Risky Mix at W&L: Binge Drinking and Sex


 

By Cameron Steele

Washington and Lee senior Lucy Hundley knows firsthand how excessive alcohol use can lead to sexual misconduct. When she was a first-year, Hundley said, she got so drunk with her friends at a fraternity party that she failed to notice that everyone except a senior man left the room.

“And all of the sudden he jumped on top of me and started making out with me,” she said. “He kind of had his tongue in my mouth, and it was really gross. I just started saying, ‘Stop, stop, stop,’ and he wouldn’t get off of me.”

Hundley said she freed herself by tickling him, and ran out of the room. Now a resident advisor, or R.A., for first-year women living at the Gilliam residence hall, she said she worries that other female residents will experience sexual misconduct.

W&L first admitted women almost 25 years ago, but gender relations on campus remain far from perfect. In rural Lexington, Va., much of W&L’s social scene revolves around off-campus parties on Windfall Hill – a cul-de-sac of houses about two miles from the university where upper-class fraternity men live.

The excessive drinking that occurs at these houses often leads to risky behavior that faculty, administrators and health officials describe as sexual misconduct. University health officials have struggled to quantify how often inappropriate sexual behavior occurs—and what to do about it.

Empty beer cups litter the ground outside the Pole Houses after an off-campus party. (Photo by Cameron Steele)

“Alcohol is often a factor in sexual assault because it affects people’s decision-making and perception of dangerous situations,” said Dr. Jane Horton, W&L’s director of Student Health. “There’s a lot of miscommunication here.”

Since 2001 W&L health officials have surveyed students about their sexual behavior and alcohol use. In recent years the survey has been refined, partly because of suspicions about the accuracy of the numbers.

Since 2004 health officials have requested that all W&L undergraduates participate in an online, anonymous survey. School health officials said the response rate has been high and survey respondents have accurately represented university demographics, based on gender, participation in Greek life, and socioeconomic and racial backgrounds.

In 2009 the health survey revealed that 20 percent of the 341 women who responded to the questionnaire said they’ve been taken advantage of sexually after drinking alcohol. The 341 female respondents represent 39 percent of undergraduate women.

Until now, W&L health officials limited release of the survey’s results to select student and faculty groups. Dawn Watkins, dean of student affairs, said she and other administrators feared the numbers would be taken out of context.

But the Rockbridge Report recently obtained a copy of the questionnaire data, which Horton believes accurately capture students’ experiences with alcohol and sexual misconduct.

About 18 percent of the survey’s female respondents said they’ve experienced rape or attempted rape – a figure that is two times the national college average for sexual assault, said Horton.

But what is rape? That question is at the center of the debate about sexual assault at W&L, mainly because consent is a key component of rape. Legally, rape is defined as “the crime of sexual intercourse without consent and accomplished through force, threat of violence or intimidation.”

The W&L survey defines rape as “sexual penetration against [someone’s] will.”

When alcohol is involved, it becomes difficult to determine whether a woman has given, or is capable of giving, consent—and whether the man is sober enough to understand what she’s said.

Off-campus parties: Where men and women meet

Some W&L students and faculty members blame binge drinking at off-campus parties at Windfall and the nearby Pole Houses for sexual misconduct and strained gender relations.

“Most of the interactions between men and women occur at parties where there is a lot of alcohol involved,” said Melina Bell, a professor of philosophy.

Further complicating the issue is that students say they choose to attend W&L because of its reputation for binge-drinking—which the university defines as five or more alcoholic drinks in the same night for a man and four or more for a woman. Jan Kaufman, director of Student Health Promotions, said such high-risk behavior often leads to inappropriate sexual contact.

Hundley, who spends much of her time as an RA talking to female dorm residents about drinking and sexual misconduct, said first-year students are often excited about getting drunk at parties but understand little about the consequences.

W&L senior Lucy Hundley worries when first-year women drink at off-campus parties. (Photo by Cameron Steele)

“First-years have this overwhelming perception of drinking as something that people do every night,” she said.

She also said there’s a lot of pressure on first-year women to drink to impress male students, their sorority sisters and other women on campus.

About 90 percent of W&L students join fraternities and sororities – another key aspect of the university’s social scene that some faculty and students say exacerbates the problem. The fraternities usually provide the alcohol at off-campus parties, where, Bell said, she thinks the male-dominated atmosphere overwhelms women and pressures men to prove their “manhood.”

“Socialization takes place on male territory. It all happens under the control of men,” she said. “There’s this social pressure among men to ‘get it’ or take advantage of women who have been drinking.”

Hundley said first-year residents don’t believe that they’re in danger when they go out to the parties.

“[Women] don’t expect men to behave badly around them,” she said.

Garrott McClintock, president of the Interfraternity Council, said men and women make bad judgment calls when they’re intoxicated, but he doesn’t think the Greek system is to blame.

“We don’t think about it like that,” he said. “I think we just throw a lot of parties in general where everyone can come.”

Still, McClintock said, he’s worried about sexual misconduct at W&L. “We have a problem with people not knowing how to handle sex and alcohol in the same setting,” he said. “Gender relations can always be worked on.”

Under review: The Student Faculty Hearing Board

Each year two to three women who say they’ve been sexually assaulted go to the Student Health Center for treatment, Horton said.

But those women rarely go to the police to press criminal charges or report the assault to the Student Faculty Hearing Board, a quasi-judicial university committee that decides whether to punish students accused of sexual misconduct. Sanctions range from community service to expulsion.

