Encyclopedia of Evolutionary Psychological Science

Living Edition
| Editors: Todd K. Shackelford, Viviana A. Weekes-Shackelford

Alcohol and Rape on College Campuses

  • George B. RichardsonEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-16999-6_3682-1


Alcohol Consumption Sexual Assault Sexual Arousal College Campus Risky Sexual Behavior 
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The association, on and about college campuses, between ethyl alcohol consumption and the use of force or threat of force to achieve penetration of an individual without their consent.


Incidence of aggression, risky sexual behavior, and rape peaks during adolescence and young adulthood. On college campuses, rape has been occasioned by heightened alcohol use, including binge drinking. Consequently, alcohol abuse has been advanced as a possible cause of rape and also a possible instrument with which males are able to more successfully rape females. This brief entry presents an evolutionary perspective on the possible role of alcohol in rape on and about college campuses, attending to potential interactions between the psychoactive effects of alcohol and hypothesized rape and rape avoidance adaptations. Throughout, tentative language is used to describe the nature of the association between alcohol use and rape because no causal effect of the former on the latter has been established (Lovett and Horvath 2009).

Alcohol Consumption on College Campuses

Most college students (appx. 60%) report recent alcohol use, and they are more likely to report binge and heavy alcohol use than their noncollege peers (Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality [CBHSQ] 2015). It is well recognized that alcohol impairs activity in the prefrontal areas of the brain that support executive functions including planning, working memory, and inhibition (George and Koob 2010; George and Stoner 2000). This impairment engenders decreases in capacity for integration of information stored in memory, contextual cues, and future goals, resulting in greater discounting of the future and impulsiveness or more present-oriented and risk-prone behavioral responding. The effects of alcohol on behavior are not only due to its impairment of prefrontal activity but also to its direct influence on dopamine transmission and thereby incentive salience (i.e., experienced utility). Through its effects on brain function, alcohol decreases attention to potential future consequences and also amplifies the experienced value of cues to immediate reward in the local environment. Consonantly, alcohol consumption has been linked to risky sexual behavior, delinquency, accidents and injuries, and also legal consequences among college students.

Rape on College Campuses

Surveys of college students suggest that among the types of sexual assault, unwanted sexual contact and coercion are most common, followed by incapacitated rape (i.e., completed rape while the victim was intoxicated), and then forcible rape (Fedina et al. 2016). Estimates of the prevalence of sexual assault, including rape, vary widely. According to Fedina, Holmes, and Backes (2016), this is partly due to measurement and definitional differences. For incapacitated rape, prevalence estimates have ranged from 1.8 to 14.2% for females and been observed at 1.9% for males, while forcible rape estimates have ranged from 0.5 to 8.4% for females and from 0.6 to 0.7% for males (Fedina et al. 2016). Notably, these estimates rest largely on samples of White, heterosexual, female students in traditional colleges. The prevalence of sexual assault among minority females may be higher, and rape incidence is likely underestimated generally due to underreporting.

Evolution, Alcohol, and Rape

Rape has been observed across all human cultures, and males in many nonhuman species have evolved strategies to sexually coerce and rape females (McKibbin and Shackelford 2011). As in nonhuman species, human perpetrators of sexual assault are nearly always male, and victims are most often female (Testa and Livingston 2009). The data have not rejected either of the possible evolutionary explanations for human male rape of females: (a) rape reflects a specialized psychological adaptation in males or (b) rape is a spandrel (i.e., a characteristic that is a by-product of the evolution of some other trait) reflecting adaptations that solve other, perhaps more general, problems (e.g., adaptations for acquiring resources that cannot be obtained except by force; McKibbin and Shackelford 2011).

Strikingly, at least half of all sexual assaults are occasioned by alcohol consumption (Testa and Livingston 2009). One possible explanation of the linkage between alcohol consumption and rape perpetration is that, through its modulation of brain activity, alcohol amplifies cues to the execution of adaptations contributing to rape via effects on the perceived biological value of potential victims, diminished ability to shift attention away from perceived sexual opportunities, reduced capacity for inhibiting sexual arousal, and reduced awareness of costs that could stem from rape. Indeed, male college students report that alcohol increases their sexual desire and disinhibition, risk taking, and aggression (Abbey et al. 2014; Cooper 2002). Alcohol also decreases control of penile reactions and has disinhibiting effects, among males, on responses to sexually aggressive depictions (George and Stoner 2000). The possibility that sexually aggressive males experience the effects of alcohol in unique ways has received little attention, though some evidence suggests convicted rapists may not display the typical alcohol-induced genital suppression effects shown by non-rapists (Wormith et al. 1988). Finally, it is important to note that studies have shown that alcohol beliefs or expectancies interact with consumption to influence sexual experience. For instance, research indicates that alcohol amplifies pre-drinking intention to have sex and increases sexual arousal primarily among males who expect this effect (George and Stoner 2000).

