When you turn 21 — and can legally consume alcohol for the first time — you’re more likely to be the victim of a property or violent crime, according to new research disseminated by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER).
The study, conducted by professors at the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) and the University of Oregon, says men are 7% more likely to be the victim of a violent or property crime when they turn 21. This includes a rise in sexual assault, robbery, non-sexual assault, and larceny. Women are 25% more likely to be the victim of sexual assault and 10% more likely to experience a property crime, like burglary or larceny, when they turn 21, according to the research.
To determine the results, the researchers analyzed crime data from eight major U.S. cities, including Dallas, Houston, Milwaukee, and San Diego. This data included the birth dates for all crime victims. They used this information to “estimate the likelihood that an individual is victimized just after her 21st birthday relative to the period before her 21st birthday.” They assumed that the only major change that occurs at one’s 21st birthday is the ability to access alcohol legally. The increase in criminal victimization is “found only at age 21 (and not on prior or subsequent birthdays) and is unlikely to be driven by celebrating one’s 21st birthday itself,” the study authors wrote.
Other studies have linked alcohol use to criminal behavior. About 40% of incarcerated individuals in prison for violent crimes committed those offenses while under the influence of alcohol, according to the NIH. What’s more, individuals are more likely to commit a crime when they turn 21, according to research circulated by the NBER in 2016. The number of crimes people commit increases by 10.6 percent at that age, the study says. The biggest spikes were in disorderly conduct, assaults without premeditation, and drunk driving.
Debunking myths about sexual assault
But that 2016 study did not find individuals are more likely to commit robbery or rape when they turn 21. On the other hand, the research released this year on victimization found that beginning at 21, individuals are more likely to be the victim of these crimes.
In combination, these findings contradict the idea that rapists commit assault because they are under the influence of alcohol. Perpetrators of rape will sometimes cite intoxication as an excuse for their actions afterward.
“Our research is more consistent with a model that there are motivated offenders looking for vulnerable targets than with a model where sexual assault perpetrators lose control due to increased alcohol use,” Aaron Chalfin, a professor in UPenn’s Department of Criminology and one of the authors on the study, told MarketWatch.
“This definitely doesn’t mean the victim is to blame,” he added. “We need to empower victims with information.”
Women are “unfairly blamed for their sexual victimization because they were drinking and or were wearing revealing clothing,” Geraint Osborne, a professor of sociology who researches drug policy at the University of Alberta, said.
He believes discussions on sexual assault awareness and prevention “need to start much earlier, rather than waiting until kids are in college, university or high school. The earlier the better,” he said.
Other research has found that perpetrators of sexual assault are more likely to have been under the influence of alcohol than victims. And men who have drunk alcohol are more likely to exhibit “aggressive behavior” toward women than men who haven’t, a 2015 study indicated.
More than a quarter — 27% — of women have experienced sexual assault, according to a 2018 study by the nonprofit “Stop Street Harassment.” Over 80% of women have experienced some kind of sexual harassment. Some 7% of men have experienced sexual assault, and over 30% have experienced verbal sexual harassment, according to the same study.
Changing the conversation around alcohol
Given the link between crime and intoxication that this and other studies have established — as well as the negative health effects of drinking alcohol — some have suggested an alcohol tax.
“The single most effective thing you can do to reduce crime right away is to raise the price of alcohol,” Mark Kleiman, a professor at New York University’s Marron Institute, told Vox.
But Chalfin told MarketWatch he doesn’t have any specific policy recommendations based on this new study alone.
“I think it’s dangerous to implement policy based on the results of one study, but what this does find is that drinking does drive victimization,” Chalfin said.
Osborne would like to see alcohol and drug use education focus more on “harm reduction.” “Most kids are going to use at some point in their life, so it’s better than we are honest with them and arm them with the best knowledge available. It’s a realist approach that is grounded in research and can lead to evidence based policy,” he said.