Students and faculty members also blame W&L’s historically male-dominated culture for the lack of reporting.

“A lot of times here, people are reluctant to name someone and bring charges against someone because of the fear of, basically, social ostracism,” Horton said.

Various groups on campus urge end to sexual assault and misconduct. (Photo by Cameron Steele)

This term, W&L President Kenneth Ruscio appointed a committee to review the hearing procedures after a controversial SFHB decision that Hundley said reinforced the belief among some women on campus that they shouldn’t speak up about sexual assault, especially if alcohol is involved.

Last year, when a female student brought a sexual assault complaint to the hearing board, the committee found the accused male student responsible for exploiting the woman’s drunkenness in order to “physically and emotionally abuse” her, according to the SFHB’s decision.

But the male student was not suspended or expelled from W&L. Instead the board ordered him to perform 150 hours of community service, working with abused women at a local clinic.

Hundley said she and others were outraged at the decision.

“In its current form, the SFHB has lost all credibility,” she said. “Basically it’s a failure.”

Ruscio has asked the review committee to conclude its examination of the hearing board’s procedures by the end of this term and release final recommendations at the start of Winter term classes.

The omen of ‘O’ Week

Binge drinking at off-campus parties starts the week before classes begin, when first-year students attend information sessions as part of the university’s orientation program. Kaufman said participation in off-campus partying becomes ingrained in first-year students that week.

During Orientation Week, first-years must attend mandatory meetings about academic life, the W&L honor code and the dangers of drinking and sexual assault. The Student Affairs Office schedules the sessions from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. to try to discourage first-year students from going off-campus to party.

But after 10 p.m., upperclass students show up outside of the dorms in their cars, waiting to ferry first-years to parties at off-campus houses like Windfall, Pumptown and the Pole Houses.

“We can’t control, as a Student Affairs staff, what cars line up out there and take students away,” Watkins said.

This year, Hundley said, all of the first-year women in her dorm went out almost every night of Orientation Week—even after the first night when she hosted a hall meeting to warn the residents about the risks of drinking at off-campus parties.

That night, Hundley said, she took one of her residents to the Student Health Center because the woman was so drunk she couldn’t talk coherently when she returned to the dorm at 2 a.m.

“It’s a really dangerous time to be a first-year student,” Hundley said, referring to the first night of Orientation Week. “We haven’t had any of the programming about drinking, any of the programming about sexual assault, and [first-year women] are already being put in pretty dangerous situations.”

‘Traveller’ trouble

The high-risk, off-campus drinking continues throughout the school year. And in a city like Lexington, which has no public transportation to accommodate 50 percent of W&L students living off-campus, a university safe-ride program is a necessity, said Watkins.

Since 2004 the university has offered buses and vans known as Traveller to provide transportation to and from the parties. Some members of the W&L and Lexington communities criticize the program as a university “taxi service” that encourages and excuses irresponsible drinking in dangerous social situations.

“I think [Traveller] does encourage underage drinking because now [W&L students] can get a ride home or back to the Pole Houses or wherever they live,” said Lexington Police Chief Steve Crowder.

But Crowder also credits Traveller for the decline in drunk driving arrests in Lexington to 48 in 2008 from 56 in 2005.

Traveller picks students up to take them to off-campus parties. (Photo by Cameron Steele)

Both Crowder and Watkins said that, without Traveller, they fear more students would get behind the wheel and drive drunk.

“If I have to make a choice between enabling, which I wouldn’t agree is occurring, but if I had to make a choice between enabling bad behavior or seeing people die, I’m going to choose the former,” Watkins said.

Professional drivers operate Traveller’s two large buses that run from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. every Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. The university also hires student drivers who must pass a driving test to operate the smaller sedans and vans for people who call and request rides. The dispatch service is available any night of the week until 2 a.m.

In October the Traveller system fell under more scrutiny than usual after one of the buses struck a W&L sophomore woman as it pulled away from an off-campus party. The female student was hospitalized with a fractured left hip but plans to return to school in the Winter term after her recovery. The driver was not charged.

For some, the accident highlighted the problems with the safe ride system and dangers of high-risk drinking at off-campus parties.

“[Traveller] very much facilitates students not having to accept personal responsibility for getting themselves home from parties,” Kaufman said.

Raising awareness

This term students and faculty groups on campus are working to shine a spotlight on sexual assault, including a group of 11 W&L women who are enrolled in a women and gender studies class designed by Bell. The first class of its kind at W&L, the group hopes to end sexual misconduct at the university by 2030. At a Dec. 9 campus forum, the women plan to present suggestions on how achieve that goal.

“In particular, we’re trying to [raise awareness] about what a good sexual assault policy at W&L should look like,” Bell said.

Bell’s students put up flyers around campus, polled students and faculty about sexual assault and wrote editorials in the school newspaper to bring attention to the issue.

Other university officials say female students need to take a more active role in setting the social tone on campus. “I’d like to see more women take more leadership,” Kaufman said. “Right now, women aren’t really exercising their voices.”

Watkins also said women need to speak up more frequently about sexual misconduct and get more involved in W&L student government.

“Women students…just don’t want to put themselves ‘out there,’ ” she said. “That concerns me. What is it that’s ‘out there’ that our women students don’t want to experience that our male students don’t seem to be concerned about?”

This story was originally published Dec. 3, 2009, on the Rockbridge Report’s website. The video package aired Nov. 19, 2009, on the Rockbridge Report newscast.