Straight Talk for College Women
Dear female members of the class of 2021:
Now that you’ve set up your rooms and purchased your course materials, it’s time for some straight talk about sexual assault. If you follow the news, you’ve probably heard that 1 in 4 of you will be sexually assaulted on campus before graduation. Don’t panic. Your parents did not just drop you and your belongings in a crime zone. Claims of a “campus rape crisis” are wildly inflated, and a little common sense will go a long way toward keeping you safe.
The assertion that nearly a quarter of all college women are sexually assaulted is based on surveys that ask vaguely worded questions about behavior ranging from an unexpected kiss to rape. In analyzing the responses, those who lump all such conduct into a catchall category of “sexual assault” deliberately create a false impression in order promote their view of the campus as a “rape culture.” The truth is, you are far less likely to be raped than women your age who are not in college. The Justice Department estimates approximately 1 in 53 college women will be victims of rape or sexual assault—an unacceptable number, but hardly an epidemic.
Why? To begin with, the resources colleges offer are institutionally biased. The first job of any college administrator is to protect the college. College victim advocates and Title IX coordinators may have an interest in appearing “tough on assault,” but they also have an interest in avoiding bad publicity, which means limiting your options and discouraging police involvement.
Workshops and training sessions will also do nothing to keep students safe if those sessions ignore the elephant in the room: the hookup culture. Academics and college administrators today operate under the assumption that alcohol-infused sex between virtual strangers is a matter of “private choice.” They fear that any warnings to avoid such risk-fraught encounters will be lambasted as old-fashioned or, worse, judgmental. They live in fear that if they tell the truth about alcohol and hookup culture, they will be accused of “blaming the victim.” So they refuse to give you tips that might actually keep you safe:
• Do not get drunk and go home with someone you don’t know. Anyone who has followed the recent turmoil knows that binge drinking is the common denominator in reported incidents of campus assault. A drunken stupor never justifies criminal behavior, but staying sober can help avoid dangerous or compromising situations.
• There’s safety in numbers. If you are out for a night of revelry, stay with friends. Don’t leave the group to go home with that cute guy you just met. If he is really interested (and worth your time), he will contact you tomorrow—when you’re both sober.
• Reject the hookup culture. Sex without trust and commitment often ends poorly. It may sound old-fashioned, but it’s really common sense: If you don’t know someone well, and you are unsure whether you can trust him, is it really a smart idea to be alone with him in a state of partial undress?
• Be self-confident. It’s OK to meet a guy around the keg or at the pong table, but hold out for a real date. You deserve it.
• Buyer beware. If you do decide to participate in the “hookup” culture, go in with your eyes open. Promises made in the heat of passion are meaningless. Suitors will promise the moon to get you into bed. Many of them will want nothing to do with you the next day, which will (understandably) leave you feeling humiliated and exploited. That doesn’t make you a rape victim. It makes you naive.
• Be clear about your wishes. If you do not want to do something, say so clearly. You are an adult, and you have free will and moral agency. You have a right to say no at any stage. But do not expect your partner to infer reluctance from your demeanor. Only you know what makes you uncomfortable, and it is up to you to articulate it.
• If you are assaulted, seek immediate help from someone you trust who is not affiliated with the college. Remember, the college’s interests are not your own. Call your parents or another trusted adult, call 911, seek medical attention, or call a rape hotline. Do it as soon as possible.
Although you won’t hear any of the above common-sense advice on campus, the best way to protect yourself is to follow it. College should be four of the greatest years of your life. Enjoy it, but be careful. And if, God forbid, you are assaulted, remember that the best way to punish offenders is through the criminal justice system. Don’t let college administrators or ideologically motivated activists scare you into thinking otherwise.
Ms. Braceras is a lawyer and writer in Boston.
Appeared in the September 12, 2017, print edition.