So, How Should Colleges Actually Prevent Sexual Assault?


Unless you’ve been dwelling under a rock for the past couple of weeks, you’ve probably witnessed the raging debate surrounding college women, sexual assault, and drinking that all kicked off with that fun little number by Emily Yoffe, entitled “College Women: Stop Getting Drunk.” While it’s become quite evident that a lot of very smart humans have a lot of interesting points to make about the way we frame the relationship between binge drinking and campus rape, what’s less evident is a viable solution.

Campus rape is an egregious and widespread problem. One in four women and one in seven men will be sexually assaulted before graduating; 20 percent of the nation’s “best colleges” have a documented rape problem; rape culture is something college students seem to be encouraged to take cavalierly, if not celebrate. And it is true that there’s a definite connection between drinking and sexual assault: according to a multi-year study of 24,000 women at over 100 college campuses, 72 percent of campus rape victims report being intoxicated at the time of their attack. However, that relationship isn’t a clear cause-and-effect, and treating it like one is harmful, misleading and reductive. If anything, the relationship between drinking culture and rape illustrates the insidious ubiquity of rape culture and of the myriad manifestations of the sense of male entitlement to women’s bodies. As Tara Culp-Ressler says at ThinkProgress, “Alcohol is just one of many tools at rapists’ disposal — and if alcohol isn’t available, that won’t necessarily stop a rapist from assaulting people.”

Still, there is an argument to be made for targeting binge drinking as a means of combating campus rape. In the Washington Post, Keli Goff suggests that colleges should be held liable when any of their students are sexually assaulted after binge drinking. “If colleges allowed students to smoke incessantly in dorms and other school buildings around other students, concerns about the impact of second-hand smoke would likely raise legal questions,” writes Goff. Even though the number of campus injuries and sexual assaults have skyrocketed along with the rate of binge drinking, she argues, “Colleges have continued to turn a blind eye to the problem, and have so far faced no major repercussions for doing so.”

The comparison isn’t all that accurate — being around cigarette smoke puts you at risk of getting cancer; drinking puts you at risk of sexual assault… if you are around a rapist. Of course, it’s easy to focus on alcohol as a cause of the campus rape epidemic. Doing so is manageable, it’s easy to deal with, and it’s gives us a concrete issue to tackle — which is comforting on some level. But is telling schools to babysit their students to keep them from getting drunk the most helpful way to combat rape? I’d argue that it’s not. First of all, it’s a logistical nightmare. Anyone who has ever tried to part a thirsty college student from her liquor will tell you that most students will just weasel around regulations with all the cunning that higher education affords them. In addition, penalizing colleges for permitting their students to drink to excess may also prevent intoxicated students from seeking help when they’ve been assaulted or their health has been endangered in any other way (i.e., alcohol poisoning, drunken injury). Furthermore, college administrations already have a fairly dismal track record of dealing with assault. Currently, students from 25 colleges have filed Title IX lawsuits against their administrations for mishandling sexual assault cases. If administrations are already eager to sweep rape under the rug, what will happen if they’re held legally accountable for facilitating an unsafe environment? Won’t this just incite more negligence, more insensitivity, and more mishandled cases?

Although holding colleges accountable for letting students drink in excess will most likely not work, it’s worth mentioning that drinking heavily can make women more vulnerable. I spoke to Scott Berkowitz, the president and founder of Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), and he told me that he didn’t like the fact that the debate surrounding Yoffe’s piece “sort of evolved to being over whether or not you could talk about risk-reduction.” He added, “We all agree it shouldn’t be that way, but, given the reality of the risk, [telling women to be careful when drinking] is often the most effective way to prevent rape on campuses.” He compares it to telling women to not walk alone in the dark. In a perfect world, it would be ridiculous to warn women to monitor their alcohol intake or to try and travel in groups at night in order to avoid being sexually assaulted. We don’t live in a perfect world, though. We live in a shitty world in which people often commit and record and boast about sexual assault with near-impunity, a world in which our fucked-up conception of masculinity is closely linked with the perception of sexual entitlement. As frustrating as it is, risk reduction is something we don’t have the luxury of not mentioning.

