Football, College Party Culture, and Sexual Assault

By , and ·July 19, 2018
Texas A&M University, University of Technology Sydney, and Montana State University

The Issue:

Sexual assault at colleges and universities in the United States is an important and pervasive problem. The presence of alcohol is involved in a large proportion of these incidents. The federal government has increased awareness of the issue and provided guidance on efforts to prevent sexual violence and promote student safety. But many of the programs fail to address the party culture at colleges and, especially, the role of alcohol in that culture as contributing factors to the prevalence of sexual assaults. New research provides evidence of a direct causal link between partying and increases in reports of sexual assault. This research could inform the development of new programs that better address this problem.

Football games at Division 1 schools are associated with increased reports of rape. Could targeting alcohol and game-day partying help reduce sexual assaults on campus?

The Facts:

  • Surveys show that around one-in-five college women were sexually assaulted during their time as undergraduates. The Campus Sexual Assault Study (CSA study), although limited in scope to just two public universities, found that 19.8 percent of seniors reported sexual assaults. The Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation Survey, conducted in 2015, found similar survey results. The Association of American Universities (AAU) Campus Survey, representing 27 universities and 150,000 students found even slightly higher incident rates. In the same survey, 13.5 percent of senior undergraduate female and 2.9 percent of senior undergraduate male respondents reported being raped.
  • Partying and drinking is implicated in many sexual assaults. Alcohol-fueled parties present a situation where there is a lot of interaction among people in diminished or distorted cognitive states. The CSA study reports that more than half of incapacitated rapes reported by college women occur at parties and that a majority of perpetrators were under the influence of alcohol. Another study finds that nearly three-quarters of student rape victims are intoxicated at the time of the incident. Alcohol consumption has direct effects on increasing aggression and decreasing cognitive function, which are possible sources of increased sexual assaults at parties. Perpetrators may also believe that there is a lower chance of being punished when alcohol is involved. Alcohol may also fully or partially incapacitate victims who are consequently more vulnerable (see here for a review of the literature).
  • Alcohol control policies and other efforts to encourage safer partying have been largely at the periphery of recent discussions of sexual assault prevention. The federal government and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) promote several programs to reduce sexual violence, but researchers have failed to find them effective except for those that provide education to middle school students such as the Safe Dates and Shifting Boundaries curricula. These programs, however, do not deal directly with party culture or alcohol consumption even though the CDC has noted that alcohol policy could serve as a component of a more comprehensive strategy. The previous lack of evidence of a direct causal link between both partying and alcohol consumption and sexual assault rates may have hindered the formation of these programs.
  • Our research on the effects of partying and drinking on sexual assault uses information about football games and the partying that typically accompanies them. Football games, especially at Division I schools, are associated with tailgating and parties among students. The party aspect of football games in college life is pervasive, and there are rankings of colleges by their tailgating culture (see here, for instance). One would expect to find increased instances of sexual assaults associated with football games if partying and alcohol consumption increase sexual assaults. This is, in fact, what we find in our research (see chart). Football games increase reports of rape for women between the ages of 17 and 24 years by an average of 28 percent. This estimated effect is over and above the number that might be expected based on the day of the week the game is played (usually Saturday) and over and above the elevated number that might be expected based on the time of year the game is played. Although the effect on sexual assault reports tends to be higher in the case of home games, reporting increases even with away games: Home games increase reported rapes 41 percent while away games increase reports by 15 percent. The increase in sexual assault reports caused by away games is consistent with the notion that the parties associated with football games play a role: home games draw crowds and tailgaters which can account for increases in assaults simply due to the additional population while away games give a clearer picture of the impacts of increased partying associated with the event. Moreover, there are significant increases in reports of rape during, before, and after home games whereas the effects for away games are only apparent after games. This is consistent with there being an effect of pregame partying which would be more common for home games than away games. Additionally, we find that universities designated as “party schools” by the Princeton Review showed even larger increases of rape on game days, providing further evidence of a link between excessive partying and sexual assault.
  • While the findings are consistent and strongly suggestive that party culture and associated alcohol consumption tends to increase the incidence of sexual assault, the study doesn't capture directly the relationship between alcohol and assault. Our study measures the effect of football games on reports of sexual assault. Could it be that sports events in themselves play a role? Another study that looked at the relationship between sports events and violence also found a connection. But, the source of the effect was very different from what we observed. The study found that upset losses in professional football games led to significantly higher rates of domestic abuse. This is consistent with an effect working through the frustration and aggression of perpetrators. In contrast, we found that upset wins actually increase the incidence of rape while upset losses do not have a significant effect. This result in our research is supportive of the hypothesis that partying, rather than negative emotions, is likely to be the key mechanism linking college football games to increased violence against women.

What this Means:

The finding that spikes in partying at a university are associated with times when there is an increase in the incidence of rape, points towards the potential of using strategies to reduce sexual assault that directly address the prevalence of partying and alcohol and drug consumption. The success of policies targeted towards party culture depends upon the degree to which that culture is responsible for sexual assault — and the extent to which policies can influence that culture. Some universities have begun to implement policies that focus on alcohol and partying in order to address sexual violence. It will be critical for future research to determine whether these programs can reduce the incidence of rape on campus and, if so, which types of programs are most successful.


Crime / Crime and Criminal Justice / Higher Education / Public Health
Written by The EconoFact Network. To contact with any questions or comments, please email [email protected].
More from Econofact