5 Things College Freshmen Should Know About Sexual Assault

Reduce the risk of sexual assault on college campuses

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Sexual assault at U.S. universities is a serious problem, with one in five women and one in 16 men being sexually assaulted while in college, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.

According to RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), 11.2% of all students (undergraduates and graduates) experience rape or sexual assault through physical force, violence, or incapacitation.

Here's what experts say college administrators should do to lower these rates, and what first-year college students can do to keep themselves safe.

What Should Colleges Do About It?

Advocates say one reason the frequency of sexual assault on campuses continues to be high is that college administrators are in denial about the scope of the problem and don't have proper systems in place to help victims.

For example, fragmented reporting channels and long, cumbersome procedures can make it difficult for students to report sexual assault.

They urge administrators to do more to protect sexual assault survivors instead of their school's public image, including:

  • Creating sound campus policies and procedures to eliminate sexual assault
  • Working closely with trained law enforcement officials to ensure incidents are fully investigated and processed

Vanessa Grigoriadis, author of "Blurred Lines: Rethinking Sex, Power & Consent on Campus," also notes that college anti-assault orientation programs are not effective. She says that 99% of them teach "bystander education" seminars, which help students learn to stop assaults on others, instead of teaching the students how to protect themselves with advanced self defense classes.

In addition, she urges college administrators to take a closer look at their party cultures by addressing binge drinking and male-dominated frat and football parties and banning frat parties during the beginning weeks of college.

"Kids going to these parties...have just left their childhood homes," she writes. "They should not be thrust into a risky party culture at the same time they're disoriented."

5 Tips for Incoming College Students

Until colleges and universities realize that they need to transform the social scene on their campuses as well as improve their awareness and prevention programs, the responsibility for increasing sexual assault awareness is going to fall on parents and students, says Grigoriadis.

In order to protect themselves, first-year college students need to become more aware of the risks of sexual assault as well as to learn how to protect themselves in their new and often unfamiliar environment. 

Here are some tips for keeping incoming students safe and making them more aware.

Be Aware of the "Red Zone"

Sociologists who study sexual assault call the beginning of college "the red zone," or the riskiest part of a college woman's life. 

According to the United Educators, America’s largest collegiate insurance company, 73% of college sexual assault victims are first- or second-year students.

"During this period, an unaffiliated female student (meaning before she enters a sorority) is the most at risk of all students on campus for assault."

Why? She is in a new environment with few, if any, strong contacts, says Grigoriadis. She is signing up for classes, making new friends, learning the campus map, and letting her guard down. An unaffiliated female student may also have little drinking experience in the past.

Remember Who Your Friends Are

"Kids today are under the illusion that the friends they have on Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram are truly their friends," says Grigoriadis. "Those 500 'friends' are not truly their friends."

Being able to distinguish real friends from social media "friends" is important for both genders, says Grigoriadis. "In college, both genders need to understand that they are surrounded by a ton of acquaintances, and not everyone is to be trusted."

Males need to realize that it's dangerous to take female classmates home who they feel they are 'friends' because they liked each others pictures on Instagram.

"Girls have been speaking out loudly about how violated they feel by many of their sexual experiences in college, and you don’t want to be one of those guys who violates someone even if you didn’t mean to," Grigoriadis says. "Boys need rules for their super-casual hookups, and one of those rules should be that you don’t take home any girl who seems too drunk to consent." 

Don't Get Involved in Group Chats

Grigoriadis advises first-year boys to stay off of group chat with other students, including guys from their dorm floor, pledge class, or athletic group.

"There is no benefit to the type of conversation guys are having with each other at 4 a.m. on group chat," she says. "At that time of night, this technology becomes a way of egging each other on to have sex," which may include taking advantage of girls.

Stay in a Group at All Times

Grigoriadis' number-one tip for incoming female students is to stay in a group. She recommends walking together in a "little herd" through campus and to frat parties and urges students to never leave a girl behind when you go home.

She also notes that the primary risk of sexual assault is not at the actual frat party, but after the frat party when you go back to the dorm. "You need to be very clear about why you’re in that guy’s room at 2 a.m," Grigoriadis says, adding that "just hanging out" is not a clear enough reason.

"Boundaries and good decision-making are key here. Don’t put yourself in a dangerous situation," says Grigoriadis.

Use "Yes Means Yes" as a Guideline

In the past, the rule about consensual sex was that "no means no," meaning that a woman had to say "no" in order to stop the man's behavior. But Grigoriadis says "yes means yes" is a much better guideline. 

"That means that guys now have to explicitly ask or receive some sort of signal about whether a woman wants to have sex," she says. "Silence is no longer consent. A boy could say, ‘Are you good with this?’ And the girl can answer." 

What's more, if the female is too drunk to answer yes, then it is not consensual. Grigoriadis feels this new guideline would be extremely effective if more universities adopted it. 

A Word From Verywell

Sexual assault on college campuses is a growing problem that parents and students need to take the time to learn more about. And because U.S. colleges and universities are still trying to catch up with the changing sexual climate, the responsibility for educating incoming freshmen about the risks of sexual assault falls largely on the parents and the students themselves.

The key is to make sure your college student not only understands that the risks are real but also knows how to reduce the likelihood it will happen in their life. 

What's more, parents and students need to realize that sexual assault on college campuses is different than the commonly held view of rape.

"We’re not talking about a stranger hiding in the bushes outside the library. And many times we’re not even talking about physical violence or emotionally abusive tactics," Grigoriadis explains. "This is stupid, immature, and yes, criminal behavior by adolescent guys who cross the line when they think they can get away with it."

If you are a survivor of sexual assault, you can contact the RAINN National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 to receive confidential support from a trained staff member at a local RAINN affiliate.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Sexual Violence Resource Center. Statistics about sexual violence.

  2. RAINN. Campus sexual violence: Statistics.

  3. Grigoriadis V. Blurred Lines: Rethinking Sex, Power & Consent on Campus, New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 2017. 

  4. United Educators. Sexual assault claims study.

By Sherri Gordon
Sherri Gordon, CLC is a published author, certified professional life coach, and bullying prevention expert. She's also the former editor of Columbus Parent and has countless years of experience writing and researching health and social issues.