Sexual assault and college students: a tip sheet
EDITORS: The following Indiana University researchers have conducted research relevant to discussions about sexual assaults on college campuses.
ZoŽ Peterson isn't surprised by the confusion surrounding the reports of sexual assault emerging from the recent Duke University controversy. "College students, and the public in general, are not always sure about what constitutes rape," said Peterson, a postdoctoral fellow at the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction at Indiana University. "Many people believe myths about rape such as 'If the woman was flirting then it's not really rape' or 'It's not rape unless the man seriously injures the woman.' However, according to most legal definitions, if the woman did not agree to the sex, it's rape, regardless of the circumstances." In her research, Peterson finds that female college students often do not label their own experiences of nonconsensual sex as "rape." She also finds that decisions about whether or not an act counts as rape can be especially difficult when alcohol is involved, as is often the case with rape on college campuses. "If women who are raped don't know that their experience counts as rape, they may feel that they do not have the right to press charges or to seek support from rape crisis centers," she said.
Sexual assault is common at college parties. As many as one in four women experience unwanted sexual intercourse while attending college in the United States, and many of these incidents happen at or after parties. Despite the dangers, most female students choose to attend parties, since partying and having fun with friends are part of the college experience. The danger of sexual assault arises in part from conflicting expectations between men and women, said Elizabeth Armstrong, an assistant professor of sociology at Indiana University Bloomington. "Female college freshmen come to events expecting to kiss and make out, but the male students often expect sex. These different expectations of sexual contact can create a number of problems, especially when alcohol is involved," Armstrong said. In a study that included interviews, focus groups and observation on a dorm floor, freshman college women said they enjoyed wearing sexy clothes and flirting at parties, but most of them were not interested in casual sex. The male college students thought women were looking for sex partners. The majority of sexual assaults involve alcohol. "Clearly there are men who think it is OK to have sex with a woman who is very intoxicated, even passed out," Armstrong said. Her findings on rates of sexual assault were consistent with studies at many universities across the country.
Some male students systematically take advantage of college party situations to coerce or manipulate women into sex. Knowing the techniques of these "party rapists" can help women avoid them.
(1) Alcohol. Party rapists use alcohol or date rape drugs in order to undermine women's ability to resist sex. Party rapists also target drunk women because they are more likely to blame themselves, are likely to lack credibility if they report assaults, and may be unable to remember a night's events clearly.
* Watch for men who pressure you to drink or seem overly enthusiastic about getting you drunk.
* Be careful with mixed punches or "jungle juice." Their contents and alcohol volume are often a mystery.
* Don't leave your drink unattended.
* Never leave a friend alone when she's had too much to drink.
(2) Divide and conquer. Party rapists target women who are alone and try to separate women from their friends.
* Make arrangements with friends to stick together and agree on when to intervene if things look like they are getting out of hand. "Many women said they had the most fun when they went to parties with a mixed group of guys and girls," Armstrong said. "Their male friends could 'run interference' if a guy was making someone feel uncomfortable."
* Stay in a public place like the dance floor or seating area, and stay out of private rooms.
(3) Disorientation. Party rapists target women who are disoriented and try to put women in unfamiliar situations.
* Know where you are and how to get home. "You don't want to get a ride somewhere and then not know how to get out. Stick a campus map in your purse and bring cab money so you don't have to rely on someone you don't know to get you home," Armstrong said.
* Trust your instincts. "If a guy seems like a creep, he probably is a creep. You don't have to be nice to him!" Armstrong said. "Forget about being polite to someone who is making you feel uncomfortable."
Women who are assaulted are often blamed for choices they've made. "It is never a woman's fault when she is assaulted," Armstrong said.