The college years, for many, are a period of risk-taking and experimentation. At residential colleges and universities, many students are away from parental supervision for the first time in their lives, and so this period in their lives is one of unchecked freedom. Many people go through a “wild phase” in their college years, grow out of it, and go on to become hardworking, upstanding adults. However, most of the risk taking in college revolves around heavy drinking and sex, which is often a dangerous combination. People who are intoxicated due to alcohol or other substances are substantially more likely to engage in unprotected sex (Parkhill et al, 2014). Further, intoxicated individuals are much more likely to engage in these risky sex behaviors with casual partners or with complete strangers, about whose health and disease history they know nothing. Thus, the risk of contracting a sexually transmitted infection (STI) or even Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) is that much higher, and this has potential lifetime consequences for an individual who simply wanted to have a night of fun. Perhaps more horrific, a woman’s chances of being violently sexually assaulted increase greatly if she is intoxicated, especially if she is of college age (Davis, 2010), and these encounters are rarely “protected” sexual encounters. Educational measures about the risks inherent in intoxicated unprotected sex are necessary at the college level so that people can make informed decisions about their drinking and sexual decisions.
As K.C. Davis (2010) has observed, “Alcohol consumption is often present in situations that involve aggressive or risky sexual behavior.” Alcohol, especially when consumed in large quantities, lowers people’s inhibitions and often leads them to do things that they would not do otherwise, such as engage in unprotected sex. Further, it leads them to have sex with people that they might not choose to engage in intercourse with in another scenario. Obviously, this can lead to all sorts of unforeseen and disastrous consequences. Unprotected sex can lead to unintended pregnancy, the contraction of an STI or HIV, and it can also create awkward social situations for the following days and weeks to come. Alcohol intoxication impairs judgment and critical thought processes, and drunk people often only live for the moment, and do not carefully consider the potential consequences of their actions (Angsen et al, 2003). With risky sexual behavior, the physical, social and psychological consequences can last for a lifetime, and so educational measures concerning the connection between excessive alcohol consumption and risky sexual behavior are imperative for on-campus Student Health Centers, and community health partnerships.
With college-age individuals, the risk-taking aspects involved in alcohol consumption are compounded by the fact that the 18-23 age group is notoriously risk-prone, even without the use of alcohol or other intoxicating substances. Part of this has to do, no doubt, with the simple fact that many individuals in this age group are away from home for the first time, but cognitive scientists have also demonstrated that the frontal lobe region of the brain, and other portions of the brain involved in decision-making and judgment, are not fully-developed in human beings until the age of 25 (Parkhill et al, 2014). Add alcohol to a brain that already makes a person prone to risk-taking and impulsive behaviors, and you have a recipe for disaster, especially with regards to sexual risk-taking. While individuals over the age of 18 are, of course, adults in the eyes of the law, they often do not have judgment capabilities comparable to that of say, a 35 year old or a 50 year old. Thus, campus health centers and other university health care providers need to intervene and provide extensive education to individuals in this age group of the risks they are taking when they engage in intoxicated unprotected sex, and inform them of all the available options they have to mitigate these risks.
A darker aspect to the risk-taking behaviors involved in intoxicated sexual activity is the increased probability of sexual assault and rape that occurs in social situations among college-aged people that involve heavy drinking. In a 2014 study, Parkhill et al found that “The results suggest that sexual risk reduction programs and sexual assault treatment programs should educate women about the alcohol-involved risk-taking that often follows sexual assault victimization.” While there is no indication that alcohol abuse in and of itself makes men more prone to committing rape, there are strong indicators that alcohol consumption makes men who already have propensities toward sexually aggressive behaviors much more likely to act on these impulses (Davis, 2010). When one places sexually aggressive men in a closed social situation where there are also women who are intoxicated to the point of relative helplessness, the risk of rape and sexual assault increases greatly.
While heavy drinking and risky sexual activity are by no means new phenomena on American college campuses, it is clear that with each new incoming group of students, a relatively unsophisticated cohort is arriving who needs to be apprised of the dangers of intoxicated unprotected sexual activity. Campus student health centers need to take the lead in educating college-aged people about the dangers of heavy drinking, and of engaging in sexual activity while drunk. During routine office visits, all students should be questioned about their alcohol intake, and informed extensively about the risks inherent in sexual activity while they are intoxicated. While many students will not listen, there are a few who may benefit greatly from such education.
- Angsen, R., Heeren, T., Winter, M.R., & Wechsler, H. (2003). “Early age of first drunkenness as a factor in college students’ unplanned and unprotected sex attributable to drinking.” Pediatrics 111 (1), 34-41.
- Davis, K.C. (2010). “The influence of alcohol expectancies and intoxication on men’s aggressive unprotected sexual intentions.” Experimental and Clinical Psychopharmacology 18 (5), 418-428.
- Parkhill, M.R., Norris, J., & Davis, K.C. (2014). “The Role of Alcohol Use During Sexual Situations in the Relationship Between Sexual Revictimization and Women’s Intentions to Engage in Unprotected Sex.” Violence and Victims 29 (3), 492-505.