sexual assault while their victims were being incapacitated by alcohol. Then as now, that number was about nine out of ten college men who have confessed to sexual assault. This means that the most common scenario for sexually assaulting women in college involves men taking advantage of women when they are off work.

In the first survey, conducted in 1985, 6,159 students answered the questions. In the second survey I conducted in 2015 and analyzed over the past few years, 2,471 students responded. Both surveys achieved response rates of over 90%.

Why it matters

Leave a Comment