Anyone who pays attention to sexual assault on college campuses has heard the horror stories. Many schools are known for having a culture where heavy drinking is the norm and rape is common. In fact, the national sexual assault rate for women in college is still estimated at 20 to 25 percent, according to a report from the Department of Justice. In spite of a recent Department of Education directive requiring schools to investigate sexual assault under Title IX, many schools would rather cover up a reported rape to maintain the school’s reputation. Some colleges still have sexual assault prevention programs which emphasize the "provocative" clothing women wear.
Three short years ago, I entered Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash. as a freshman. During orientation week, all new students were required to attend a training about violence and sexual assault, which focused on bystander intervention, as well as a session discussing the importance of affirmative consent in sexual encounters. Campus administrators made it clear that they took the issue of sexual assault seriously. And while frat parties with heavy drinking certainly occur at Whitman, the culture surrounding our Greek life seemed much less extreme than stories I’d head from larger state schools. In short, Whitman was not a place where I would have anticipated rape to be a problem.
Of course, our idyllic views of college during those first few weeks rarely hold for long. I quickly got involved with the campus newspaper, where I soon began to specialize in investigative projects. Last spring, I took on a piece about rape on campus, after receiving an anonymous tip asking us to look into the issue. I sent an email to the student body asking for people with stories to share, and quickly received four replies from students who had been sexually assaulted at Whitman (on a campus of 1,500 students), plus half a dozen more who had experiences from high school.
As I interviewed the female students who replied, common narratives began to form. While a few had been attacked in the conventional sense of the word (physically resisting while saying “no”), most of the women had less dramatic encounters. Some were drunk, blacked out or on the verge of passing out when a guy started having sex with them. Some were sober, but had simply been so shocked by sexual advances that they stayed silent. “I didn’t know what was happening,” many of them told me. “I wasn’t there with my body.” Rather than physically resisting or saying “no” clearly, most of them stayed silent, figuring it was better to just let it happen.
And over and over, these women told me the same thing: “He didn’t think he did anything wrong.”
After I wrote a two-part series on the subject, Whitman revised its sexual assault reporting practices, to, include, among other things, the automatic contacting of an independent victim’s advocate from the local YWCA whenever a student came forward alleging sexual assault. I spoke with college administrators, who were eager to hear my thoughts on reforming the system for preventing, reporting and punishing rape. Yet even as we discussed improving the college’s curriculum on consent, I felt we were missing a significant part of the puzzle.
While it’s important to craft appropriate responses to assault, prevention efforts are crucial. The fact that so many women I talked to felt violated by guys who were unaware of any wrongdoing suggests that the education we’re doing about consent is seriously flawed. For all of the talk about rape on campus, we’re culturally still very uncomfortable talking about sex. Even the most progressive preventative efforts, like Whitman’s Green Dot program, stop at the idea that you need a yes to proceed with sexual activity, and that the absence of a no can’t be interpreted as consent. This idea, while important, ignores the cultural context sexual encounters take place in.
Many 18-year olds in the US have received a limited formal sex education, and they’ve seen many movies and consumed much pornography. Few have any idea how to initiate a conversation about sexual boundaries or ask a partner for their consent in a way which doesn’t interrupt the mood. College programs might touch on this, but it’s usually done in a large group setting with an administrator giving the lecture — not exactly someone students are apt to trust when it comes to keeping things sexy.
Besides that, many women are socialized in a culture teaching them that they don’t have ownership over their own bodies — a fact which leads people to stay silent when they’re uncomfortable rather than vocalizing their non-consent. Students, particularly male students, who never have this explained to them might understandably reflect the pop cultural norm that silence equals yes—an idea that’s unlikely to be un-learned during a thirty-minute session during freshman orientation.
Reading about campus rape around the country has left me believing that in spite of its issues, Whitman has dealt with the issue far better than many other schools. However, even a progressive sexual assault policy won’t solve the problem of campus rape. If we’re serious about rape prevention, we need to educate students beyond the simple idea that yes means yes and no means no. Preventing sexual assault requires understanding that affirmative consent can’t be meaningfully taught to students who don’t have a comprehensive framework of human sexuality.
In a nation which has embraced abstinence-only education, colleges that are serious about preventing rape need to seriously consider offering holistic sex education to their students, and including a discussion of power dynamics and socialization in their workshops on consent. If we’re willing to go beyond “don’t rape,” I believe colleges will find that a healthier view of sex leads to less assault, as well as happier students.