Friday, August 14, 2009

Safety & Crime Prevention Tips for New Students With Emphasis On Sexual Violence

Now that August is underway and college students are beginning to arrive on campus I've started seeing articles with sexual assault prevention tips directed at young women. Unfortunately, some of these lists don't give any emphasis to primary prevention and instead seek to contain the behavior of those most likely to be victims.

So here are my tips. They are longer than most articles, but the topic deserves more space.

General Safety

As of 2002, male college students were twice as likely to be victims of overall violence than female students, according to the Bureau of Justice's Crime Victimization Survey. 58% of violent crime were committed by strangers, only 41% of offenders were perceived to be using alcohol or drugs, and 93% of crimes occurred off campus.

This higher rate of violence against male students is likely caused in part by the number of safety warnings directed only at women students so that young men may not act with any concern for their own safety. In violent non-sex crimes against college students the crimes are committed most often by people the victim did not know.

Drinking by college students aged 18 to 24 contributes to an estimated 1,700 student deaths and 599,000 injuries each year according to a College Task Force report to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). 2.1 million students between the ages of 18 and 24 drove under the influence of alcohol.

Prevention of alcohol-related harm is more than an individual need for self-control since there can be strong patterns of pushing students to drink more than is safe for them to consume and tolerance or encouragement for committing crimes against students who are intoxicated. If you see someone in distress from over consumption they may need immediate emergency intervention. Learn the signs of acute alcohol poisoning.

Some college rituals have substituted binge water consumption for binge alcohol consumption but this is no guarantee of safety. People have died from water poisoning, mainly after participating in water drinking contests.

Sexual Violence

College women are at higher risk for sexual assault than their non-college-bound peers according to the National College Women Sexual Victimization survey. However, basic resources related to sexual violence may or may not be available on your college campus. Less than 50% of colleges inform students about how to file criminal charges.

"Victims of rape/sexual assault were about 4 times more likely to be victimized by someone they knew than by a stranger," from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

College men are also at risk for sexual assault, but are victims at a much lower rate than college women.

"Just under 3 percent of all college women become victims of rape (either completed or attempted) in a given 9-month academic year. On first glance, the risk seems low, but the percentage translates into the disturbing figure of 35 such crimes for every 1,000 women students. For a campus with 10,000 women students, the number could reach 350," from Sexual Assault on Campus: What Colleges and Universities Are Doing About It.

What you should know

Sexual assault is more than forcible rape. Any strategy which is designed to eliminate rejection or overcome someone's reluctance or indecision or non-participation or which reduces the other person's options is a strategy of sexual assault. This includes trickery to gain someone's trust. Proceeding when the other person cannot or does not act to enforce their personal boundaries is an act of sexual assault.

Consent is not in the eye of the beholder and is not present unless freely given. Physically restraining someone or blocking their freedom of movement when asking for consent can communicate that the only choice that other person has is how unwanted sexual contact will happen. This invalidates, "yes," or compliance as proof of legal consent. You may know that you would release someone if they say, "no," but the other person cannot know this for sure and may feel that your actions are a threat and that lack of compliance will lead to an escalation of violence.

Investigators or bystanders who try to assess whether the alleged victim could have gotten away if she really wanted to are making a fundamental analysis mistake which can easily lead to the denial of a real sexual assault and false claims against a genuine victim.

Freely given consent -- verbal or non-verbal -- must be present before each sexual activity or contact. Lack of consent is always present by default even if it is not clearly communicated or if consent has been given in the past. Mixed messages equals no consent. There is never a point where you or the other person loses the right to not consent. Consent to one sexual activity is not consent to all sexual activities.

Men who present themselves as experts at getting sex may be experts at committing sexual assault. This is confirmed whenever someone brags about having overcome someone's objections or resistance. "She was asking for it," or "What did she expect?" means she didn't consent, but the speaker feels that proceeding without consent was acceptable.

One study with questionable conclusions about the meaning of the research data found that, "men who committed sexual assault reported having had more lifetime sex partners than did sexually experienced men with no sexual assault history."

People who have been sexually abused as children may have weak sexual boundaries. Overrunning those boundaries is as wrong as sexually assaulting someone who has just been struck and left bloody by a hit and run driver. In both cases lack of resistance is not consent. Ignorance about someone else's past trauma is no excuse for exploiting that trauma.

