Panel finds booze at root of sex assault issue

 By KAYLEE WALDEN/Montana State News

With a stern look in his eye and a harsh edge to his voice at the mention of the word “rape,” Matt Caires, dean of students at Montana State University, makes it clear that it is not an issue that the administration at MSU takes lightly.

Last year, Missoula was scandalously dubbed the “Rape Capital” of the nation after a string of sexual assaults involving college students, including University of Montana intercollegiate athletes, that garnered national publicity.

In hopes of preventing similar incidents, MSU took a hard look at their policies. Caires, under the direction of MSU President Waded Crusado, didn’t hesitate to outline a set prevention techniques for MSU.

He’s starting with what he calls “the root of the problem:” alcohol.

“It’s by no means entirely the responsibility of the institution, but we need to be proactive to prevent what’s happened in Missoula from happening here,” Caires said. “After looking at all the cases of rape involving students, alcohol was the one obvious common denominator.”

Vision isn’t the only thing that’s distorted by too many beers on a Friday night. Many rape cases, like the one involving University of Montana quarterback Jordan Johnson, lapse into a drunken he-said-she-said where judgment and memory are blurred out. Rape and sexual assault are collateral damage that goes hand in hand with binge drinking.

According to AlcoholEdu statistics, each year, an estimated 97,000 college students between the ages of 18 and 24 are victims of alcohol-related sexual assault or rape nationwide.

Intoxication amplifies aggression and sexual desire, a dangerous cocktail that puts the young adult brain on haywire. Common sense fails when mixed with alcohol, leaving victims unable to resist drunken sexual advancements, and aggressors unable to distinguish the sometimes vague line between yes and no.

MSU, under the direction of Caires and student body president Kiah Abbey, formed a commission to study and explore the drinking culture of Bozeman. The commission meets Mondays and meetings tend towards informality and a laid-back atmosphere, encouraging both commission members and guests to talk candidly about alcohol.

Several weeks ago, the commission took their investigation to the streets, barhopping until late into the night. “It was an interesting experience,” Caires said with a slight smirk, leaning forward in his chair.  “But it was an essential part of our research. We had to observe binge drinking in action.”

In downtown Bozeman on a Friday night, the scene inside each bar is virtually interchangeable from one to another; dim lighting, blaring music and grinning, intoxicated students.

With patrons teeming from wall-to-wall, bartenders deftly mix whiskey with Coke and pour draft beers upon request. Everyone bobs their heads rhythmically to the music, drink in hand—alcohol is everywhere. They come from every crowd: Honors students to athletes and everything in between.

Caires said that most students the commission talked to named drinking and driving as their primary concern when out partying, but many also mentioned that the increased risk for rape was on their radar.

“I think what’s happened at U of M has opened students’ eyes. They’re more likely to grab their friend and say, ‘Hey, you’ve had too much to drink. Don’t go home with that guy, or that girl, tonight,’” Caires said.

Once midnight hits, the bar-goers grow louder and more rowdy; stumbles and slurs become more prominent. By this point in the night, the glossy-eyed 20-somethings are especially prone to making regrettable decisions.

Rich McLane, deputy chief of the Bozeman police, said that they received 54 reports of rape, sexual assaults and other sexually-related crimes in 2012. In almost all of the incidents, alcohol was a contributing factor.

“In nearly every, if not every case, the victim was severely intoxicated or under the influence to some degree,” McLane said, shaking his head. “It’s clearly a huge part of the problem.”

Missoula Police said in the past three years, nearly 80 rapes were reported to them, including 11 involving UM students in the past year and a half, most notoriously an alleged gang-rape by several intoxicated Grizzly football players.

Though the figures seem shocking, according to the FBI, statistics in both towns correlate with national averages for university towns similar in size to Missoula or Bozeman. This, of course, does not account for the fact that over half of all rapes and sexual assaults generally go unreported, and that campus rapes are known for being especially under-reported.

“This is a problem that every college campus in America experiences, every community experiences at some level,” said UM President Royce Engstrom at a sexual assault forum earlier this year.

Roughly one fourth of college women are victims of sexual assault or attempted sexual assault, according to the FBI, and almost all victims of rape or sexual assault know their aggressor on a personal basis; date-rapes have been proven far more common than random assaults by strangers.

Caires recalls last call downtown, watching the students leave the bars; forced to call it a night, stumbling off to their rides home. He said he could only hope that the only consequence they would have to worry about in the morning was a hangover.

Edited by Rebecca Marston

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