Study Shows 15 Percent of Female Freshmen Are Raped While Incapacitated by Alcohol, Drugs

Addressing students' perceptions about alcohol and sex could help limit assault on campus, researchers say. Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

As sexual assault continues to become a more visible health and social issue on U.S. college campuses, new research helps identify which first-year students are at risk for so-called "incapacitated rape," or IR.

IR refers to completed or attempted penetration that occurs while a victim is incapacitated after drinking alcohol or taking some other drug. A new study published in the November issue of the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs found that about 15 percent of first-year female students in college are raped while incapacitated in this way. 

The researchers working on the study also found that first-year female students who had been victims of such assaults before entering college were at substantial risk of future victimization. Nearly 18 percent of young women reported IR before entering college; about 41 percent of those women were raped again while incapacitated during their first year. Women who said they thought alcohol could enhance a person's sexual experience also were at increased risk for IR during their first year of college.

Heavy drinking is extremely common in college. About half of college students who report drinking also report binging on alcohol, according to National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

"The motivation for the study was to try to identify what might be factors that we could address very early on in the freshman year that might be worked into prevention programs," lead researcher Kate Carey, a professor of behavioral and social sciences at Brown University School of Public Health, tells Newsweek.

The findings are based on 483 female students at a private university in New York state who completed several surveys during their first year of college. The authors of the study purposely didn't name the university because they felt it was irrelevant—they expect the results could be found at other colleges across the country, Carey says. The findings, she adds, reveal a new target for prevention strategies that can be applied to all students. Colleges could establish programs that, for example, address students' expectations about alcohol and sex.

Unlike campus sexual assault surveys, these surveys covered general women's health, ranging from alcohol and substance abuse to sleep habits and exercise patterns. "That's a strength of the sample in that we weren't sampling in or sampling out anyone who was particularly vulnerable to sexual assault," Carey says.

Estimates suggest that 1 in 5 women will experience some form of sexual assault during college. Sexual assault is defined as any nonconsensual sexual contact, ranging in severity from kissing to intercourse. Research has found that IR is more common on college campuses than forcible rape, which is when perpetrators use threats or physical force against their victims.

report published in September found that almost a quarter of undergraduate women surveyed at some of the top universities in the country said they were victims of some form of sexual assault and misconduct as college students.