In Part 1 of this series, we examined the relative safety of college campuses in terms of property crime and violence.
In our second installment, we examine the far more pervasive and challenging on-campus issue of sexual assault. According to the US Dept. of Justice, “Sexual assault is any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient. Falling under the definition of sexual assault are sexual activities such as forced sexual intercourse, forcible sodomy, child molestation, incest, fondling, and attempted rape.”
According to the Department of Education (DOE), while other violent crimes and property crimes are declining, sexual assault has seen a steady increase over recent years [PDF]. How should we interpret these numbers? More specifically, how big a problem is sexual assault in college, and what can be done about it?
An Outlier or an Indicator?
College campuses are generally quite safe, especially when students exercise reasonable precautions to protect themselves and their property. But despite the downward long-term trends in most crimes on campus, “forcible sex offenses” (sexual assault) seem to defy the trend. In the Department of Education (DOE) study [PDF] cited above, sexual assault cases have shown a consistent upward trend since 2001, rising from 2,201 reported cases to 6,723 cases in 2014. That’s more than a 300% increase in 13 years. Sexual assault cases can be difficult to measure, and there’s a roiling debate about this subject. Not everyone is convinced that sexual assault cases are rising.
The tendency to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the increased number of sexual assault cases might be symptomatic of what has been termed “rape culture.” This term denotes an environment whose prevailing social attitudes have the effect of normalizing or trivializing sexual assault and abuse. There is a compelling argument to be made that the sexually-charged environment of the college campus may well magnify the realities of rape culture there within.
It’s possible that incidents aren’t on the rise but that the rising number of cases is due in part to improved reporting. Perhaps there were just as many cases occurring in years past, but the cultural perception of “sexual assault” has changed along with greater awareness of sexual harassment and greater opportunities for women to achieve self-empowerment in public spaces. The result may be that fewer cases are excused and more are reported. That’s a possibility, but it’s difficult to measure. We can only treat it as a possibility here.
Another possible influence is enrollment growth. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reports a 17% growth in college enrollment, 2004–14. Unfortunately, enrollment gains are still too small to account for the 250% growth in sexual assault cases over the same ten-year period.
Another factor might be how the criteria for “sexual assault” have changed over time. The Department of Justice’s definition of “sexual assault” has included such ambiguous criteria as “forced kissing.” Likewise, there is a subjective element involved in identifying sexual assault among the countless cases of unsolicited touching on a crowded subway, at a bus terminal, on a busy street, at a house party, or on the dance floor. Legally speaking, sexual assault is a nuanced field, which makes measurement of actual increases difficult to ascertain.
Still, even with these caveats, sexual assault remains a major issue and one that has grown in prominence on college campuses. Altogether, these factors testify that sexual assault remains a serious on-campus problem and we have no reason to think it’s going away on its own. Whatever factors reduce the rate of theft, burglary, and aggravated assault — these factors aren’t clearly reducing occurrences or reports of sexual assault.
We cannot neatly dismiss these numbers. The DOE stats above are all the more striking compared to the findings of the Department of Justice (DOJ). The DOJ reports [PDF] a trending decline for all groups with a decrease of 63% in violent crime and sexual assault between 1993 and 2014. If college campuses, at the same time, are seeing more cases of sexual assault, despite the decline everywhere else, then we have to acknowledge that sex crimes are a serious issue specific to the college culture.
Sex Crimes and Safety
What do sexual assault cases tell us about campus safety? Being victimized by sexual assault is a radically different experience than having one’s car stolen or house burgled. While property crimes damage your possessions and injure your sense of safety, sexual assault is a violation of one’s very person. The impact is impossible to quantify.
What can we say then about the reality of sexual assault? Does its presence diminish all semblance of “safety” on campus? Is it a real but manageable threat? Or is it, as some claim, a partisan issue blown out of proportion to advance a political agenda?
