It’s been a few days since hundreds of first-years descended on Duke’s campus. Duke never feels more alive than it does during orientation week and during the first few weeks of classes. The enthusiasm for Duke and for learning is palpable. Upperclassmen will smile when you frantically ask what “Sakai” is and we’ll poke fun when you proudly announce you are both pre-med AND pre-law. You’re about to have the best, craziest, most thought-provoking four years of your life and as a senior, I wish I could trade places with you and start it all again.
Unfortunately, for some of you, your first couple months of college won’t be exactly what you anticipated. You probably won’t be the smartest person in the room anymore, or you may struggle in subjects you breezed through in high school. It may take some time to find a group of friends you feel are your family. And some of you will be sexually assaulted.
I wish it were a question of “if,” but in reality it’s really a question of “when.” I’m not telling you this to send waves of terror rippling through you (or your parents), but because I want to tell you something you may not know yet.
It won’t be your fault.
When young women go off to college, a lot of parents have “the talk” with them. Moms remind their daughters not to drink from the punch. Dads warn to watch out for the guy that pretends to be sweet and attentive because he really just wants to have sex. There is the endless conversation about safety when consuming alcohol, about being sure not to drink too much, about watching one’s cup at all times, about avoiding people you don’t know, etc. Parents mean well; nevertheless, statistically, one in five women will be sexually assaulted while in college. Those are terrifying odds.
Parents want to protect their daughters from the worst. They’re missing the point.
Everyone—people of all genders—embarking on their college journeys should follow some basic safety rules: avoid drinking too much, travel places in large groups, don’t leave your drinks unattended, have designated meet-up times with friends, etc. However, as a woman in college, you can follow all the rules and then some and still be a victim of sexual assault. And not following the rules for whatever reason doesn’t make an assault your fault. Women are raped while drunk and while sober, alone or in large groups, with or without date rape drugs. You can be the most careful person in the world; you can be the most selective person of the people you choose to call friends. There is no innoculation for sexual assault.
So much time is spent in the lead-up to college talking to girls about how to protect themselves from sexual assault that we may actually start to believe that our actions can shield us. If we dress appropriately, act like a lady and drink responsibly then we’ll be fine. The reality is that our actions have no bearing on our becoming victims of sexual assault. It’s a waste of time to be hyper-vigilant about protecting ourselves, because our behavior isn’t the problem. Women are assaulted in bikinis and in burqas, in crop tops and in turtlenecks. How women behave is not going to either protect us from or make us subject to sexual assault. Worrying about how our own actions are perceived by men is panic-inducing and pointless; it shifts the blame from those who commit sexual assault to those who are unlucky enough to be the victims.
If the dice don’t roll in your favor, you can cross that bridge when you come to it. But worrying does nothing to change how the dice will land. Nothing you do can make sexual assault your fault.
The notion of letting go of the belief that our behavior can defend us from assault is nothing short of terrifying. Blaming our own actions when we become the victims of crime can be a way of trying to take back the power and control that was taken from us. It makes us feel like we are protected from ever being assaulted again. But we aren’t protected, and we are wasting our time by worrying about it.
So to all the young women arriving on Duke’s campus: enjoy your college experience. Embrace the freedom to wear whatever you want, hookup with whomever you want and dance however you want. Don’t ask your roommate if the length of your skirt makes you look like a slut. Don’t feel obligated to return a guy’s flirtation just because he was nice. Don’t take away from your college experience by worrying about sexual assault, because there is nothing you can do to prevent it from happening to you.
Instead, I want the young men arriving on campus to worry about sexual assault. Instead of parents having “the talk” with their daughters, I want parents to have “the talk” with their sons. Sexual assault is a man’s problem; men commit 98 percent of sexual assaults.
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That does not mean, however, that 98 percent of men are rapists. The vast majority of men will never commit sexual assault. A very small proportion of men on campus perpetrate crimes of sexual violence, and most of them are repeat offenders. It’s easy to feel absolved of any responsibility as a young man just arriving on campus.
“I’m not a rapist. Why should I care?”
You should care because some among your fellow men arriving on campus are rapists or will become rapists. The vast majority won’t use weapons. The vast majority will know the victim. The vast majority probably won’t even consider themselves rapists. It could be your roommate, the guy from your calculus class or an athlete. A seemingly completely normal guy—a guy that you may end up calling a friend or even a best friend. You’ll assume that you could never so misjudge a person’s character and be friends with a rapist for god’s sake, and you’ll be wrong. This is why sexual assault is your problem.
When we place all the focus of preventing sexual assault on women by telling them to “just be careful,” we are telling the men who commit sexual assault that they are not responsible for their own actions when in fact they are the only ones responsible. That lack of accountability is a symptom of how the rest of society views victims of sexual assault.
The men of Duke University and across college campuses can help combat sexual assault by making sure that they are the type of man who always asks sexual partners for explicit, sober, verbal consent. Ask a person to dance instead of grabbing them from behind (yes, this is directed at you, first-year boys who grabbed me at Shooters this past Wednesday), and be the kind of guy that doesn’t accept that behavior from his friends. Be the kind of person a friend could confide in when they’ve been sexually assaulted. Be the kind of person who will believe the victim when they tell you the perpetrator is your best friend.
The only way to end sexual assault is to destroy the culture that supports it and protects perpetrators, not by policing how women behave.
College is an incredible, amazing time. Your every thought will be challenged and your world will be altered for the better. You’ll meet people from all over the world, get to study in places you’ve never dreamed of and be surrounded by some of the smartest people in the country. But if women are going to enjoy all the promises that college holds, they need men to own sexual assault as their problem. There’s no point in placing all of the pressure on women to protect themselves. There is every point in men worrying about making sure they and their friends don’t become or support rapists.
Dana Raphael is a Trinity senior. Her column, “problematic people doing problematic things”, will run on alternate Mondays.