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A dangerous transition: High school to the first year of college

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Increases in young womens drinking during the transition from high school through the first year of college can have dangerous physical, sexual and psychological implications, according to a report out of the University at Buffalos Research Institute on Addictions.

The good news is that during the first year of college, when many young women increase their drinking, the majority (78 percent) of the 870 incoming freshmen women who participated in the study did not experience any victimization. The bad news, however, is that among the 22 percent of women who were victimized, 13 percent experienced severe physical victimization and 38 percent experienced severe sexual victimization.

The research results were published in the January 2008 issue of the prestigious Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.

This is the first study that we know of that has compared risk for physical and sexual assault among college women based on changes in drinking during this transition period, said Kathleen A. Parks, Ph.D., principal investigator on the study. Clearly, abstaining from drinking is a protective measure. However, young college women should be aware that becoming a new drinker or increasing ones drinking during this transition increases the likelihood of victimization.

The study showed that among women who drank alcohol during the first year of college, rates of physical and sexual victimization were substantially higher compared to women who did not drink. In addition, the odds of first-year college sexual victimization significantly increased with each pre-college psychological symptom (i.e., anxiety, depression) and each pre-college sexual partner a woman reported.

Interestingly, researchers found that the changes in drinking patterns during the high-school-to-college transition influenced risk for physical and sexual victimization in different ways.

About one fourth (27 percent) of the women reported that they abstained from drinking in the year prior to entering college. During the first year of college, only 12 percent continued to be abstainers. Among these abstainers, less than two percent reported physical victimization and seven percent reported sexual victimization.

Compare this with drinkers, seven percent of whom reported physical victimization and 19 percent, sexual victimization.

Being a new drinker during the first year of college (15 percent of the women) increased the likelihood of physical, but not sexual, victimization. The researchers speculated that new drinkers social and physical inexperience or lack of tolerance for alcohol and its effects may increase womens impairment when drinking and subsequently, their vulnerability to potential perpetrators or dangerous situations. Perhaps, the physically disinhibiting effects of alcohol for new drinkers may cause them to be more reactive, possibly verbally aggressive, or more likely to call attention to themselves, thereby putting themselves at risk for physical aggression in social drinking situations.

Continuing drinkers were defined as those who drank the year prior to college and during the first year of college. Of these women, more than half (57 percent) increased their drinking during the first year at college. They drank considerably more than new drinkers on multiple measures of alcohol consumption, including heavy episodic drinking -- four or more drinks per occasion -- and were at greater risk for sexual victimization.

Of the continuing drinkers, 26 percent reported decreasing their drinking and 16 percent reported not changing their level of weekly drinking.

These findings suggest that a later onset of drinking may be protective against patterns of heavy episodic drinking and some of the associated negative consequences.

Young women who had a history of physical victimization and greater psychological symptoms, and who began drinking during the first year at college had an increased likelihood of experiencing physical victimization, explained Parks. Women who had a greater number of psychological symptoms, more sexual partners and increased their weekly drinking had an increased likelihood of experiencing sexual victimization during the first year of college.

Parks is a senior research scientist at RIA and a behavioral psychologist with extensive experience studying womens substance use, misuse, and victimization. The other research team members included Ann M. Romosz, project director, Clara M. Bradizza, Ph.D., senior research scientist at RIA and research assistant professor of psychiatry in UBs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, and Ya-Ping Hsieh, Ph.D., data manager and analyst for the study.

Incidents of sexual victimization were predicted by different factors than incidents of physical victimization. According to Parks, The significant predictors of sexual victimization were psychological symptoms during the first year at college, number of consensual sexual partners and increased drinking. Women who have more consensual sexual partners are more likely to encounter a sexually aggressive individual and are more likely to experience sexual victimization. At the same time, women who increased their drinking are more likely to be behaviorally and cognitively impaired and less likely to recognize, avoid or defend against sexual aggression.

Women who increased their drinking experienced nearly five negative alcohol-related problems during the first year at college. Those problems included a variety of consequences such as inability to do homework or study for a test, passing out or fainting suddenly, engaging in consensual sexual activity that was regretted afterward, physical assault, sexual assault, theft or robbery.

Parks encourages development of prevention programs that emphasize the risks of drinking and heavy drinking in social situations for women. Women with a history of drinking before entering college are at greatest risk for escalating their drinking and experiencing more negative consequences and sexual assault.


Contact: Kathleen Weaver
University at Buffalo

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