1. No Victim Shaming
We should first acknowledge the dangerous social proclivity toward victim-blaming. The time for preventing sexual assault is before it happens. It is particularly destructive to respond to such an occurrence by waving a finger at a rape victim after the fact asking, “What were you wearing?” or “Were you drunk?” These questions imply that the victim’s behavior somehow facilitated or justified an act of sexual assault. This is never an appropriate response to an act of sexual assault. It is important to recognize that it is the perpetrator, and not the victim, who is at fault.
2. Acknowledge the Problem
Second, we need to acknowledge the problem. The American Association of University Women found that, in 2015, 89% of US Colleges reported zero incidents of rape. Simultaneously, the US Department of Education reports that one in every five women in college have been the victim of sexual assault. The incongruity between these two figures tells you that colleges have a problem and many of them have chosen to look the other way. It is essential that each college campus does its part by first recognizing in realistic terms that a problem does exist.
3. No Politics
Third, we should also set aside any partisan political agenda. All can acknowledge that women are the prime targets, they typically know their attacker, and college-aged women (18–24) are 300–400% more likely to be sexually assaulted than women generally. Protecting young women from sexual assault and any subsequent legal injustices is a public responsibility that should be unconnected from party affiliation.
Fourth, we must admit the ugly truth, that sexual assault often goes unreported and is rarely answered with a criminal conviction. According to the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault [PDF] (MCASA), only about 15–35% of sexual assaults are ever reported to the police. In the same report, victims list a number of reasons for under-reporting including fear of reprisal, privacy and personal matters, lack of evidence, or fear that prosecution would only multiply the trauma — “revictimizing” the victim so to speak. Some of these fears are justified too. Legally speaking, sexual assault cases are hard to prove. Too many times, sexual assault cases boil down to a “he said, she said” case, without enough evidence to convict. It is commonplace for the accused to argue that the sex was consensual.
Furthermore, examples like the Stanford rape case sent a chilling message to sexual assault victims across the country: even when there is ample evidence, eyewitnesses, a victim willing to come forward, and a conviction, the perpetrator may still just get a slap on the wrist. In the case of Brock Turner, the Stanford rapist, the minimum sentence should have been six years, but he ended up serving only three months. The judge commuted the minimum sentence for fear that this conviction would have “a severe impact” and “adverse collateral consequences” on the defendant. Incidents like this underscore the reality that even after taking all the appropriate steps within the scope of the law, the victim could still experience a devastating miscarriage of justice.
Of course, under-reporting and poor prosecution are not unique to the college campus. But it is clear that the risk of sexual assault escalates in certain college-specific settings such as fraternity and sorority parties, hazing rituals, and other settings where young people are pressured, persuaded, or even forced against their will into compromising situations.
Sexual Assault Is an Indicator
Returning to our earlier question, is sexual assault an outlier or an indicator? It’s probably an indicator that no matter how safe campuses may be, college students are still targets. Sexual assault is a real threat, primarily to college-age women, though also to men as well (about 10% of victims).
Sex and Drinking
As we saw in Campus Safety Check, Pt. 1, alcohol is a complicating factor in property crimes and reckless behavior. The same goes for sexual assault. Reports from the Washington Post, Kaiser Family Foundation, and from the DOJ have suggested that as many as 62% of sexual assault victims had been drinking beforehand, about 4–14% report having been drugged, and 4.2% tested positive for date rape drugs (often slipped into one’s drink). These reports lend some sense of how intoxication plays into sexual assault but they are only suggestive evidence. There’s no way to judge exactly how many people followed college drinking culture into a sexually compromised situation where both consent and self-defense became impossible.
The National Institute for Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) reports similar numbers with alcohol as a known influence in at least 50% of all reported cases of sexual assault (not just college cases).
“For years I believed it was my fault for being too drunk. I never called it ‘rape’ until much more recently, even though I repeatedly told him ‘no.’”
The same NIAAA study reports that roughly half of all sexual assaults are perpetrated by men who have been drinking. Among men surveyed, 20% reported having committed acts which qualify as criminal sexual assault — apparently not realizing that what they were describing was criminal in nature.
