21 hours. Every 21 hours, a rape is carried out on a college campus in America. A life forever impacted. A sense of security stolen away. And it's happening more than once, every single day—without even taking into account international statistics. Attending college should be one of the most exciting, fun, and rewarding times of a young person's life. You work hard, get good grades, make big choices, and finally reach your goal. But the perversity of rape is a very real threat that has the power to ruin anyone's post-secondary experience. The recent release of Til it Happens to You, Lady Gaga’s PSA video, in support of the upcoming film, The Hunting Ground, forces us to confront this very real issue. The music video is extremely raw and shows 3 unique stories about rape occurring on college campuses. Studies indicate that 1 in 4 college-aged women have survived rape or attempted rape in their lifetime. 3% of men have also reported surviving rape or sexual assault. Every year on college campuses, over 5% of women experience rape or attempted rape. That's over 300,000 cases, not even including those concerning sexual assault (cases where the assailant did not actually attempt to have sex with the victim but violated them sexually in some way).
Women between ages 18 and 24 are at the highest risk for being raped or sexually assaulted. Although there are risks presented to all people, of all ages, in all circumstances, it's arguable that a college campus involves elements that create a higher risk environment than many may even be aware of (for both men and women). Reportedly, students are most likely to experience these incidents in their first few weeks of their Freshman or Sophomore years, when they are the most vulnerable. The question is, why? What is it that really makes a college campus such a danger zone when it comes to sex crimes?
It seems to come down to three main things that appear to be more prevalent in college situations: a social or emotional pressure that is new to students in this vulnerable stage of life, an increased availability and presence of alcohol and drugs, and the accessibility of victims to their assailants. Exploring these factors allows us to get a better understanding of the issues that young students are facing on the college campuses they are calling home.
1. Social and Emotional Pressures
Entering this new stage of life can make students more vulnerable. According to a survey by the Feminist Majority Foundation, women have reported that they have felt emotionally or psychologically pressured into sex while in college. Men, too, are at a heightened risk of vulnerability. One issue presented is that there is fairly significant exposure to other couples engaging in sexual relationships. College likely isn't the first time students have heard of sex or the first time they’ve felt the pressures that come with knowing that others their age are having sex. However, as these students are entering adulthood, that pressure can become amplified.
Rape isn't always a random attack. It's not always a stranger or even a friend. In fact, 32% of rapes on college campuses involve an assailant who was romantically involved with their victim. When entering new relationships in a college environment, the pressure and expectations associated with sexual relationships is inevitable. That being said, "no means no" isn't working in our college campus environments. A high percentage of men seem to push women into sex, regardless of the woman's wishes and unfortunately, there are also many cases where, when met with a "no," men are taking what they want anyway.
With the vulnerability and pressure young adults are dealing with, they may face confusion about the sexual encounters they find themselves in. Student victims have been found to be more likely to not report a rape because they felt it was not important enough to report. A common (and unfortunately romanticized) misconception women can be manipulated into believing, particularly in our current society, is that men are predators and women are prey. One clear example of this is our culture's fascination with the popular book series and now, film franchise, Fifty Shades of Grey, in which a young, sexually inexperienced woman, is coerced into an intense, controlling, and debatably abusive sexual relationship. She is led to think that because what she is doing is pleasing her partner, it's right, when in fact, the relationship poses questions about gray areas in ways other than the title seeks to show. For these reasons, victims are left to ponder, "was it really abuse or is this just how sex is supposed to be?” I can’t stress enough, though, that despite the example used, women are not the only victims and men can feel equally pressured and taken advantage of in these cases of assault.
There is a fine line between seduction and coercion. Unfortunately, that line is still something we as a society are learning about and defining. Seduction means that the individual is already interested in having a sexual relationship with you. You are simply creating the mood and environment to do so. Coercion means that you are in someway trying to force someone to have sex with you. Maybe you're not physically forcing them, but there are other means including threats, pressure, or intimidation. Emotionally or psychologically forcing sex on someone is still wrong, and is still abusive. The problem is that there is a heavy lack of education about this means of sexual assault and women are left confused about what has happened. This often means they do not report it, and even accept responsibility or blame themselves in some manner. It's incredibly necessary that these women at risk be educated to understand that if something occurs that they did not want and did not consent to, it absolutely is abuse.
