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Alcohol policy a step in the right direction

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On Aug. 23, Stanford announced that hard alcohol (alcohol by volume 20 percent and above) is henceforth prohibited at all undergraduate student parties and that shots of hard alcohol are prohibited at all campus parties. On Sept. 2, Lauren Schoenthaler, the newly appointed senior associate vice provost for institutional equity and access at Stanford — not the most transparent title — was asked to comment on the subject of sexual violence at Stanford. As part of that Q & A, she was queried: “Is Stanford’s new ban on hard alcohol at parties a result of the Brock Turner matter? Will sexual assault victims or witnesses be punished if they have violated the policy?”

Schoenthaler responded: “The answer to both is no. The alcohol policy is an effort to address binge drinking, which has many negative impacts on the lives of students. There are too many students who drink so much that they are medically endangered and need emergency transport to the hospital.”

I find it implausible that there is no link between the Brock Turner case and Stanford’s new alcohol policy. Emergency transports of Stanford students for alcohol intoxication have been trending upwards for years. Yet it wasn’t until the Brock Turner incident that Stanford took action.

On March 30, Brock Turner was found guilty of sexually assaulting an unconscious woman on Stanford’s campus. At the time of the assault, Jan. 18, 2015, Turner, a Stanford freshman, had a blood alcohol level twice the legal driving limit. The victim was also intoxicated and remained unconscious for three hours after the assault, with a blood alcohol content three times the legal driving limit. Both Turner and his victim were served and consumed alcohol at an on-campus party. Turner was underage at the time.

Alcohol as a factor in the Turner assault is not an isolated case. According to a Washington Post Kaiser Family Foundation poll of college students published in 2015, two-thirds of sexual violence survivors said they had been drinking just prior to their assaults. Other studies document that at least half of all incidents of student sexual violence involve alcohol consumption by the perpetrator, the victim or both. Alcohol and other drugs are known to disinhibit behavior, leading to “brown-outs” and “blackouts,” during which the intoxicated individual has little or no memory or awareness of their actions. An estimated 100,000 college students are victims of alcohol-related sexual assaults each year.

It is much more plausible that Stanford’s new ban on hard alcohol is a response to the Brock Turner matter but that Stanford officials are unwilling to publicly make the link between alcohol and sexual assault. However, the question is why.

The voices that have dominated the national discussion on sexual assault to date, primarily voices of those who identify themselves as advocates for rape victims, have muzzled any attempt to talk about the contributing factor of alcohol and drugs to sexual violence. The mere mention of alcohol in sexual assault cases, especially in cases where the victim and/or the assailant was intoxicated, is considered tantamount to blaming the victim and exonerating the perpetrator. Those who attempt to link campus drinking and sexual assault are accused of propagating “rape culture” and “victim blaming.” Schoentaler’s defensive stance is illustrative, as she went on to say: “But as we work on that problem [alcohol], we need to be clear that alcohol is never an excuse for sexual assault. A victim is never the cause of their own sexual assault. Never.”

I would never argue that alcohol is an “excuse for sexual assault.” But we can and should acknowledge the ways in which alcohol and drug misuse contribute to sexual assault. We can do this without glossing over the horror of sexual violence while still seeking fair adjudication and punishment for those who commit such crimes. The failure to openly link the problem of campus sexual assault and campus drinking culture will only thwart our attempts to address these serious, pressing and demonstrably intertwined issues.  

I applaud Stanford’s new alcohol policy. (Full disclosure: I was on a Stanford alcohol and drug advisory committee that recommended revising the old policy in favor of more restrictive use.) Although flawed in its particulars, with no discussion of how it will be enforced, the new policy nonetheless sends an important message to students: The current culture of drinking on campus needs to change.

I also commend Stanford’s new initiatives to address sexual violence on campus, such as peer-to-peer discussions around sexuality, intimacy, relationships and consent; linking victims to mental health therapists who specialize in serving sexual assault and relationship abuse victims; and streamlining the process for adjudicating allegations of sexual violence.

But I would ask Stanford, and other schools facing these issues, to go further and openly embrace the ways that alcohol, drugs and sexual violence intersect. By tailoring interventions that address both campus sexual violence and alcohol and drug misuse, we will be more effective in helping rape victims and preventing future rapes.

– Anna Lembke, M.D.

Chief of Addiction Medicine and Assistant Professor, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences

Stanford University School of Medicine

 

Contact Anna Lembke at alembke ‘at’ stanford.edu.