Cloaked in Vigilance: Sexual Assault on College Campuses

The names of those interviewed in this article have been changed for the privacy of themselves and their friends and families. They were interviewed as a group and volunteered their experiences and thoughts freely.

Modern college campuses are a hotbed for tension. Whether it be between roommates, friends or significant others there is always an opportunity for conflict.

Birthed from this conflict is danger, and specifically a danger for women. Sexual assault is threat that young women are faced with, and the attitudes surrounding it perpetuate its severity.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics defines sexual assault as a wide range of victimizations, separate from rape or attempted rape. These crimes include attacks or attempted attacks generally involving unwanted sexual contact between victim and offender. Sexual assaults may or may not involve force and include such things as grabbing or fondling, and may include verbal threats.

A study from the National Institute of Justice found that in 2000 between 20 and 25% of women were subjected to either completed or attempted rape victimization, and that for every 1,000 female students on a campus there are 35 incidents of rape per year.

This does not mean that women are positioning themselves for failure in the pursuit of safety. In the 2007 Campus Sexual Assault study by the NIJ, it was found that 88% of women never consume a drink left unattended and 76% also don’t consume a drink given to them by a stranger. The same study found that 5% of the sample experienced a physically forced sexual assault, but 11% experienced an incapacitated sexual assault.

Lucy, Anna, Brittany and Megan are freshmen in college nearing the end of their first semester. They reflect upon their experiences leading up to college and throughout their first year.

Prevention of sexual assault starts on the individual level, and many young women are being warned of the danger before stepping on to college campuses.

“They (my parents) talked to me about being safe when I go to parties, because my parents do things like that. My parents said to stay with friends, to make sure that one of us isn’t completely wasted, so someone is able to keep an eye out for everyone. If anything were to happen they wanted me to know that I could call them and talk to them about it,” said Lucy.

This sentiment was not uncommon.

“My mom had told me before coming to college to always go out with a group of friends and to make sure that they knew that I was with them so that I would not get left behind. Other than that they were a little oblivious, or just didn’t want to address it. I guess they were like ‘safety in numbers’ when they sent me away,” said Megan. “My family had a joint conversation with my brother and I. They told my brother, ‘don’t take advantage of girls,’ keep your head. Don’t go places by yourself and don’t go too crazy where you can get taken advantage of. They told me to make good choices,” followed Anna.

The safety of a clear mind was presented to these three girls, but Brittany had a different experience at home.

“According to my parents I don’t drink or speak to boys, so obviously there wasn’t a lot of talking,” she said. “However, my mom did tell me about the nail polish that you can carry around and use to see if you were roofied, but that was it.”

Strategies to protect oneself were a common theme in many of these conversations. Anna was introduced to the idea of protecting yourself at parties a lot younger than many.

“My mom told me to never put my drink down, and she told me that before a 13-year-old birthday party, so it has been a very prevalent thing,” Anna said.

Attitude feeds much of the interactions that young men have with women according to these freshmen. The sexual assault becomes a defense of pride and masculinity rather than a genuine interaction between individuals. Megan also believes that they set themselves up for success before girls even walk into a party.

“All of our parties are held at frat houses, so that if you want to go out and drink it has to be there. I think that is already an ego booster for the guys. It gives them a leg up,” she said. “I think boys are also trying to be cool. Not exactly cool, but having that ability to one up each other can lead to a culture of sexual assault,” followed Lucy.

Anna placed the focus on the perception of college that most boys have.

“I feel like college is shown in the media and in movies as this free for all, especially when people first get here for freshman year. I think guys just feel entitled to whatever they want. To whatever girls they want. That doesn’t go away easily. It seems like ‘we have to make college this certain thing,’ and it kind of just perpetuates it,” she said.

Much of these images portray the ‘stereotypical image of masculinity’ according to Lucy, and this can lead to decreased sensitivity and entitlement.

“I think the whole idea of the entitlement comes from everywhere. When guys grow up they are told to be a man, to be masculine, to be a certain way. With that comes a lot of natural aggression, and I think that when they get to a situation where there is drinking and partying it naturally flows into ‘oh, I can get any girl that I want because I am manly, I am masculine, and any girl will be attracted to me if I just try hard enough,” she said.