Another possibility is that males identify females who are vulnerable or exploitable by attending to their alcohol consumption. Rape exacts a severe toll on females in terms of injury or death, circumvention of mate choice, disruption of parental care, and partner abandonment and has occurred throughout recorded history (Thornhill and Palmer 2000). Thus, some researchers have theorized that females may have evolved tactics to avoid rape and the associated harms. Stemming from this, research suggests that women execute a suite of rape avoidance behaviors (McKibbin and Shackelford 2011). These behaviors include avoiding strange men, avoiding appearing sexually receptive, avoiding being alone, and awareness of surrounding/defensive preparedness. From an evolutionary perspective, then, alcohol consumption might be seen as facilitating male rape of females through interference with female rape avoidance adaptations.

Consistent with the above, research suggests that alcohol increases vulnerability to sexual assault by making victims less likely to attend to cues to danger and less able to resist forcible rape (Lovett and Horvath 2009). Indeed, the victim was too intoxicated to resist in the majority of rapes of female college students (Testa and Livingston 2009), and drinking within risky contexts has been identified as the risk factor for sexual victimization (Testa and Livingston 2009). Alcohol may also make victims less able to remember the details of an assault, which could facilitate serial offending by making them less likely to report their victimization and by decreasing the likelihood that the offender is convicted. In general, then, alcohol consumption might make some females ideal targets for would-be male rapists.

Research indicates that in the majority of reported sexual assaults involving psychoactive substances, male perpetrators targeted females self-intoxicated through alcohol consumption and exploited their alcohol-induced vulnerability (Lovett and Horvath 2009). Male perpetrators were often older than their victims, met them in the hours before the assault, and offended in bars and clubs, homes, or vehicles. In some contexts, they were also less likely to have also consumed alcohol themselves (e.g., when assaults occurred in vehicles). In contrast with rape and sexual assault generally, alcohol was more commonly involved when parties did not know each other well and in the context of bars and parties. Thus, males generally did not use alcohol as a “date rape” drug but rather selected victims they recently met on the basis of their alcohol consumption. Taken together, these findings suggest that alcohol consumption makes some females less (a) likely to avoid strange men, (b) avoidant of being alone, (c) aware of their surroundings, and (d) able to resist forcible rape. Alcohol consumption in females also appears to serve as a cue to sexual exploitability for male rapists. This targeting behavior on the part of perpetrators appears to be under-recognized and should be considered as a part of rape prevention efforts (Lovett and Horvath 2009).

Finally, it is important to attend to how perceptions of responsibility for rape are affected by alcohol involvement. People attribute more blame to victims and less to perpetrators when alcohol is involved (George and Stoner 2000; Lovett and Horvath 2009). Rapists may also attach less responsibility to perpetration when alcohol is involved, consistent with evidence that when listening to a date rape analogue, male college students took longer to stop a rapist from further advances when they consumed or expected alcohol (George and Stoner 2000). Similarly, sexually aggressive males who did not consume or expect alcohol themselves took longer to stop a date rape when the perpetrator and victim were depicted as drinking (Bernat et al. 1998). This pattern in attribution of responsibility suggests that alcohol may serve to minimize the blame and legal consequences rapists experience, and perhaps expect to experience, as a result of perpetration.


Rape on college campuses has been linked to alcohol consumption. This brief entry presented an evolutionary perspective on the possible role of alcohol in rape on and about college campuses, reviewing evidence suggesting that alcohol may contribute to rape through its effects on the brains of would-be male rapists, as well as by interfering with the functioning of rape avoidance adaptations employed by potential female victims.



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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.College of Education, Criminal Justice, and Human ServicesUniversity of CincinnatiCincinnatiUSA

Section editors and affiliations

  • Curtis Dunkel
    • 1
  1. 1.Western Illinois UniversityMacombUSA