With that said, centering the debate around binge drinking as dangerous and focusing our educational resources on encouraging women to not get incapacitated doesn’t address the root of the issue. Sexual assault is the direct result of internalized toxic attitudes about sexuality and of malignant misunderstandings about how consent operates. Attacking drinking culture will definitely impede the rampant expression of these attitudes, but it won’t make them go away. I understand that “It’s society’s fault!” is a deeply frustrating conclusion to come to for a crime with such a clear human cost, but it’s simply counter-intuitive to attempt to reduce rape while allowing a campus environment that’s hostile to women to thrive. As the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center‘s blog puts it:

Reducing or eliminating rape in our culture isn’t an individual task. Asking women to each, individually, fight off or take responsibility for managing the entirety of the male population is both unjust and impossible… Rapists don’t rape because individual survivors aren’t vigilant enough about protecting their valuable bodily autonomy; they rape because we live in a culture that promotes it and they can get away with it.

I asked Megan Kovacs, a co-chairwoman of the Prevention & Education subcommittee of the Oregon Sexual Assault Task Force and Education Coordinator at Raphael House of Portland, what she thought of the risk-reduction approach. “That’s a piece of what we need to be doing, but, realistically, if we actually want to stop [campus rape] from happening, we need to change the sociocultural norms allowing this to happen,” she told me. “We really need to take a look at the ways we talk about sex, the ways that we talk about consent, and what that means within the culture and the community that we live in.” She agrees that drinking is a problem, but cracking down on drinking isn’t an entirely viable solution. “Drinking culture and binge drinking provide a forum for rape to happen, but that’s not the reason that it does happen.” The best solution, she says, is promoting consent education. As she argues in the Statesman Journal, “Consent is not just ‘no means no.’ … Consent means asking for a yes, ensuring that the person you are choosing to engage in sex with is willing, able and wants to say yes.”

However, it’s one (very important!) thing to theorize about changing sociocultural norms and another thing entirely to affect that change. We can talk about reframing the narrative of consent endlessly, but a narrative that’s deeply entrenched in campus culture doesn’t just change overnight. The stereotype of hyper-aggressive masculine sexuality and entitlement to female bodies is so commonplace that it’s often imperceptible. “It’s not something people want to give up. It’s scary to give that up… When people aren’t even willing to recognize that there are institutionalized beliefs that allow for this to happen, how are we to start dismantling them?” asks Kovacs. “It’s about changing the things we value and the way we promote those things and represent those things.” But that’s far easier said than done. One doesn’t simply walk into a frat house and say, “Hey, guys; I think you need to seriously consider that the sociocultural vision of masculinity you’ve internalized from a young age is fundamentally flawed and harmful to both you and others.”

So what actual, concrete steps can we take to change campus climates, in addition to individual risk reduction — which isn’t very effective on its own and can often veer dangerously close to the realm of victim blaming? Consent education, as Kovacs mentioned, is important. In addition, both Kovacs and Berkowitz brought up bystander intervention as something that should be taught to all students. Bystander intervention is a method of risk reduction in which students are encouraged to step up and intervene when they witness a concerning situation — be it through helping a fellow student who looks dangerously intoxicated get home, by telling someone who seems to be preying on a drunk student to stop, or through criticizing one’s peers for victim-blaming and/or taking assault lightly. According to Prevent Connect, bystander intervention “discourages victim blaming, offers the chance to change social norms, and shifts responsibility to both men and women.” Megan sent me this YouTube video as an illustration:

By shifting the focus from the one individual (“She shouldn’t get so drunk! She’ll put herself in danger!) to the community (“It’s our responsibility to help our peers when they’re in potentially dangerous situations.”), this method of risk reduction alters the paradigm. By extension, bystander intervention has the potential to shift from blaming the victim to blaming the community at large: “How could she let this happen?” morphs into the far more accurate and damning “How could we let this happen?”

Another important thing that college administrations can do: listen to their students. For instance, earlier this month a Swarthmore fraternity handed out a booklet to its pledges. On the cover was a mosaic of hundreds of naked women’s bodies (no heads included, naturally). A group of students complained to the administration — and the administration listened, banning the handouts and requiring members of the frat to attend “special training sessions.” As someone who has been to a “special training session” after I was FALSELY ACCUSED of smoking pot in college, I know that they’re not epicenters of learning and open-mindedness. There’s a fairly big chance that someone sent to an involuntary How Not To Be Sexist training course might scoff and feel bored the entire time.

