WEDNESDAY, April 14, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- A new study unmasks another seamy aspect of party life on campus: It turns out college women face a sharply greater chance of experiencing sexual or nonsexual aggression on days when they drink.

The odds of experiencing sexual aggression were nine times higher on days the women drank heavily -- consuming five or more drinks -- compared to days they didn't drink at all. Even a more modest indulgence meant they were three times more likely to be sexually victimized than if they had abstained from drinking.

Likewise, nonsexual aggression against women increased sevenfold on heavy drinking days vs. days of no drinking and threefold on non-heavy drinking days compared with no drinking.

"We're not saying that drinking per se is the only reason this is occurring," cautioned R. Lorraine Collins, a senior research scientist at the University of Buffalo's Research Institute on Addictions. "We're just saying the risk increases with alcohol intake, and with heavier drinking the risk is even greater."

The study is a first because it examines college women's daily drinking habits and both sexual and nonsexual victimization of women over a period of weeks, the researchers said.

Previous studies showing that alcohol use is related to a higher risk of being victimized were based on very general information, Collins explained.

Collegiate-level alcohol abuse has come under intense scrutiny in recent years. In 2002, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism's Task Force on College Drinking reported that college student drinking contributes to an estimated 1,400 student deaths, 500,000 injuries and 70,000 cases of sexual assault or date rape annually.

The authors hope this new data will cause women to think about how much they drink and where they drink it. For example, the findings suggest women may reduce their risk for experiencing victimization by reducing their alcohol consumption because they'll be more aware and better able to resist.

While the legal drinking age is 21, parents are sending their 18-year-old freshmen into an environment in which underage drinking is prevalent, Collins observed.

"If you're a parent, then one of the things you would want to do is sit down with your daughter and talk to her very carefully about the range of experiences she might have to deal with in college, including her own drinking behavior," she said.

Such research is necessary because it helps to empower women, explained Karen Johnson, executive vice president of the National Organization for Women.

"We need to be able to understand our environment to defend against the perpetrators," she said. "That means," for instance, "that if you're going out drinking that you go out with friends who are not drinking."

The new findings are based on interviews with 94 college women from a medium-sized university in central New York. During the initial interview, each was asked to report her alcohol consumption and any sexual or nonsexual aggression she had experienced during the prior two-week period. Second and third interviews were conducted two weeks and four weeks later, respectively, for a total of six weeks of data.

Investigators used a calendar-like method to track daily alcohol consumption and incidents of sexual or nonsexual abuse during each two-week period. "What that means is that they're remembering, but it's done in a very structured way so we can enhance what they remember," Collins explained.

Over the six-week study, 15 percent of women experienced at least one incident of sexual aggression. There were no reported incidents of attempted or completed rape. Twenty percent experienced at least one incident of nonsexual aggression.

The authors were careful not to point blame at the women. Regardless of whether a woman has been drinking, any attack is the fault of the perpetrator, they said.

"It's absolutely the perpetrator's fault for any assault that happens," Johnson agreed. "At the same time, you just need to know what the dangers are."

More information

The National Advisory Council on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism's Task Force on College Drinking has more information on changing the college drinking culture. Meanwhile, go to the National Women's Health Information Center to learn about violence against women.

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