In alcohol-friendly cultures, it’s common for students to misunderstand what qualifies as “consent.” For example, if someone gives consent at first and then says, “No!” later, that is no longer consent. Likewise, if someone gives consent, but passes out beforehand, then that is no longer consent.
Drinking also raises another set of problems in reporting. We already noted that sexual assault is typically underreported. Students are even less likely to report a sexual assault if underaged drinking was involved. And if they had consented to sex while conscious, but passed out before intercourse, they may be too embarrassed to report the assault to campus officials or the police. Not to mention, even in marginal cases that border on consent, some students may just be too embarrassed to admit that they had sex while drunk. This prevents some victims from consenting to an investigation for fear that the proceedings would broadcast their behavior to the world.
While reiterating the fact that the victim is never to blame, and that recreational drinking does not excuse criminal behavior, you can better protect yourself by limiting your alcohol intake.
Staying sober is important for several reasons. For one thing, you are a better judge of character than when you aren’t drunk. This greater degree of awareness allows you to avoid suspicious people, and identify suspicious behavior more easily. Second, you make better decisions when sober so you aren’t as easily compromised. Third, when you are sober, you have better reflexes so you are in a better position to defend yourself if someone gets aggressive. Last, if you stay sober, you are more empowered to report a crime and press charges afterward. Your memory and recounting of events will be seen as more reliable in a legal context than if you had been intoxicated. Sexual assault cases are notoriously hard to prosecute, and inebriated victims have a harder time finding justice.
How to Stay Safe on Campus
Statistics are valuable, but they are only statistics. I’ve suggested above that the ultimate responsibility for your own safety rests on you. The campus has some responsibility. Your friends and family have some responsibility too. But ultimately, you have the primary responsibility for ensuring your own safety in college. College may be generally safe, but there is no college that has achieved a state of perfect safety.
When it comes to sexual assault, we have to reiterate that there is no excuse. But realistically, college campuses are always going to be a mainstay for irresponsible behavior and unwanted sexual advances. Savvy students can protect themselves against predators and assailants, but for that we need realistic advice and not just idealistic slogans.
1. Stay Sober
Perhaps the most obvious, yet most difficult guideline is sobriety. People make better, safer decisions when they’re sober. College culture lends a powerful pull toward heavy drinking. And it’s a judgment call as to how much alcohol is too much. The answer differs with each person. Nevertheless, students can save themselves a lot of heartache by keeping the drinking to a minimum and avoiding situations where there’s heavy drinking, binge drinking, and drug activity.
2. Guard your Drinks
Besides counting drinks (fewer is better), you also need to guard your drinks. Whether you order a Rum and Coke or just the Coke, make sure you don’t leave your unfinished drink open and unguarded. The most popular date rape drugs are colorless and odorless. They can’t be detected in your drink by sight or smell. If you need to step away to use the restroom, either take the drink with you, or finish the drink before you leave. You may have a trusted friend watch your drink while you’re gone, but that person shouldn’t be your date or a romantic interest.
3. If You See Something, Say Something
It’s trite but it’s true. You can help reassure your safety and the safety of others by proactively reporting suspicious behavior to campus authorities, or police. Most campuses have anonymous tip-lines. And there are national organizations like RAINN (Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network) where you can report any suspicious behavior or find counseling if you’ve been assaulted.
4. Notify Friends and Family of Your Plans
When you are attending a party, or going a date, let a friend or family member know when you’re leaving and when you expect to be back. That way, someone will know to look for you if you don’t check in at the right time.
5. Don’t Accept Drugs or Drinks from Strangers
Obviously, illegal drugs and underage drinking are problematic. But realistically, many college students will partake anyway. No matter how you feel about illegal drugs or strangers buying you drinks, there are all sorts of dangers when strangers are handling these things. And those little pills, powders, and liquids — they could be almost anything. There’s no telling what they will do to your body or how they will compromise you.