But the session has the potential to be eye-opening. Casual sexism is powerful because it’s insidious and very easy to overlook — taking an hour or so to talk someone through the effects of their behavior could galvanize them to change. And, regardless of the class’s efficacy, the message sent by the punishment is powerful. It says that the college will not tolerate a climate in which women are casually denigrated and objectified. For the same reason, it’s important that colleges “encourage more victims to report to police and agitate for prosecution,” as Berkowitz puts it. Berkowitz notes that it’s important to keep rapists off campus. It’s also endlessly important to let students know that they’re protected and that their mental, physical and emotional safety matters; conversely, it’s important to send a message that no student will get away with rape (or with any display of sexism), under any circumstances.

As Soraya Chemaly argues at Salon:

Young men are going to colleges and universities way too comfortable expressing themselves in exploitative, sexist ways that denigrate their female peers and are corrosive to the academic environment. In addition, the notion that rape is a serious crime for which they can be held responsible seems not to have entered their heads… sexist media and humor results in greater acceptance of rape myths, trivialization of rape, an increased inclination to blame victims and a lack of desire to either punish rapists or assign responsibility to them for their actions.

Marian Firke, who led the protest, told Chemaly, “Swarthmore has been a place where this would not have been taken seriously in the past. I would have had to make an argument as to why this was hostile and misogynistic.” If more college administrations strove to understand their students’ perspectives, instead of contributing to a culture of sexist gaslighting through negligence and inaction, it’s likely that campus climate would be at least a little friendlier towards women. Something like this is a small step — but a small step is better than nothing. A small step is also better than an intangible ideal.

Another example: following public outcry about the rape cheer at Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia, the school’s president Stephen Toope pledged $250,000 toward funding a new position at the university meant to combat sexual violence and misogyny on campus. “I am extremely sorry that our first-year students at the Sauder school were subjected to completely inappropriate FROSH activity,” said Toope. “I am not sorry, however, that this has come to light. I think we are given an opportunity to seize this moment to strike at the casual indifference to sexual violence and intolerance.”

Robert Helsley, the school’s dean, said that three steps were taken in the aftermath of the cheer: first, student leaders were held personally accountable and made to participate in Sexual Assault Support Center training as well as community service related to sexual assault. Secondly, the administration worked with the student council to restore “community trust,” taking steps to ensure that the cheer would never be allowed again. The last step — changing Sauder culture — would have been facilitated partially through the new campus sexual assault awareness program. Unfortunately (and predictably), 70 percent of the student body voted against the referendum. Had it passed, a mere $52 of each student’s tuition would have gone towards the sexual abuse services.

Even if it was all a publicity stunt, it was a partially effective one. Students were made to go to counseling. The rape cheer will never happen again. College administrators thought of — and seemed to have seriously considered — a costly but extremely necessary sexual violence resource. And Helsley did implement some useful measures, including a new orientation program and the introduction of curriculum changes that promote ethics, gender and cultural sensitivity training (I personally think that all colleges should have students take a mandatory intro-level women’s studies and/or critical race theory course in their first year).

The unwillingness of Sauder students to part with $52 in order to create a safer environment for themselves and their peers only serves to show how far we have to come. Colleges need to spend less time spouting platitudes about promoting a safe environment and more time taking actual action to facilitate that environment. They need to directly respond to displays of misogyny, sexism and rape culture because they have the authority to force students to re-think their callous and thoughtless actions. In other words, instead of penalizing colleges for allowing rapes to occur, we should pressure them to focus on prevention and changing the campus climate. That shouldn’t be immensely difficult to do: seriously endeavoring to ensure that all students are safe always looks very good for a college administration, PR-wise.

As for binge drinking: yes, colleges should crack down on it. But not simply because it makes students more likely to rape or be raped — because binge drinking is terrible for you in general. As Mr. Berkowitz so gently stated, “After a certain point, drinking is unhealthy for you for a variety of reasons. Rape is just one concern.” The opposite is true as well: when it comes to sexual assault on campus, binge drinking is just one concern. It’s true that rape culture is a nebulous idea, but it has manifold manifestations. In order to promote sexual health and safety, we must address all of them equally.

Photo via Flickr.

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