Although both men and women are victims of sexual assault, women are at a higher risk, and college-age (18–24) women are at even higher risk than women of other ages. While the statistics for sexual assault vary from campus to campus, compelling data from a recent study suggests an average of 21% of women and 7% of men experience sexual assault in some form during their college years. Additionally, only a fraction of incidents get reported, and of those that do, only a small number of attackers face serious consequences.
These are upsetting and, frankly, unacceptable statistics, and the reality they represent raises two main questions: first, “How can I stay safe?” and second, “What can I do to help?” We have some answers to both questions, along with a list of resources and support organizations.
Keeping yourself safe
First, we want to be clear: You shouldn’t have to be afraid for your safety, and sexual assault is never the victim’s fault or responsibility, regardless of what you do or don’t do. However, because sexual assault continues to be a reality on so many college campuses, we’ll provide some steps you can take to protect yourself in a worst-case scenario.
The most dangerous time of the year for sexual assault on campus is at the beginning of the school year, and students are particularly at risk during the first few months of their first and second years of college. It’s also worth noting that studies also reveal that the majority of attackers are previously known to the victims; very few assaults are perpetrated by strangers. Because everything is new to incoming students, they may not initially recognize the signs of a dangerous situation and may be too trusting of new acquaintances.
Here are some guidelines to keep in mind as you navigate college, especially as a first-time student.
First of all, trust your instincts. If something feels wrong, it probably is. If you get a bad feeling about a person or location, leave immediately and head for the nearest crowd, lighted area, or building, then call for help from a friend or campus police.
Use common sense to make decisions about what you do, where you go, and who you are with. This applies to anything from locking the door to your dorm or apartment when you leave and letting someone know where you’re going, to avoiding the communal punch bowl at a party and calling your friends (or using campus resources) to make sure you’re not walking home alone at night.
Know your boundaries and enforce them. Decide what you are comfortable with and stick to that. No one has the right to touch you or talk to you in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable or unsafe, and you have the right to speak up for yourself.
Be aware of your surroundings and stay in control. Many popular substances and stimulants will inhibit your ability to respond to and evaluate whether you or your friends are in a potentially dangerous situation. You don’t need to stop having fun in order to be safe, but staying alert is always a good idea, for both yourself and the other people you’re with.
While we certainly hope you never find yourself in an unsafe situation, the reality is that such situations do happen in spite of everything you can do to prevent them. There are a few ways you can protect yourself if need be.
- Self-defense course: Most schools and communities offer self-defense classes. These classes do not teach you how to win in a fight, but how to survive and escape an attack. Self-defense courses such as Women’s Self Defense SEPS (Situation Effective Protection Solution) help you develop the skills you need to evaluate a dangerous situation and know how to respond.
- Pepper spray: Pepper spray is available in small and unobtrusive containers and can be an extremely effective non-lethal weapon against an attacker, regardless of the attacker’s size. Check out this guide for our top pepper spray recommendations, but be sure to check your state’s legal guidelines before making the investment.
- Taser or stun gun: Tasers and stun guns are popular choices for self-defense weapons. They are non-lethal but still pack quite a punch. They are also fairly easy to learn how to operate. We have suggestions, explanations, and top picks for you here.
You can use any one of several other types of self-defense weapons—check out our “Self Defense: What to Carry if You Don’t Want to Carry a Gun” article for a full list. Be sure you know how to use any self-defense weapon you choose. In a moment of panic, you may not be able to remember detailed instructions for operating a weapon. Always check with your local and campus authorities to find out what types of weapons you can carry on your college’s campus.
If you become a victim of a sexual assault in any form, there are many resources you can turn to as you navigate the aftermath of your experience. First of all, know that it is not your fault, that you are not alone, and that you are entitled to feel safe and receive nonjudgmental help and support. You are not required to file charges or an official report, but there are people who can help you if you decide to do so. The emotional and mental effects of rape or sexual assault can be severe, so seeking counseling from a mental health professional is encouraged as well. Here’s a list of steps to take if you find yourself in this situation:
- First, get away from your assailant and find a safe place where you can call for help and where you aren’t alone.
- Ask for help right away. You can call 911, your campus police, family or friends, or the national sexual assault hotline (1-800-656-HOPE). You can also contact the hotline online, completely confidentially.
- Seek medical attention, even if you don’t think you need it. The crisis hotline can give you a list of local hospitals and emergency advocates to help you through the medical examination.
- While receiving medical attention, you should also be screened for possible infections or transmitted diseases. You can also receive emergency contraception to prevent pregnancy if needed.
- Have a sexual assault forensic exam performed. If the hospital you go to does not offer that service, the hotline can direct you to a health facility with Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners (SANE) or Sexual Assault Forensic Examiners (SAFE) who are trained to collect DNA evidence that will help identify an assailant. Even if you don’t plan to file charges, this step allows you to use the evidence later if you change your mind.