They concede that parents may have a hand in perpetuating this image of masculinity, but do not believe that this is the root cause of the issue.

“I feel like it is not just parents. The media, movies and even violent video games where it is just strippers and cars show boys from a very young age what they then think is the norms. It becomes what they think is how they should be able to act,” Anna said.

Lucy believes it to be a minority of young men that sexually assault women, and that her family taught respect and understanding to her younger brother. While this teaching goes far, she thinks that the media and hyper masculine imagery combats the progress of parents.

“I think that because not every guy will be inclined to sexually assault women, and I also think that it is a minority that does choose to do so. I know that my parents have always taught my brother to treat girls right. It became dinner table conversation when he recently got his first girlfriend. He asked her out in person, and was taught to be very respectful. That doesn’t mean that he wont see all the partying and things in the media and it will probably affect him. I think that parents have a lot more influence than they think. I think that the way a boy or a man was brought up to treat women, and how important that was in their upbringing plays a big role in how they will treat women. I don’t think that their attitude towards women is shaped by any one thing,” Lucy said.

Megan believes that the home life of young men and women dictates how they see each other, while the media and film can alter this.

“One thing that I think about is that if you grow up and see your parents respecting each other, then you are more inclined to do that. Also, the media in general, if you are seeing all these things and watching these movies, and listening to this music it’ll get in your head,” she said.

The mentality of someone who sexually assaults a woman was defined as “off” or “abnormal” by all of these college students.

“I think when boys treat girls that way it is a mental thing. It is abnormal to want to take advantage of a girl, she is still someone. It isn’t everyone, it has to be a specific type of person,” Anna said.

Interactions based on sexuality and objectification are seemingly part of the female experience. Catcalling, objectifying comments and other superficial statements are common experiences for all of these young women.

“When we are out it happens to everyone,” Lucy said. “When my friend and I were leaving a formal we were walking to the bus and a car rolled up to us and tried to get us to come in the car with them. It was terrifying,” said Megan.

Anna added that after a recent sports win on campus she had an unwanted interaction while walking with her boyfriend.

“After a recent sports win, a guy came up to me and said ‘your ass looks amazing in those leggings,’ and creepily stared into my eyes while saying it. It was gross,” she said.

These incidents were specifically in college, but Anna shared another example from when she was still in middle school.

“I was pretty young and we were walking from practice. I would say that I was in middle school, and we were walking to the store near us. I must have been twelve, and a guy called out from his car saying something to me. My friends said ‘oooh you just got your first catcall,’ and it was not something that I wanted. People say it can be taken like a compliment, but when people are calling out at you from their car it is uncomfortable,” she said.

While this incident was with a group of older girls, Megan once toured a predominantly male technology school while in high school. She said her experience was “creepy.”

“When I was in high school I went and toured a technology school in the middle of the boonies, and it was about 85% male so wherever I walked everyone just stared at us. It was creepy. We are not coming here ever,” she said.

Lucy went to high school in overseas where the drinking age is lower than in the United States. When she would go to the bars with friends, men would offer unsolicited comments about her body.

“In high school when I went to the bars, random guys would come up to you and just start having really uncomfortable interactions and stare at you. It was so bad that you couldn’t even keep talking. They are just staring at you or will make comments about your body. The guys would say things like ‘your butt looks great,’ or ‘your boobs look great in that shirt.’ They say things that are just uncalled for. I am not strictly my body,” she said.

When asked whether or not there was a different standard for behavior when young men and women were in relationships the answer was a resounding “yes.”

“I feel that comments like that inside of a relationship are different. When a random guy comes up to you and expects something out of it, it is a different situation. I don’t know what their motives are, but when it is someone who you are with then it is different. That is more of a compliment when it is casual. When someone singles you out on a street, especially when you are alone it isn’t like when you are in a relationship with someone,” said Anna. “Your body still exists, but you are more than that.”

Lucy noted that these compliments were consensual between the two individuals in the relationship.