There are many implications with these facts, however: there is still a difference between rape and regret. It's not to say that if a couple has sex in which both partners consented but later one decided it was a mistake, is rape. Of course it's not. But in cases where a person has said "no" or "I'm not sure I want to do this" and their partner has forced, pressured, or otherwise coerced them into doing things they do not want to do, a boundary has been crossed and a victim should never have to feel responsible for being attacked.
2. The Influence of Alcohol and Drugs
Many students experiment with or, at the very least, are exposed to drugs and alcohol before they reach college. The major change that occurs when the transition is made to a college setting, is that these substances become much more prevalent and accessible. The parties are bigger, the supervision is virtually non-existent, and many students have already reached the legal drinking age, thus making the presence of alcohol a given. It's a common defense in courtrooms in which rape cases are being dealt with, that intoxication impacts not only our inhibitions but also our ability to recall and judge what happened. So, if a student was at a college party, drinks too much, and then is taken advantage of, is that rape? The answer is yes. No, maybe the rapist didn't drug their victim. No, they possibly didn't even encourage their victim to continue drinking past their limit. But they also didn't get clear consent, because the victim was incapable of providing it.
Efforts are being made to educate young people about "date rape drugs." They're being warned about these odorless, tasteless, colorless, drugs that can be slipped into your drink. They're being told not to accept drinks from strangers or walk away from their drinks. And these issues are absolutely still a commonly occurring threat. It's necessary to practice caution when engaging in social drinking. But, there are more risks at play than just what someone else can do to you when you're not looking.
The highest-risk situation for a college student to be in is one where they've willingly become intoxicated. A shocking 40% of men have reported that they felt it was acceptable to force sex on an intoxicated woman. Is it fair that students have to "control themselves" because men (or in some cases, women) don’t seem to understand that they can't rape them? Hell no. There are statistics indicating that 1 in 12 college men have admitted that, according to the definition of rape, they have raped or attempted to rape a woman. However, they do not identify themselves as rapists. In another study, almost 1/3 of college men have admitted they may rape a woman if they knew they could get away with it. This is a terrifying example of why, regardless of what's right or wrong, what's fair or unfair, we as a society, we must keep control in the victims’ hands to protect themselves. It really isn’t that everyone doesn't have the right to choose what they do, but knowing your limit is important in the world we're dealing with.
3. Accessibility and Privacy
Most college dorms are co-ed, meaning both male and female students reside in the same buildings (albeit in separate rooms). In addition to that, advisors and supervisors for the dorms are usually fairly lax when it comes to rules and awareness about what the students are up to. It's understandable that it works this way being that the students are technically adults. Realistically, implementing regulations and curfews, or heavily supervising college students wouldn't work anyway. But this presents issues because it means that students are in close proximity.
At its core, this shouldn't be an issue. There is no reason that living in the same building as another person would cause you to rape them. But when combined with the previously mentioned issues of intoxicants and social pressures, you get a dangerous combination of factors. We are living in a world where those that perpetrate acts constituting rape do not believe they are rapists. It’s a world where individuals are forced to feel responsible for preventing these terrible things from happening to them—and we still have a lot of work ahead of ourselves in order to make improvements in these areas.
Thankfully, the more we are learning about the true statistics, the more we are understanding what's going on. This is enabling us to stand up against the unacceptable acts that are happening on college campuses across the nation. The reality is that these issues have been present for decades—but we have the power to make lasting change.
4. Taking Action
There are so many things you can do to protect yourself and your fellow students. It's intimidating enough to be starting out on a new chapter of your education and your life, without considering the threats this article may have brought awareness to for you. But times are changing and support is being made more widely available, so it's important to be aware of it. RAINN.org is an excellent source for ideas on how you can stay aware and safe on campus.
