Sex under the influence

BY SARAH STEGER | Evergreen reporter

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Washington State University’s party culture makes sex under the influence a dangerous possibility for college life.

“This is college; they’re young, they want to have fun, and they want a social lubricant,” said Sexual Assault Advocate Tamara Jell of Alternatives to Violence of the Palouse (ATVP). “The fact of the matter is that there is a high correlation between that social lubricant and sexual assault.”

Jell said both parties must give their consent before having sex, otherwise it is considered sexual assault.

At ATVP, sexual assault is an umbrella term, Jell said. Unwanted touching, jokes, exhibitionism, voyeurism, cat calls, and stalking are just a few examples of instances where sexual assault is occurring before the victim has even realized what is happening, she said.

“It is a continuum, which is what makes it so hard to give one hard definition,” Jell said. “The truth is there is no cutoff, no hard and fast line that a person can refer to and say ‘he or she is too drunk to walk, speak, think.’”

Jell said the problem with sex under the influence is that both parties interpret signs or signals differently and those misunderstandings lead to nonconsensual sex.

Page eight of the Plan-It Palouse 2013-2014 Academic Planner provided for all WSU students states what sexual misconduct is: Any form of sexual activity that is forced, non-consented or coerced.

“Sexual activity is nonconsensual when the person lacks the mental capacity at the time of the activity to be able to understand the consequences of the act, whether incapacity is produced by illness, defect, or the influence of alcohol” according to the WAC 504-26-221 Sexual Misconduct definition provided on page 15 of the Plan-It Palouse Academic Planner.

That means that even if consent is given, under the influence of alcohol it is not classified as legal consent.

Assistant Dean of Students Karen Fischer said that perpetrators are held to that standard. It is their responsibility to know and understand the policies.

“We do not want these violations to occur,” Fischer said. “Perpetrators need to be aware of the policies and standards they will be held accountable to.”

ATVP Sexual Assault Prevention Educator Charis Alderfer-Mumma said women have been told the same things for generations; to watch their drinks, to have a friend with them when they go out, and to drink a glass of water after each alcoholic beverage they consume.

“The rate of sexual assault, however, is still the same. It is still one in four women,” Alderfer-Mumma said.

Alderfer-Mumma said it is important to understand that sexual predators are looking for easy targets. An easy target might be a classmate, a person struggling emotionally or an intoxicated person, she said.

“You think you’re safe, but more often than not, the perpetrator is someone the victim knows,” Alderfer-Mumma said.

Since July 2013, approximately 21 WSU students have visited with ATVP advocates, but the majority of sexual assaults are not reported, Alderfer-Mumma said.

The Coordinator of Alcohol and Drug Counseling, Assessment, and Prevention Services (ADCAPS), Patricia Maarhuis, said a lot of people think sexual assault can only be determined when physical evidence is presented.

“Some people think it is more mechanical; penetration, bruising, tearing; evidence that you can see and test,” she said.

Maarhuis said consent is actually based on communication, which is very important for people to understand. The law purposefully omits a blood alcohol level in sexual assault definitions because it could work against the victim, she said.

“Sometimes I hear from people, ‘well she didn’t say no,’ but the absence of a ‘yes’ is a yellow light. It’s the point where you should ask ‘are you okay’ or ‘do you need a break,’” Maarhuis said.

Any time people add alcohol to a situation the risk is increased, Maarhuis said. Places young people go to have fun are often the places with the highest risk of sexual assault. People under the influence become disinhibited, and so people become louder and more animated, said Maarhuis.

“The feeling of attraction and the feelings of anxiety, being perceived as attractive, or having sex are all heightened,” Maarhuis said.

For the victims it is all about risk reduction, Maarhuis said. Having a group of friends, drinking moderately and not being a passive bystander are three tips that can help potential victims reduce risk of sexual assault under the influence.

“I know people want to be sexually adventurous, but maybe get to know the person a bit first,” Maarhuis said.

Prevention, on the other hand, is all to do with the perpetrator, Maarhuis said. She said a huge change in culture is needed for sexual assault incidents to disappear completely.

“If women just had to change their behavior, the issue would have been solved millennia ago,” Maarhuis said. “A woman could be walking through a crowded bar completely naked, and no one touches her because she hasn’t given consent,” Maarhuis said. “That scenario should be our society’s ultimate goal.”

WSU’s Violence Prevention Coordinator Nikki Finnestead said repeat offenders account for nine out of 10 sexual assaults.

“They are committing the same crimes repeatedly, simply because they can,” she said.

Finnestead runs WSU’s Green Dot program as well as the Violence Prevention Programs. She said Green Dot does not work directly with sexual assault victims. Instead, they are referred to ATVP advocates or the ATVP offices on campus, which are occupied by advocates and are available to anyone in need.

Sex under the influence is a common occurrence. WSU student Ella Odland explained that when intoxicated, your emotions are heightened.

“You feel unstoppable, which is why drunk sex among students is common,” she said.

Green Dot Graduate Coordinator Stephanie Roeter said perpetrators are savvy. They know intoxicated people are easily pressured. They know the morals of those under the influence have been impaired.

The prevention efforts of WSU’s Violence Prevention Program and Green Dot are tailored to this reality. Finnestead said perpetrators can be prevented, not victims.

“To do this, we engage everyone to recognize any signs of sexual assault; whether in a relationship, on a date, or under the influence,” Finnestead said.

The aim is to provide a comprehensive violence plan to provide education, she explained.

“Often, society excuses the actions of the perpetrator and condemns the victim instead,” Finnestead said. “We don’t want that.”

Roeter said the fear of retaliation, being blamed and not being believed is why sexual assault is so often not reported.

“People are embarrassed,” she said.

Roeter said that for this reason, Green Dot is implementing an increased emphasis on bystander intervention strategies with the Green Dot Bystander Intervention Program.

Finnestead said WSU’s party culture is not unique. Universities across the country have party cultures. What makes WSU slightly unique is that Pullman is a stereotypical college town.

Fischer said culture doesn’t make anyone do anything. It is the individual’s choice how much alcohol they wish to consume, not the school’s party culture.

“If you’re going to have more than two beers, then you should probably have a conversation regarding what sex under the influence means beforehand,” Fischer said.

WSU offers confidential counseling services. The university also offers violence prevention education at Green Dot in the Washington Building. Students have access to the Women’s Resource Center and the Alcohol & Drug Counseling Assessment Prevention Services located in 280 Lighty Student Services.

Alternatives to Violence of the Palouse offers support groups; both personal and at police or medical interviews, and a 24-hour confidential hotline at (509) 332-HELP (4357). To contact ATVP visit http://www.atvp.org/Get_Help.html.