Women in their first year of college who start drinking, or significantly increase their alcohol consumption, reported increased rates of sexual violence according to a University at Buffalo study, titled A Dangerous Transition: Women’s Drinking and Related Victimization from High School to the First Year at College.

The underlying cause is not the behavior of the victims even though students who increase their drinking are less likely to "recognize, avoid, or defend against sexual aggression." Vulnerability doesn't cause sexual violence. However, it is frequently used as a tool by the sexually violent before, during and after the assault.

Schools which dismiss reports of sexual violence because of judgments about the alleged victim's behavior increase the danger of sexual assault to their students.

What you can do now

Plan not only for your safety and well being, include your fellow students in your plan. This includes students who are at risk of committing sexual violence. Peer pressure can be negative but it can also be positive.

Colleges bring together a diverse group of people who bring a mix of healthy and unhealthy beliefs and habits. Some students have lived through horrific trauma and use alcohol or drugs to enable them to cope with daily life. Telling these students to get sober for their own safety before those students have a better way of coping is not helpful. Safety planning at college shouldn't be simplistic and isn't about fear.

Safety planning is about making the most of college or even improving the college if their policies or practices contribute to certain types of violence or post-violence trauma or are designed primarily to protect the college from liability.

Find and review your college's sexual assault policy. If no such policy exists or if the policy is vague or problematic, check out the Students Active For Ending Rape (SAFER) database of college sexual assault policies.

Learn where you can report sexual assaults, get forensic exams and/or get related medical treatment so that if you or another student is sexually assaulted you know where you can get help.

Remember that lecturing those you view as especially vulnerable on proper behavior or clothing as if they can prevent sexual assault can reinforce the rationalizations of the sexually violent and those who deny most non-stranger assaults. Safety talk with those who seem vulnerable should focus on highlighting and opposing the predatory habits of those who are sexually violent.

Make plans with fellow students about what to do if you witness someone being sexually violent or taking any actions which might harm another student. This can prevent group inaction when everyone in the group of bystanders wishes to intercede but is afraid of the reaction by the rest of the group.

What you can do after sexual violence

If you experience unwanted sexual contact or activity, or are coerced into either of these, even if you are not sure that what happened was a crime and are sure you want to tell no one, please reach out for support.

You may feel alone or not worthy of support or services. This is normal. Strong social support after sexual violence has a measurable impact on whether survivors will develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Prompt medical treatment can improve the chances of preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. Immediate sexual injuries vary and may warrant medical treatment.

Those who commit sexual violence against people they know often work diligently to shift the shame and blame from themselves to their victims before, during and after the assault. Premeditated crimes may be spun by perpetrators into nothing more than an innocent mistake. Rapists will sometimes badger victims post-rape into an admission of consent. This is not legal consent. This is coercion.

Many good people don't have the skills to provide you with useful support. Friends or family may expect you to disclose to them first, but in this situation they may not be your best initial contact. If people don't respond well that is about them and their biases and does not reflect on you.

Reach out anyway to the best resource you can find as soon as possible. Do this before you shower or clean up in any way if you can. By doing this you will have more choices when you are able to think more clearly.

If you are in the US, you can use RAINN's hotlines, they have a telephone hotline (1-800-656-hope) and an online hotline, both are confidential, free and available 24/7.

If you decide not to report, preserve as much evidence as possible. If there were witnesses to some or all of what happened, write down their names. Place any items which may contain forensic evidence in a paper bag. Keep any emails or text messages or other correspondence which might be relevant since these are evidence which may substantiate your testimony. If the person who assaulted you writes you an email which tries to paint what happened as undeniably consensual, keep that too because it is evidence of an attempt to manufacture proof of consent.

If you report to the college or police and you are harassed or threatened by anyone those actions against you are wrong. They may also be in violation of criminal statutes, student code of conduct policies or federal regulations. You have the right to report these actions.

If the college allows harassment to continue they are in the wrong and may be in violation of the US Clery Act. For more information on the regulations colleges are supposed to follow, refer to information from the non-profit Security on Campus.

Many factors will influence how college changes after being the victim of sexual violence but those factors are not fixed. If college becomes a hostile environment after sexual violence the fault lies with the college and those within the college who contribute to that hostility. This is an area where support from even a few people can make a huge difference.

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posted by Marcella Chester @ 1:15 PM   9 comments links to this post


At August 20, 2009 3:42 AM, Anonymous Porky said...