One of the most important things you can do is to get educated about your school's resources. Know where to go and who to talk to if you or someone you know needs help. It may seem redundant, but being familiar with the layout of your campus is also a huge help. You should know where health services, security, police services, and any counselling services are located within your school. You can speak to your administration, guidance department, or RA to get answers to all your questions and concerns.
It’s hard to know what it means to be alert. We might know to watch out for suspicious cars or people following us, but there is much more we can all be doing to protect ourselves. Staying focused while going anywhere is important. You should always be attentive to your surroundings and, whenever possible, bring a friend with you when you're out and about. If it's late and you're unfamiliar with the area, or just feel threatened, request a security escort. Furthermore, keep in mind that some of the things that impact our ability to be fully on guard are cell phones, headphones in both ears, or mental distractions (such as worrying about a test). Most importantly, in any case, it is never the victim’s fault when they’re attacked. Regardless of what they were or were not doing at the time, it can happen to anyone.
It's also important to practice safety in your social life, too. It's best to not include your location in things like Facebook posts, Twitter statuses, and Instagram photos. These apps, among many other social networks, can share your exact location with others. You should consider accessing security and privacy settings on websites as well as your devices and turning off location tracking or allowance to post this information. It may not be enough to protect your profiles as, of the rapes that occur on college campuses, 60% of the victims are acquaintances of their attacker. That being said, it's not reasonable to be skeptical and paranoid of every person you meet, but you have the right to make others earn your trust. You shouldn't be coerced into a superficial sense of security while you're meeting all these new friends. Do your best to judge character and follow your instincts, while getting to know people over time.
When it comes to parties and other social events, put into practice all those things your parents taught you that you shrugged off as them being overprotective. In this new world, you don't have their protection to rely on. Go to parties with people you feel you can trust, make a plan to watch out for each other, and always leave as a group at the end of the night. Touch base with your friends and keep each other aware of changes to any plans. Never leave a friend stranded in an unfamiliar place, as this creates a potentially dangerous situation. It's been found that the presence of a bystander minimizes the possibility of rape by 44%. Never leave drinks unattended and insist on drinking from unopened containers. Be aware of your limits and pay attention to the behavior of your friends, too. If you feel tired or "too drunk," recognize this as a sign of potential drugging and leave the party (together) and get help ASAP.
The most important thing to remember is that you need to protect yourself and be a good friend by protecting others. It's relieving to know that the more aware of and able a person is to detect threatening cues and realize it could turn into a situation of sexual assault, the more likely they are able to escape or resist. It's okay to lie in order to escape scary or threatening situations. Always trust yourself. If it doesn't seem right, odds are that it's not.
5. What if it's too late?
The sad truth is, it's already too late for some. They've already been raped or sexually assaulted. Their sense of security has already been compromised. The next step in this case, is to seek help and support. Taking steps to feel safe again is a very difficult thing to do, but it's possible. It's a good idea to use the resources available on your campus. Many colleges have free services for students such as security escorts, healthcare, counseling, and psychologists. Many of the counseling professionals at colleges even specialize in sexual assault.
An even more upsetting reality is that many of these people suffering know the person who hurt them. They might even have to see them everyday. This is not acceptable, and there are things that can be done to change that situation. It's completely reasonable to request a change in schedule and housing. There are federal laws to protect these students and require colleges to honor these requests.
Students who have already been impacted will never "get back to normal." From the moment sexual assault or rape is experienced, you become a survivor and your life is divided into "before and after." But doing what you need to do in order to begin a new normal is a brave move that should be supported and, when needed, aided.
We are seeing more and more information indicating that rape and sexual assault are major issues on our college campuses today. Many campuses have started attempts to provide stronger regulations and processes for investigating reports of sexual assault and rape, while working on providing more support for victims. While this is a good start, there is still a long way to go when it comes to gaining control over what's happening on our campuses. If we all use our positions to bring about awareness and open dialogue when it comes to the issues the that continue to plague our schools, we can make way for a better experience for all college students.