Alcohol, Behavioral Norms and Sexual Violence on US College Campuses

Paul Seabright

January 8, 2019, 12:45–13:45


Room MF 323

IAST Lunch Seminar


Why is alcohol use so often implicated in incidents of rape and sexual assault? To what extent is alcohol a cause, and to what extent is it simply a symptom of other underlying causes of sexual violence? We build a decision theoretic model where agents face costs and benefits of both consensual and non-consensual sexual encounters. These costs include both psychological and social costs as well as pecuniary costs. Students may choose to use alcohol as a ``social lubricant" to diminish their own and others' perceived psychological costs of consensual encounters. This may increase the frequency and - in some circumstances - the enjoyment of consensual encounters, but it has the potential side-effect of increasing the frequency of, and the harm from, non-consensual encounters. By making the resort to alcohol more attractive, stronger norms against consensual sex (in the absence of other measures) are likely to increase the incidence of non-consensual sex. We test this theory on data from US college campuses and find that colleges with a religious affiliation, which are likely to have stronger norms against consensual sex, have higher frequency of both rape and sexual assault. As predicted by the model, this association is very strong for assaults where alcohol is recorded as a contributing factor, and either weaker (rape) or completely absent (sexual assault) for incidents without the involvement of alcohol. Restrictions on campus availability of alcohol substantially reduce the frequency of such incidents.