Oh honey, you really do need a lot of therapy don't you? Have you any idea how bizarre and irrational your definition of sexual assault is? Every man and woman on the planet is a rapist by your definition! Please do the world a favor by learning to think.

At August 20, 2009 8:27 AM, Blogger Marcella Chester said...

Porky, I don't need therapy but you apparently need a course in ethics and a defense attorney at the ready since a prosecutor might ask to use this comment of yours as evidence of your self-confessed behavior if you are accused of sexual assault and they get a search warrant for your computer usage.

That you make broader allegations against every man on the planet than I ever would is telling. My opinion of men as a whole is much more positive than yours.

At August 22, 2009 8:27 PM, Blogger Marj aka Thriver said...

What an excellent article, Marcella. Thanks for all the links in there. Thanks, too, for letting us use this for The Blog Carnival Against Child Abuse.

At August 26, 2009 2:07 PM, Blogger Patricia Singleton said...

Marcella, thanks for posting this article in this month's blog carnival, as stated by Marj. I appreciate the effort that you put into your articles and your blog.

After reading Porky's comment above, I went to his blog. I think your answer to him is very appropriate.

At September 16, 2009 2:50 AM, Blogger Glaivester said...

Any strategy which is designed to eliminate rejection or overcome someone's reluctance or indecision or non-participation or which reduces the other person's options is a strategy of sexual assault.

Depending on how you define "eliminate" and "overcome," your definition of sexual assault could be taken to include any attempt at getting someone to change their mind, such as someone who has been rejected coming back an hour later and asking "are you sure?"

At September 16, 2009 8:32 AM, Blogger Marcella Chester said...


The problematic concept is "attempt at getting someone to change their mind" which is very different from an "attempt at learning if someone has genuinely changed their mind."

It is also different from building a relationship (even a temporary one) where the other person will get to the point of freely consenting.

A solution to knowing with certainty that you have freely given consent is for those who are rejected to say something like, "If you change your mind let me know," and to then back off graciously. Then if the other person does exactly that and wants to consent there will be no question that the change of mind was genuine.

At September 16, 2009 7:00 PM, Blogger Glaivester said...

The problematic concept is "attempt at getting someone to change their mind" which is very different from an "attempt at learning if someone has genuinely changed their mind."

By "getting them to change their mind" I was thinking more along the lines of convincing them that it would be worth their time to have sex with you (I'm using the "generic you" here) rather than anything coercive.

Most broadly, one could interpret the definition you gave as "once someone has said no, you can never ask them again or suggest anything to them ever again." (Of course, if they say, "no, and don't ask me again," then obviously that is a different matter and you shouldn't).

A solution to knowing with certainty that you have freely given consent is for those who are rejected to say something like, "If you change your mind let me know," and to then back off graciously.

I'm not denying that that would be the best thing to do, but I don't think that absolutely everything other than that automatically falls under the category of sexual assault.

At September 16, 2009 7:46 PM, Blogger Marcella Chester said...


You are putting more into my statement than what I wrote. I talked about strategies of sexual assault, I didn't say that every time someone uses that strategy that they will have committed sexual assault.

Your broad interpretation that once someone says no you can never ask again isn't supported by what I wrote. However, if you have to talk someone into sex then they aren't freely consenting. What you or someone else might view as simply asking again the other person might view as harassment which will only stop if they give in and any agreement under those conditions wouldn't be freely given.

The way you are continuing to frame attempting to get a yes absolutely takes the person seeking sex into dangerous territory which can lead to rightful accusations of rape. Those seeking consent may not think of what they are doing after getting a "no" as coercion but it could very well be coercive.

If someone said no and the reasking happens after the rejecter is more intoxicated that is very dangerous territory and the more sober negative response should be considered the legal answer.

Using a strategy which can lead to rape isn't a wise thing to do simply because it doesn't always end in sexual assault.

At September 21, 2009 2:46 PM, Blogger Melusine said...

Glaivester, this is how it works for me. If I have told some dude that I am not interested in having sex with him and he spends a bunch of time trying to convince me that it would be worth my time to have sex with him, I know that I made the right decision the first time around.

If, however, I tell some dude I don't want to have sex with him and he gives me the time to get to know him and SEE FOR MYSELF that it might be worth my time to have sex with him, well then I might, in fact, end up having sex him.

It doesn't seem like this is a hard concept: letting someone get to know you and decide for his or herself=good; telling them over and over how much they're missing=creepy.

This was a great post, Marcella.


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