- In the days following an assault, take care of yourself and let others help you. Support services are available at campus health centers, at local rape crisis centers, and from school nurses and counselors. Friends and family members can go with you to appointments to give you support.
- Learn about common reactions to trauma to get an idea of what to watch for and to know that you aren’t alone.
- Consider filing an official report with your school or with the police. If you are unsure of how to do this, RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network—the organization that operates the crisis hotline) has a complete list of information and resources for every state to help you navigate the legal process.
As you process your experiences, please know that everyone is different, every situation is unique, and the healing process can take a long time. It bears repeating that you are not alone and no matter the details of your situation, it is not your fault. You deserve to feel safe and receive the care and support you need, and many resources can help you do that.
Myth busting: Rape culture and victim blaming
The issues surrounding sexual assault on college campuses were brought into the spotlight again in the spring/summer of 2016 when a former Stanford University student was convicted of three felony sexual assault charges but was subsequently sentenced to only six months in jail.
The lenient outcome to the case—and the compelling letter (content warning: this letter contains graphic descriptions of rape) written by the survivor to her attacker—highlight the pervasive and harmful rape culture that exists in our society. Rape culture questions victims’ experiences in such a way to place blame on them, thereby re-victimizing them and privileging the attacker’s point of view.
These attitudes seem particularly prevalent on college campuses, where there’s often an underlying assumption that drinking and partying are a normal part of college life, and sexual assault just comes with it. That kind of attitude is unacceptable, and the assumption is untrue. There is no excuse or defense for rape or sexual assault, even if drugs or alcohol are involved.
Changes have slowly taken place over the last several years, but there’s still a long way to go. In 2014, the White House launched an initiative with the goal of ending sexual assault on campus. Vice President Joe Biden accurately summed up common victim-blaming approaches in a speech at the announcement of the initiative:
It doesn’t matter what clothes she was wearing, whether she drank too much, whether it’s in the back of a car, in her room, on the street—it does not matter. It does not matter if she initially said yes and then changed her mind and said no. No means no, whenever it is stated…. And until we as a society acknowledge that, and men begin to step up to their responsibility, this will not be solved.
Taking a stand
Every university and college approaches sexual assault cases a little differently, and many schools are taking tremendous steps to make their campuses safer, but that is treating only the symptoms of the problem, not the root causes. If we want to see real changes, they have to start before students ever enter a college campus. The way our society teaches children and youth to view, treat, and value each other, especially girls and women, has to improve for sexual assault to come to an end. And until we acknowledge as a society that sexual assault in any form is wrong, that perpetrators should be punished accordingly, that victims are not to blame, and that we are all responsible for keeping each other safe, it will continue to be a slow process.
In the meantime, dozens of advocacy groups are striving to create awareness and make changes on college campuses in how sexual assault cases are handled. We’ve gathered a list of some of the many organizations that offer education, support to survivors of sexual assault, and ways to be heard and make a difference:
- RAINN—As mentioned previously, RAINN operates the national sexual assault hotline both over the phone and online and provides tons of information about preventing sexual violence, getting help, and navigating the legal process to bring assailants to justice.
- It’s On Us—The It’s On Us initiative launched in 2014 as part of the White House campaign for safer college campuses. The initiative focuses on the responsibility we all share to educate, respect, and watch out for each other.
- Not Alone—In conjunction with the White House initiative to end campus rape, Not Alone has resources for survivors of sexual assault, information for friends and family members, and suggestions for schools trying to improve their support networks.
- Rise—Rise is a civil rights organization campaigning for a Sexual Assault Survivor’s Bill of Rights. The organization is working to get survivors the right to access their own medical information, rape kit results, and police reports, among other things. It also provides multiple ways for you to contact your state representatives and share your support for its cause.
- End Rape on Campus (EROC)—EROC is a national organization that provides support to survivors, parents, and campus activists, especially while filing a federal complaint.
- Students Active for Ending Rape (SAFER)—This group teaches students how to organize their own movements and campaigns to make campuses safer.
- Walk a Mile in Her Shoes—While not specifically for college students, this men’s organization aims to draw attention to issues of rape, sexual assault, and gender violence.
Using your voice
The best way to affect change is to speak up. Whether you are signing a petition, donating to a cause, attending rallies, writing to your state representatives, filing a complaint or claim, or holding your own event to raise awareness, use your voice to draw attention to the prevalence of sexual assault on college campuses.
If you have been a victim of sexual assault, many people and organizations are available to support you and help you share your story. If you are headed to college or are a student currently, we encourage you to review our tips for staying safe at college so you can enjoy your time there. Everyone deserves to have a safe and positive college experience, and hopefully, as more of us ask for change, that will become the reality as well.