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Sexual assault survivors may be more likely to drink riskily—unless they have social support

Texas A&M study underscores importance of social connection in healing from sexual assault
group of females toasting shot glasses

Sexual assault is a prevalent problem on college campuses across the United States. It often follows alcohol consumption, which can impair people’s ability to consent to sexual activity. And, those drinking behaviors do not necessarily end once an assault has occurred.

Sexual assault survivors are more likely to engage in and be surrounded by risky drinking than other students, according to a new Texas A&M University School of Public Health study published in the journal Violence Against Women. A research team led by Meg Patterson, PhD, an assistant professor at the School of Public Health, found that survivors tended to drink in higher quantities than other students. They also tended to partake in drinking more frequently and to interact with other risky drinkers.

However, the researchers noticed an interesting trend: survivors who shared a connection with someone else who experienced sexual assault were less likely to engage in these risky behaviors. In these cases, although the survivors might still drink, they were less likely to drink at dangerous quantities. Patterson says these findings emphasize the importance of social connection in healing from a trauma like sexual assault.

Patterson notes that excessive drinking is dangerous and is not something to promote. Yet, this study suggests when it comes to drinking, there might be a “haven” where sexual assault survivors can lean on one another and start to feel autonomy again. “Autonomy—having control of yourself and your behaviors—is really powerful and important for health, especially when healing from sexual violence,” Patterson said.

Researchers examined survey results from 538 female college students. The survey asked students about their—and their social network’s—drinking habits and experience with sexual assault. The data was analyzed using egocentric network analysis, which looks at an individual and their social connections to examine social relationships and their effects on behavior and health. The researchers also considered factors including age, race and affiliation with Greek life.

Previous research has established a relationship between risky drinking behaviors, such as binge drinking, and history of sexual assault among college students. It is unclear what causes this association, as the researchers note these behaviors may be an indication of a survivor’s drinking behaviors prior to the assault or they may be a coping mechanism to deal with the anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress caused by sexual assault. Patterson is currently working on a long-term, longitudinal study that incorporates interviews with sexual assault survivors to help elucidate this relationship.

Although the research was conducted before the COVID-19 pandemic, Patterson says that her findings showing the effects of social connectedness on health is more important than ever because people are more socially isolated than ever before, and that isolation may have undue impact on health—both for sexual assault survivors and other people.

“Who we’re connected to matters, and how we connect with other people matters,” Patterson said.

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