Students who drink heavily report considerably more unsafe sex, unhappy sexual experiences and unwanted advances than their lightly drinking peers, according to a new survey of students at five New Zealand universities.
A clear link between binge drinking during high school years and heavy drinking and potentially harmful sexual experiences at university also emerged from the survey of 2,548 male and female undergraduates enrolled at five of New Zealand's eight universities.
Other findings included that students who started to drink at a younger age were more likely to report heavy drinking at university and have more problems related to sexual experiences.
The results have just been published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health
Study lead author Professor Jennie Connor says that previous studies in New Zealand university students have suggested a high prevalence of binge drinking and alcohol related harms.
"But we wanted to measure how commonly students experience hazardous and unwanted sexual experiences, and where the most appropriate intervention points might be," says Professor Connor, who heads the Department of Preventive and Social Medicine at the University of Otago.
In the survey, participants were asked to provide information on drinking patterns and alcohol-related problems during the preceding four weeks, along with information about their past drinking experiences.
More than 80% of both men and women reported drinking alcohol in the four weeks preceding the survey, and 37% reported binge drinking in the last week.
Professor Connor says that of the students who had done any drinking in the past four weeks, 8.3% of men and 5.3% of women reported at least one episode of unsafe sex due to drinking in that time.
"One in eight women and one in six men said they had experienced unsafe sex or some other sexual experience that they were not happy with due to their drinking in that period," she says.
There was also a high frequency of unwanted sexual advances due to other people's drinking reported by students, with 12% of men and 21% of women affected in the last 4 weeks.
All of these experiences were more common in students who drank more heavily, with unsafe sex being 10 times more likely in the heaviest drinking group than the lightest.
Half of university students had their first full drink of alcohol before the age of 15 years. Those who started later had lower alcohol consumption scores at university and were less likely to report unsafe or unwanted sexual experiences.
Students who reported frequent binge drinking in the final year of high school had higher alcohol consumption scores and reported more unsafe sex due to drinking at university.
"The characteristics of students that are most affected appear to be early initiation of drinking, heavy drinking at high school, and living in unsupervised environments."
Professor Connor says that while there are many factors that contribute to risky and unwanted sexual behaviour, preventive measures need to include reducing levels of hazardous drinking.
"Reduction of binge drinking in high school is a key to reducing harm, given its association with later binge drinking and its harmful consequences. New Zealand's lowering of the minimum purchase age for alcohol from 20 to 18 years has probably made drinking among 15 -17 year-olds worse, and therefore the job of universities all the more difficult."
To reduce harmful levels of drinking amongst students, universities need to work with local government and police to reduce the availability and promotion of alcohol on and around campuses, and to treat alcohol as a serious health issue for young people, she says.
"Furthermore, this study provides evidence for families about the value of delaying initiation of drinking, and about the effects of the heavy-drinking peer culture that young people are exposed to while still at school."