5 Things College Freshmen Should Know About Sexual Assault

Reduce the risk of sexual assault on college campuses


In an open letter posted online, Kenyon alumnus Michael Hayes details how Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio mishandled the sexual assault of his sister, Chelsie. In his letter, he says that the college betrayed his trust and failed his sister when the lengthy administrative process eventually found the accused not guilty.

His blunt account of what happened is not an uncommon story on college campuses. Sexual assault at U.S. universities is a serious problem. In fact, there is an epidemic of sexual assault with one in five women and one in 16 men being sexually assaulted while in college, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.

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.

What Should College Administrators Do Differently?

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. They also point out fragmented reporting channels; long, cumbersome reporting procedures; and the desire to maintain a certain public image as the reasons victims and their cases are not being helped appropriately.

According to Vanessa Grigoriadis, author of "Blurred Lines: Rethinking Sex, Power & Consent on Campus," 99 percent of college anti-assault orientation programs are not effective. What's more, she says almost all American schools teach "bystander education" seminars which help students learn to stop assaults themselves. But the only program that is proven to work is an advanced type of women's self defense. And according to Grigoriadis, only three universities teach this type right now. These are Oregon, Ohio University, and Florida Atlantic University. 

"I think most Ivy League schools are doing an excellent job as well," Grigoriadis adds. "I also recently read the rules about sex put out by the University of Iowa, and I found them impressive. Christian universities have been slower to adopt many rules and protect their female students, but they are giving it a shot now. However, any school that has a major football team bringing in a ton of revenue could have some corruption within that team."

"Colleges need to admit to themselves that American kids form their sexual identities when they’re in college; even if that isn’t on the curriculum, that’s what a lot of students are there to do," Grigoriadis adds. "Armed with this knowledge, they should take a hard look at their party culture. They don’t need to sign up kids for orientation seminars about not raping, which is what they are doing right now. They need to address the binge drinking and out of control social life on their campuses, particularly at male-dominated frats and football parties."

In her book, Grigoriadis says that universities also could improve the situation by 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 Freshman

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

In order to protect themselves, college freshman 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. 

"Most Americans understand that 'acquaintance sexual assault' (when an acquaintance assaults another acquaintance, such as when a boss gets handsy with an underling at a Christmas party) is much more typical than 'stranger sexual asssault' (when a stranger breaks into someone’s apartment and rapes her)," Grigoriadis explains. "But I think that in college, both genders need to understand that they are surrounded by a ton of acquaintances, and not everyone is to be trusted."

Here are some additional tips that Grigoriadis offers. 

Be aware of the "red zone." Sociologists who study sexual assault call the beginning of freshman year, the "red zone" or the riskiest part of a college woman's life. In fact, United Educators, America’s largest collegiate insurance company, estimates that 73 percent of college sexual assault victims are freshmen or sophomores, and 88 percent of gang-rape victims are freshmen.

"During this period, an unaffiliated female student (meaning a freshman before she enters a sorority) is the most at risk of all students on campus for assault. Why? She’ll be at a strange frat or a new dormitory, or she’ll be hanging out with a guy she wouldn’t invite to her room if she already had a strong clique, or she’ll be getting stinking drunk, possibly because she’s had little drinking experience in the past," Grigoriadis explains. 

All of these things put her at a very high risk for sexual assault because she is a new environment, with few if any strong contacts. What's more, Grigoriadis says that new students should not be thrust into a risky party culture at a time when they are bound to be disoriented. They are signing up for classes, making new friends, learning the campus map, and letting their guard down. 

Remember who your friends are. "Kids today are under the illusion that the friends they have on Facebook and Snapchat are truly their friends," says Grigoriadis. "Those 500 'friends' are not truly their friends. And thinking that they are is dangerous. If you go to a party, and you think you’re surrounded by 'friends,' you may be likelier to follow a guy who says he wants to get beer from his apartment back to that apartment, and before you know it, you’re in an apartment with a locked door and someone who is definitely not a true friend."

Grigoriadis says the same goes for guys. They need to realize that taking female classmates home who they feel they are 'friends' with because they liked each others pictures on Instagram is dangerous.

"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. According to Grigoriadis, she always advises freshman boys to stay off of group chat with other students.

"They shouldn’t start group chats with guys from their dorm floor, or their pledge class, or their athletic group," she says. "There is no benefit to the type of conversation guys are having with each other at 4 a.m. on group chat. At that time of night, this technology becomes a way of egging each other on to have sex. And it’s impossible to imagine that for some guys, this won't involve taking advantage of girls. Don’t forget that Brock Turner at Stanford was group-texting with his buddies from the Stanford swim team around the time he assaulted that girl behind the dumpster."

Stay in a group at all times. Grigoriadis says her number one tip for incoming freshman girls is to stay in a group. "As dumb as you may feel sticking together in a little herd walking through campus to frat parties, do that. And don't leave any freshman girl behind when you go home," she says. 

She also points out that the primary risk of sexual assault is not at the actual frat party. It’s after the frat party. "It’s when you go back to a guy’s off-campus apartment after the party because they ran out of beer at the party. Or even when you go back to your dorm at 2 a.m., and decide to hang out in the room of a guy you only met once before when you were getting a slice of pizza in town but who happens to live two floors down from you. You need to be very clear about why you’re in that guy’s room at 2 a.m."

She stressed that "just hanging out" is not a clear enough reason. "If you want to hook up with him, great. If you don’t want to hook up with him, go back to your room. Boundaries and good decision-making are key here. Don’t put yourself in a dangerous situation."

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 she has found that "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 girl is too drunk to answer yes, then it is not consensual. Grigoriadis feels this new guideline would be extremely effective if 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 on the parents and the students themselves. 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."

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

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