The XX Factor

What We Can Learn From That Paper About Campus Rape on Game Days

A new study demonstrates a link between college football game days—and the attendant partying—and increased sexual assault.

Photo by Ingram Publishing/Thinkstock

Do Division I football games lead to an increase in on-campus sexual assault? That’s the claim of a new paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research that has become the latest talking point in the heated conversation about campus rape. The study’s finding may not be the most surprising in the history of social science. But as the authors, a trio of economists, write in their introduction, “evidence on the causal link between partying or drinking (at college or otherwise) and the incidence of sexual assault has eluded researchers to date.” By using Division I football games as a proxy for increased partying, they’ve added credence to a longtime belief. Their assertion: “[F]ootball game days increase reports of rape victimization among 17–24 year old women by 28 percent.”

There are reasons to take this paper with a grain of salt. It hasn’t yet been peer reviewed, and, as Christopher Krebs, a researcher at RTI International, points out, it relies on official data from campus and local law-enforcement, where rape and sexual assault are notoriously underreported. Plus, there’s the age-old problem of separating out correlation and causation. But the paper still offers some potentially helpful insights about what happens when on-campus alcohol consumption rises. For example, home games had a greater effect on sexual assault reports (41 percent increase) than away games (15 percent increase). And Division I-FBS schools saw a bigger correlation than Division I-FCS, where rape reports went up 31 percent during home games, but not at all for away games.  (Division II and III games had no impact.) Overall, the researchers estimate that game days produce an additional 253 to 770 rapes of college-age women at Division I-FBS schools per year, and between 6 and 115 at Division I-FCS schools.

 “Our results provide support for thinking more about how policies targeting partying and drinking can be used to decrease incidence of sexual assault,” says Jason Lindo, one of the researchers and an associate professor of economics at Texas A&M University. He points to the fact that reports where the perpetrator was under the influence went up more than reports where the perpetrator was sober, and that “we see larger effects for rivalry games and games against ranked teams, and that we see that upset wins have especially large effects on reports of rape and also on arrests for alcohol-related crimes.”

As the debate swirls around whether colleges or the criminal justice system should be adjudicating sexual assault cases, more attention is being paid to preventing rape in the first place. A consensus is starting to take shape around the benefits of bystander intervention programs, which train both men and women on college campuses to identify and break up worrisome sexual encounters. But questions remain about how far schools should go in targeting female students in particular. Programs that focus on warning young women not to drink are rightly accused of victim-blaming, and some feminists argue that even the most thoughtful interventions aimed at women risk diverting attention from where it needs to be: on rapists. Others counter with the fact that programs attempting to change the behavior of college-age men have universally failed.

Lindo is careful not to overstate his work’s potential to affect this contested territory. “This evidence provides support for the notion that policies that effectively avoid spikes to partying and/or reduce the intensity of partying have the potential to reduce the incidence of rape,” he wrote in an email. “But this does not imply that other efforts to encourage a safer partying environment (through bystander intervention for example) are either likely or unlikely to be effective.”

Charlene Senn, a sexual assault expert at the University of Windsor, says the most interesting thing about the study is the way it gestures at the extreme complexity of the relationships between alcohol, partying, and assault. Senn devised a training program for female students—to help them “assess risk from acquaintances, overcome emotional barriers in acknowledging danger, and engage in effective verbal and physical self-defense”—that succeeded in slightly lowering the instance of rape, according to a study in the New England Journal of Medicine, and is now central to the debate about intervention programs for women. To Senn, the NBER paper gets at the fact that the campus party culture that leads to rape isn’t defined by perpetrators, victims, or bystanders, but by the way the entire community partakes and interacts. “Alcohol is a risk factor whether consumed by men, by women, or by others in the environment,” Senn says. “When we’re drinking, we’re anticipating a fun context, where bad things are not presumed to happen. It also diminishes the perpetrators’ view of their own responsibility, diminishes women’s ability to resist and the likelihood that others will believe them, and diminishes the chances that others will intervene.”

According to Senn, “We often only focus on one piece of the risk.” At the very least, this latest paper is a reminder that changing sexual culture on college campuses will take reaching all parts of the community, and in multiple ways—and that, as Senn says, “that has to have happened long before this game.”