It's back-to-school time, and that means we need to talk about an extremely serious subject: Despite years of outcry, college rape is still rampant in the United States. One in five women and one in 16 men experience sexual assault in college, and though we know college rape is a pressing and persistent issue, there's an odd sense of fatalism from the people who can do something about it.
I decided to take a look at what some of the big names of higher education are telling incoming and returning students about rape. What I found was actually pleasantly surprising.
Harvard has an entire department specifically dedicated to sexual assault prevention and response. It has a wealth of resources available for students, but one thing it doesn't have is a patronizing list of "don't walk around after dark" and "don't wear short skirts" tips. Instead, it has an extensive education section with modules like "unlearning rape culture." The office repeatedly stresses that rape culture and sexual violence start with small warning signs, not big gestures, and notes that a lot of interpersonal sexual violence begins in the context of relationships. While Harvard doesn't go quite as far as to say "don't rape people," the undertone is pretty explicit.
Duke unfortunately wedges rape prevention under the Women's Center, which implies that college men aren't raped — perpetuating a stereotype that makes male rape victims afraid to report. While it doesn't share Harvard's formidable internal resources, the Women's Center links out, and it stresses that: "Sexual assault is any physical act of a sexual nature performed without consent or when the person is unable to give consent," reflecting the growth in "yes means yes" activism. The college also explains what happens when people call, walk in, or email to report assaults, so victims know what to expect.
Yale has a lengthy brochure on rape prevention, and one thing they bring up is the power of bystander intervention. "Look out for each other," the college says, in a grim reminder of the fact that many rapes happen because no one says something — and that sometimes rapes are prevented, or stopped in progress, by bystanders who are willing to intervene when something doesn't look right.
"Don’t tolerate disrespect or pressure in your communities; even small incidents can contribute to a negative climate," the brochure warns students. Like Harvard, Yale also notes that people should be alert to warning signs: Rape doesn't happen in a vacuum, and people who engage in sexual violence often ring alarm bells long before they progress to rape.
UCLA offers rape prevention education to faculty and students, and the highlights of the curriculum include things like responding to sexual violence, identifying varied forms of sexual violence, and talking about social norms. Their curriculum reflects system-wide changes in the way the University of California approaches these issues, and those changes are rooted in California's "Yes Means Yes" law, which requires education about sexual assault for students in California.
Brown tells students that: "Rape and sexual assault are not misunderstandings about communication or sexual desire — they are about power and control." The university's rape resources also note that anyone can commit sexual assault, and that, yes, "having sex with" someone who is unconscious or unable to consent is actually rape.
Unfortunately, the university's guide also includes a mix of solid and victim-blamey information. For example, in a list of tips on how not to rape people, it suggests going easy on the alcohol — but it also tells potential victims the same thing. While it tells people to look out for each other, it also tells people to "think about what you really want" and advises that they "communicate clearly." Oh, Brown, you started out so strong.
Stanford (you know, Brock Turner?) also has an entire office dedicated to sexual assault. The university specifically includes discussions on bystander intervention and the importance of looking out for each other, and includes detailed definitions of sexual harassment, sexual assault, and stalking to affirm students who may have confused or mixed feelings about so-called "gray rape."
After publishing this piece, s.e. asked me to add this update. –Jamie
On the day this piece was published, Stanford University announced an aggressive new alcohol policy targeted at reducing the "rapid consumption of hard alcohol" and implying that drinking — specifically by female students — is responsible for campus rape. A now-scrubbed version of the policy effectively blamed intoxicated victims for their own rapes. Despite discussing "Female Bodies and Alcohol," the initial draft of the policy made no mention of the fact that raping people is illegal. University officials appear to be in the process of rapidly editing the policy in response to widespread outcry.
The University of Chicago clearly defines sexual assault and stalking, and provides clear transparency about the different options students have in terms of reporting and pursuing charges. The university also recognizes that people of color and LGBQT students may have unique needs and provides additional resources for them. It encourages students to get involved in rape prevention and education not just on campus, but also off campus, breaking down the town/gown divide.
These resources represent a fraction of the colleges and universities in the United States, but they also represent a positive sign. In response to discussions about the campus rape crisis, educational institutions are taking a more proactive role, moving away from the traditional victim-blaming one-sheet shoved at incoming students.
It's encouraging that educational institutions are clearly and comprehensively defining rape and sexual assault, providing transparent information about what happens when people request help, encouraging people to look out for each other and flipping the dynamic when it comes to responsibility for rape prevention, and stating that they have zero tolerance policies for rape, sexual harassment, and stalking.
Of course, all of this is on paper. The proof is in how universities actually respond to reported rapes, which are a tiny fraction of those that occur. High and mighty claims of zero tolerance and taking investigations seriously only mean something when a report leads to prompt and comprehensive action to look out for the welfare of the student involved. As Emma Sulkowicz demonstrated at Columbia University when she carried a mattress around campus after her rape, all the promises in the world are meaningless without action when rapes occur.
The number one best rape and sexual assault prevention tip is, of course, don't rape people. Learn about how rape culture works and understand what sexual assault looks like. But looking out for each other is the next best thing, and that includes not just intervening if something looks off, but being proactive about supporting people, affirming their experiences, and being unafraid to say, "Hey, that sounds a lot like sexual assault to me." Victims and survivors are afraid to report because they think they won't be believed, because they fear the stigma, because they're personally ashamed. The only way to change that is to be open and assertive when it comes to talking about rape, even when these conversations get uncomfortable.
Most rape victims know their assailants. Most assailants give off warning signs that go unchallenged or unremarked upon by the people around them, which emboldens them to push further and further. Tackling rape culture requires fundamentally shifting the way we relate to each other, and it looks like colleges and universities are finally starting to understand that.