College of Health, Education and Human Development

The Burden of Youthful Choices

Exploring the Freshman Experience of Alcohol, Sexual Behavior, and Sexual Experiences

by Martie Thompson, Ph.D.

The Burden Of Youthful Choices

The time between high school graduation and the immediate post-college years is an important and distinct transition period for young people. Emerging adulthood theory was developed to describe and understand the period from the late teens through the mid-twenties (18- 25). This transition period represents a time of identity exploration when young people experience frequent changes in life goals, romantic attachments, work aspirations and world views.

Our research on first-year college students is grounded in the theoretical underpinnings of emerging adulthood. The first year of college is a key transitional time for students. Behaviors and experiences acquired during the early college years likely have an impact throughout mid- and late-adulthood (such as drinking practices and relationship expectations).

HEHD faculty and students in public health sciences are conducting two research projects funded by the National Institutes of Health. One study focuses on first-year college females at Clemson, and the other study focuses on first-year college males at Clemson. Both projects are exploring the experiences during the first year of college with a focus on alcohol use, sexual behaviors and unwanted sexual experiences.

The focus on alcohol use and unwanted sexual experiences is based on the fact that both of these behaviors are highly prevalent among college students and represent significant and interrelated public health problems. Nationally representative surveys indicate that approximately 40 percent of college students have engaged in recent heavy drinking, generally defined as five or more drinks in a row for men and four or more in a row for women at least once within the past two weeks.

Heavy alcohol use in college students is associated with alcohol-use disorders in later adulthood, as well as a host of negative consequences, including alcohol-related injuries and deaths. Additionally, unwanted sexual experiences also are prevalent among college students. College-aged females are at higher risk for sexual victimization than any other female age group, and rates of sexual victimization are three times higher for females in college compared to females of similar ages in the general population. Alcohol misuse and unwanted sexual experiences often go hand-in-hand. Studies indicate that at least half of sexual assaults among college students are related to alcohol use. Public health sciences students have had the opportunity to gain research experience in real-world issues facing youth while they are still youth themselves. The students have been able to participate in all phases of this research, including survey design, study protocol strategies, data collection, data entry and data analysis, culminating in a presentation at the HEHD faculty research forum.

The study with females is funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. More than half (720) of the freshman women at Clemson were surveyed at the end of their first year in March and April 2007. Women were recruited into the study through an email that invited them to the Student Health Center to complete anonymous surveys on women’s health. The survey included measures of unwanted sexual experiences, behavioral risk factors, coping processes and resources, psychological distress, and alcohol and other drug use.

We found that almost 20 percent of women reported some type of unwanted sexual experience in the eight to nine months since enrolling as a Clemson student. In total, 8.2 percent reported an unwanted sexual contact; 3.6 percent reported sexual coercion; 2.8 percent reported an attempted rape; and 3.1 percent a completed rape. In most of the incidents, the woman knew the other party — 37 percent were nonromantic acquaintances; 32 percent were romantic acquaintances or partners; 23 percent were casual or fi rst dates; and only 8 percent were strangers. Alcohol was involved in 65 percent of the incidents and was just as likely to have been used by the women (53 percent) as the men (56 percent). Only 4 percent of women who experienced unwanted sexual experiences reported the incident to the police. The main reasons women did not report were that they did not think the incidents were serious enough; they didn’t want anyone to know; they were ashamed or embarrassed; they didn’t want police or courts involved; and they didn’t want to get the offender into trouble.

Women who had experienced more severe forms of sexual victimization were more likely than their non-victimized and less-victimized counterparts to have engaged in risky behaviors. They were more likely to have engaged in binge drinking, to have been drunk more than two times a month and to have used marijuana, cocaine, stimulants and painkillers. They also were more likely to have engaged in frequent partying, be in a sorority, have a larger number of sex partners, have more positive alcohol-related sexual expectancies and have lower sexual refusal skills. Women who had unwanted sexual experiences also had more negative views about themselves and the world, self-blame, alcohol-related problems, depression and postt-raumatic stress symptoms than their non-victimized counterparts.

The study with freshman males is funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. Data were collected from 800 fi rst-year male students this past spring. These men will be resurveyed at the end of their second year. The survey asks males about their attitudes toward women, their experiences with both consensual and nonconsensual sex, their childhood experiences, and psychological and behavioral variables, such as propensity toward anger and impulsivity. Data were entered and analyzed this spring, and a presentation was given for the HEHD faculty research forum. Findings from both studies will be used to design preventive interventions for first year college students.  › HEHD Research Website