“When you are in a relationship, you’re getting compliments about more than just your body. The two of you are choosing to say these things to each other and it is consensual. It is more than things that are just your boobs or your ass. You want to look good for your boyfriend because you chose him. You give each other compliments because you care about more than just a body,” Lucy said.

Megan noted the weirdness of these comments due to the fact that the “guy must have been looking at you for a while to be willing to say something.”

“How are you supposed to react to that? I am not going to say thank you because I am not thankful for someone looking at me that way. Sometimes people can get aggressive. They come up to you and say smile, why can’t you take a compliment. You don’t want to smile or be thankful, but you don’t want to be in danger with these weird people calling you out on the streets,” said Anna.

The imagery of the female form that is put forth today is “sexualized,” but these students don’t dress up to be noticed by boys. They do it for themselves and are not looking for compliments.

“I think that there is a difference between saying ‘you look great today’ and ‘your ass looks great today.’ There is a difference between the connotations. For me, during the day, I don’t wear makeup every day, I don’t always wear my contacts. I don’t need to always get prettied up. I dress up and put on makeup to look pretty for me so that I feel pretty. It is nice to have affirmation from a friend or a guy friend or a boyfriend that you look nice. For me personally, I don’t dress up for guys, I dress up for me. This is to make myself look and feel better about me,” Lucy said.

“I feel like you can still look beautiful without the affirmation of a guy. People who give you compliments show that you can look good. My friends and my roommates are always there. We also have that one friend that is always willing to tell you how you are looking on a given day. I feel that when you are comfortable in what you are wearing, you are beautiful in the skin that you are in,” said Megan.

Anna differentiated compliments and catcalls in how they are presented.

“I agree that I like looking nice, and if someone tells me I look pretty in a non weird way then I take that as a compliment. In other situations, like cat calling I don’t find that as affirmation for my femininity. I don’t need some random guy on the street telling me I am beautiful to feel beautiful. That isn’t necessary for me. Some girls may want that. That isn’t how I think about it personally,” she said.

College has yielded new experiences for these young women. From the outset Anna had encounters with boys that could have turned negative.

“At the beginning of my freshman year my roommate and I went to an event and we stuck together because we didn’t know anyone yet. These three guys came up to us and they even said that they were not freshmen. At first you say ‘oh older guys this is exciting,’ but then they tried to get us to give them our phones to get our numbers. It was a weird vibe. I felt like it was kind of controlling. I could have put their number in my phone by myself. Both of us choked up and told them we didn’t have our phones, but I wasn’t going to give some random guys my phone to get invited to a random party. That was a little bit of a weird experience,” she said.

Megan makes sure to be careful and draw a clear line with boys she interacts with.

“At school I have been more careful. I don’t really get that drunk. In high school I actually ended a relationship over this because he wanted a lot more than I did. I walked out of a car on this dude. We wanted different things but he wanted a lot more than I did,” she said.

Lucy recalled incidents from high school that drive her to always be upfront about what she wants in an interaction with guys at parties.

“Here there have been guys at parties who want to hook up with you, and you feel a bit uncomfortable but that is okay. In high school I didn’t have instances of sexual assault per se but I did have a peeping tom issue at one point on a school trip. There was also one night after graduation at a club where we bought a table and I went out dancing. I hooked up with a guy very briefly. Later that night I started feeling really weird and we are fairly sure that I got roofied. My friends could thankfully tell that I wasn’t feeling or acting right so they made sure I got home safely by the end of the night. So nothing has properly happened, but there have been instances in which it could have been much worse,” Lucy said.

The peeping tom incident was a “perfect example” of the objectification of the female body these students agreed. Lucy had lasting discomfort from the issue.

“It was really embarrassing and vulnerable to be looked at for just my body. We were on a school humanitarian trip in Kenya and the rooms had windows above the doors. If you jumped high enough you could see into the bathroom. It was the same guy that would look in at me when I got in and out of the shower. It only happened twice because I said something to my boyfriend at the time who was also on the trip, and he took care of it. He blew up at the guy, and it did not happen again. It was very uncomfortable, and I was uncomfortable around the guy that did it until we graduated. The guy that did it never got much attention from girls, so I think that it was a craving for attention. He could have been jealous. He was a very immature guy. In general, he did not have the biggest respect for girls. I never spoke to the guy about it, but this is why I would think he did it,” she said.

