Augustine: Alcohol should not be a mask for sexual assault

Kathryn Augustine, Columnist

In the age of #MeToo, where the tide is turning to protect survivors, college campuses — places where sexual assault often occurs — are working to devise strategies to reduce instances of assault. And while actively working to change the culture of sexual assault on college campuses is positive, there is danger in brainstorming solutions that inadvertently place blame where blame does not belong: namely, alcohol.

Drinking is often seen as the impetus for sexual assault, and plans of action are targeted on reducing alcohol intake at parties or raising awareness on how alcohol is related to sexual violence. This is perfectly exemplified in the case of Brock Turner, a Stanford University swimmer who was convicted of sexual assault and intent to commit rape in 2016. Both Turner and the survivor were inebriated. Only two months later Stanford University decided to ban hard alcohol from on-campus parties.

I was particularly astounded to find that the same mindset remains on Northwestern University’s campus, even in 2019.

During a typical study session in the library, someone I know confidently proclaimed that sexual assault would decrease with the removal of alcohol from on-campus parties. I was appalled at the ignorance of his statement and, honestly, felt invalidated. Banning alcohol from the college party scene — an impossible idea on its own — only superficially addresses sexual assault, without tapping into the root of the issue.

There is an assumption that sexual assault is inextricably tied to drunk people at a party. As someone who has felt violated when no alcohol was involved, I can personally attest to the fact that consent can be absent without a round of shots. Alcohol is not a requirement for assault.

Pinpointing alcohol as the cause of sexual assault transfers the deserved blame away from perpetrators and onto an inanimate substance. According to, at least 50 percent of sexual assaults that occur on college campuses involve alcohol. Delving further into what that 50 percent entails, 43 percent of sexual assaults involve alcohol use by the survivor, while 69 percent of sexual assaults involve alcohol use by the perpetrator.

These statistics suggest a strong, defined relationship between sexual assault and alcohol. However, there is a fine line between correlation and causation. Even if it’s probable that alcohol was involved in an incident of sexual assault, alcohol is not the cause, the perpetrator is.

Removing alcohol from the college party scene will not halt perpetrators from acting on impulses or protect survivors. In fact, according to a study published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, characteristics like anti-social behavior, hostility toward women, impersonal sex and self-control were more predictive of sexual assault than heavy episodic drinking among men. Attitudes and characteristics toxically reinforced by society, not alcohol, are the main players here.

While alcohol can certainly reduce inhibitions and the ability to make informed decisions, alcohol does not change intentionality. Alcohol is just a substance. It does not necessarily affect someone’s outlook on the essential value of consent. Someone’s views on consent are constant — whether sober or blackout drunk — and negative attitudes are precisely what need to be targeted by college campuses.

We can work on changing the mindset around sexual assault that has been cemented in our society for so long. This means recognizing that long-held attitudes concerning entitlement and toxic cultural norms surrounding masculinity are the root of sexual assault and are what need to be shifted. Then, we can appropriately dedicate resources and efforts to educating people about these aspects, as opposed to alcohol.

I am tired of people defending their behavior with alcohol. I am tired of hearing the stories of friends and acquaintances who are pressured or blatantly assaulted. And I am tired of feeling surprised when I am genuinely respected — that should be a given.

Kathryn Augustine is a Medill first-year. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.