6. Use the Buddy System
You are far safer walking around with a trusted friend than going it alone. For example, have a friend walk with you to the car. Don’t go to clubs, bars, or parties alone. And if you go downtown, to a concert, or to the beach make sure you have someone trustworthy with you. That other person means you have a witness in case anything looks strange, you have someone who can lend a bit of counsel or protection if needed, and you have an extra set of hands if you just need some help (say, changing a tire, or flagging down a taxi). With the buddy system, you’re less likely to get stranded in a dangerous place.
7. If You Go with a Group, Leave with the Group
Besides the buddy system, you are also safer staying close to whatever group you arrived with. Don’t accept rides from strangers. Safety drops when you bounce from car to car, between different groups, riding home with a stranger, or ditching your trusted friends to spend some alone time with a new person. If you find yourself at a party or some event, and you want some alone time with someone you just met, at least let that person know that you still plan to ride back with your original group and they’ll be checking in on you. Keeping your group in view lends accountability so you aren’t as easily isolated with a person you don’t know well enough to trust. There is safety in numbers.
8. Be Aware of Your Environment, Including the Location of Campus Security Phones
One of the most common-sense safety rules is to just pay attention. Specifically, be aware of your surroundings and your environment. Do you see illegal activity that might make this scene unsafe? Do you see where the exits are? Do you know where the nearest campus security phone is? Should you call the campus police to provide an escort to walk you back to your car? You might not be trying to do anything dangerous but if you aren’t paying attention to your surroundings, you may walk right into danger without realizing it. And of course, being aware of your environment means “if you see something, say something.”
9. Consider A Self-Defense Weapon or Self-Defense Classes
Perhaps you work late nights and you have to walk from a distant parking lot to your dorm at 2 a.m. If there’s no way to avoid this sort of risky scene, consider a self-defense weapon such as pepper spray or a commercial grade stun gun. Self-defenses classes aren’t a bad idea either.
10. Clarify Consent
Don’t assume your romantic interest can read your mind. I’m not trying to ruin the romance here, but in today’s legal climate, you cannot assume your partner understands what counts as consent and what doesn’t. Nor can you expect them to read your hints and signals. Plus, it’s a matter of courtesy where you might be able to prevent an accident or embarrassment by clarifying with your partner whether you want to “go farther” or not. If something goes wrong, and you did not openly say, “No,” then you may have less legal ground to stand on later.
It also bears noting that consent laws vary by state so here is a good guide from RAINN on the subject of consent so you can know exactly what counts and what doesn’t in the eyes of the law.
Legal Consent includes:
- Capacity for consent — 18 years of age or older, not family related, mentally fit, conscious, etc.
- Explicit permission — clearly communicated permission whether spoken, written, gestured, or otherwise demonstrated.
- Freely given — without coercion, fraud, or threat of violence.
As a general rule, no one may have sexual contact with you unless you freely give informed explicit permission to do so and you are capable of giving that consent (i.e., you’re not underage, unconscious, mentally unfit, etc.)
Of course, all of these tips are intended to reduce your risk and vulnerability to sexual assault, but none of these measures is foolproof. As noted here throughout, the victim is never to blame for an act of sexual assault. This means that even in instances where all proper precautions have been taken, an individual with the will or intent to commit an act of sexual assault or violence may be impossible to deter. These circumstances are real and pressing, and so too are the difficulties that surround reporting, investigating, and prosecuting sexual assault.
Rape culture remains very much at the root of campus sexual assault, and sexual assault in general. This means that it is incumbent upon us as a society — students, educators, administrators, and campus safety personnel alike — to resist language, behavior, and institutions that seem to trivialize or normalize sexual aggression toward women.
The Campus Safety Check Series
Campus Safety Check, Part 1: Property Crimes and Gun Violence
Campus Safety Check, Part 2: Sexual Assault and Rape Culture
Campus Safety Check, Part 3: Hazing and Bullying