Megan said that Lucy’s peeping tom is an example of how often it can be the guys that you do know who cause the problems.

“The worst conversations have always come from people I have known. It is extremely hard to say no to someone who you know. I think that it gives them confidence that they may not have had otherwise. You expect it to come from people who you don’t know. The familiarity breaks down the nervousness. This makes it hard to leave or to explain why it is uncomfortable. It never ends well because they don’t get it,” she said. “I was dating this guy and he wanted to have sex. I did not. We argued about it for around three weeks and then it ended in him yelling at me. I got out of the car and walked two miles home. I was not going to sit there and get yelled at because I would not have sex with him. That is ridiculous.”

Megan continued to talk about how difficult of a dynamic it becomes when you trust a potential assailant.

“I definitely did not want to leave the car which is why it makes it such a dangerous and difficult situation. If it is someone who you know, you trust this person and you think that they will always have your best interests at heart so you say ‘oh okay I can go along with this,’ but when you realize that it isn’t working for you it can be too far past where you think you can say no. You have to get girls and boys to realize that there always is the option to stop and leave,” she said.

The experience in which she walked home taught her that you can always just say no.

“At a frat party there can be guys that ask you to dance and I have said no. I just wasn’t into it and didn’t want to. You can just turn a boy down,” Megan said.

Anna witnesses what happens at parties from a safer situation because she normally goes out with her boyfriend. Safety shouldn’t come from being ‘accompanied by a boy’ she said, but recognizes that it does help keep her safe.

“Most parties that I go to my boyfriend is with me so guys don’t come and approach me. But after I go to parties I have been told by my parents ‘I’m glad that he was with you.’ I just think to myself that my brother doesn’t have to bring a girl to parties with him to stay safe. He can just go to parties by himself,” Anna said.

All of these young women spoke to the desire to have anyone step in to stop the development of possible assaults, but recognize that it is difficult to decided when to step it.

“It is hard to tell what is consensual when you are an onlooker. At a recent formal there was a girl all over her boyfriend, but since they were hammered you don’t know what is consensual. You want to be able to step in if you see something, but also you don’t want to get in-between people who are dating. You don’t want to be labeled the person that has broken up people who were doing consensual things. It is hard to tell from an outside perspective what is a good situation for other people. Unless you see someone visibly saying no or not conscious it is hard to tell what’s a good consensual interaction and what is not,” said Anna.

“There might be thoughts of ‘oh well, once we get further she will start enjoying herself and it will be fine’,” followed Lucy.

The eventual sexual assault of girls at parties seems like a “goal” to Megan.

“I feel like since it is such a minority it is the ones that do who might just say ‘this girl is really pretty I want to have sex with her. I am going to have sex with her. I have already decided.’ It doesn’t really matter. They have already decided in their heads that they will push it until they have accomplished that goal,” she said.

Anna sees it as the responsibility of boys and girls to step in but sees shortcomings in some interactions.

“I think it would be a good thing for girls to step in, but boys as well. For some reason, guys take it more to heart if a guy tells them to stop. While both genders can step up, a guy would be more willing to stop if he heard that from another guy,” she said.

Megan thinks you should be willing to protect your friends even at a detriment to your own party experience.

“If you want to just stop a situation it doesn’t matter what gender you are; anyone can stop it. My friend and I were at a party and this guy would not leave her alone so she told him that we were lesbians and ran over to dance with me. He didn’t bother her again that night. It was effective. No guys approached either of us after that. It was almost too effective. She needed to find a way that got her out of that permanently. I care about my friends and if that is what she needed to do at the time, I was glad to do it. I don’t need to hookup with a guy every time that I go out,” she said. “It was a signed, sealed, delivered, we are done moment.”

Many young women will experience sexual assault throughout their college careers. Squared Politics supports the victims and their choices regarding this difficult process. The experiences shared above depict a mindset of caution and constant vigilance. Together we can change the attitude towards sexual assault on college campuses and make it a thing of the past.

(Featured Image: Matt Rourke)