As countless young adults head off to college, they will be bombarded with warnings about potential incidents of sexual assault on their campus. As many of us know, these concerns are valid – women ages 16-24 are at the greatest risk of being raped, and are between 20-25% likely to experience sexual assault while in college (US Department of Justice).
Many colleges address sexual assault during the orientation for incoming first-year students, which is important, but the focus of the conversation may not be as helpful as we hope. Though an explanation of how to report a sexual assault and the resources available for victims is generally brought up, it is not what college officials tend to emphasize. Instead, first-years hear about what not to do, ways to avoid becoming victims. First-years, especially female students, are advised to limit their drinking and only go out in groups to limit their odds of being victimized. All of these seem like justifiable things to say to students, especially after reading plenty of Cosmopolitan’s and RAINN’s articles on campus safety, right? The result of a larger rape culture in which we live, this messaging can result in the internalization of victim-blame and shame. We take part in what is termed a “rape schedule” – the ways in which women alter their daily lives in order to limit their chances of sexual assault. We avoid walking around the city alone at night and we take self defense classes simply to reduce our risk of being attacked. Our autonomy is limited by the possibility of experiencing assault. This what living in a rape culture looks like.
We have all seen how victim-blaming occurs the moment the victim doesn’t follow the “rape schedule”. Luckily, my first-year orientation included a program called “Can I Kiss You?” by Mike Domitrz, which stressed partners asking for consent before engaging in sex. Domitrz argues that verbal consent needs to be given by both partners for everything from holding someone’s hand to sex. Furthermore, he placed the responsibility of preventing sexual assault on bystanders rather than the victims. Programs like “Can I Kiss You?” get the attention of students more than lectures that attempt to scare young women and men and push the blame onto victims. More importantly, it instills the radical idea that consent, even for the smallest of things, is necessary.
Orientations about sexual assault have come a long way in recent years. Sexual assault awareness has become a frequently addressed topic on many campuses. And yet, there is still progress to be made.
Hopefully more colleges will take on programs like “Can I Kiss You?” in addition to their current curriculum so that safety tips for potential victims will not be the sole resource for educating incoming first-year students. Preventing sexual assault by adjusting one’s schedule will not end rape because sexual assault is not controlled by the victim. The attacker makes the decision to violate another human being, and by promoting consent, schools can work to counteract a culture that blames victims and does not hold perpetrators accountable.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia User Sage Ross