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Rhiana Wegner in her lab, which has been set up to look like a bar. (UMass Boston/Colleen Locke)
December 3, 2018

UMass Boston professor receives NIH funding to study impact of drinking games on sexual behavior

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  • Boston
$400 thousand ENDGAMES grant to fund Assistant Professor Rhiana Wegner's research

Previous studies have found that those who take part in drinking games are engaged in extreme binge drinking— that’s 8 or more drinks for women, and 10 or more for men. But until now, no one has looked at how drinking games affect intentions to engage in consensual and non-consensual sexual behavior. This is why the National Institutes of Health is awarding Assistant Professor of Psychology Rhiana Wegner $403,361 over the course of three years for her project, ENDGAMES.

“We’ve looked at how much [students] drink when [they] play drinking games, but we haven’t really looked at what happens later on in the night,” Wegner said. “[Other researchers have] looked at various negative outcomes like getting an alcohol violation …, but they haven’t been looking at [drinking games] tied to sexual behavior.”

Because this is a R15 (AREA) grant, it includes funding for four undergraduate students as well as a graduate student and a student acting as a research coordinator. One of the major goals of NIH’s AREA grants is to expose undergraduate and graduate students to hands-on research.

Here’s how it will work: paid study participants 21 and older will be playing Memory as a drinking game in a room set up like an apartment. They will then go into a separate room and, on a computer, answer a series of questions, such as How’s the rest of your night going to go? Who are you talking to at the party? Are you taking shots? Are you chugging beers?

“By bringing [participants into] the lab, we can standardize how many drinks they have, and how long they’re playing the game,” Wegner said.

Participants will have their BAC levels monitored. They will need to stay in the lab until they have sobered up. Someone will need to pick them up; they won’t be able to drive themselves. UMass Boston’s Department of Public Safety is available to assist during the study if needed.

“It’s a [novel approach toward examining] what’s happening later on in the night,” Wegner said. “We’re all trying to figure out this gray area between what is intoxicated consensual sexual behavior and intoxicated non-consensual sexual behavior, and I’m hoping this is going to help us create a clearer line between those two types of behaviors. We haven’t clearly defined [this line] in the research.”

Wegner says this study may find that specific programming needs to be created for universities.

“Is it about the specific game, is it about how you’re playing the game, is it about who you’re playing the game with, and if so, if we let people know that and we’ve linked it to these sexual outcomes, then maybe individuals will create protective behavioral strategies for themselves,” Wegner said.

“One of the programs I’m working on here [at UMass Boston] is called Bringing In the Bystander. It’s geared toward training everyone on campus to be an active bystander and keep an eye out for each other,” Wegner said. “And maybe that’s where we need to be stepping in–earlier in the process–[during drinking game play].”

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