If you’re a college student, the beginning of a new school year isn’t just a time to catch up with friends, party, and go to football games—it’s also a reminder of the risks of sexual assault. More than 50% of college sexual assaults occur between August and Thanksgiving break.[i]
But we’re not here to tell you not to go to that frat party; to dampen your new-school-year spirit with sobering statistics on sexual assault, or to give you the same speech on protecting your drink and not walking home alone. Not only do those strategies put the onus of preventing sexual assault on the victim, but they’ve also been proven largely ineffective.
Instead, we want to share some ways that everyone on campus—from freshmen to seniors, students to staff—can create an environment that actively discourages sexual assault through healthy communication and respect of people’s personal boundaries. Because even if you don’t think these issues apply to you, sexual assault is your problem, too.
1. Watch Out for Boundary Violations—Especially “Small” Ones
Sexual assault doesn’t begin with rape; rape is what it escalates to. Aggressors almost always start with smaller boundary violations to test what they can get away with and with whom.
This means we have to pay attention to when a person crosses someone else’s boundary—no matter how small—and make it clear at that time those actions will not be tolerated.
To be aware, we have to know what we’re looking for. What might these “minor” boundary violations look like? It could be a touch that makes the recipient uncomfortable—a hug, an arm around the waist, a rub on the back. Maybe it’s a comment, a compliment that borders on sexual harassment or insisting on buying you another drink when you’ve already said no. It might even be digital, such as someone sending you an unwelcome sexual photo.
While some of these actions such as a hug aren’t inherently “bad,” they cross into unhealthy territory when they’re unwanted and make the other person feel uneasy. And although it might seem innocent enough, perpetrators are very aware of when they’re crossing a boundary and they thrive off of the power and control it gives them over others.
If you’re on the receiving end of inappropriate behavior, you’ll probably feel something off in your gut, even if exactly what’s wrong doesn’t consciously register. If you’re an observer, watch out for nonverbal cues like uneasy smiles and body language that suggest a person’s boundary has been violated and they want to leave a situation. The offensive behavior might seem harmless enough to just laugh off or explain away as “weird” or “awkward” afterward, but this is the time to call it out as unacceptable.
2. Act in The Moment—Especially If You’re a Bystander
When you’re the person involved in an unhealthy situation, it’s not always easy to see it for what it is. After all, this is what aggressors count on: that they’ll be able to manipulate a victim into an increasingly precarious situation without them realizing the danger until it’s too late.
So, in addition to defending your boundaries at all times from those who violate them, to create communities where sexual assault doesn’t thrive we also have to get comfortable with stepping in to help others in vulnerable situations.
This will look different depending on the situation and how you’re comfortable taking action: whether directly intervening, creating a distraction, or finding someone who has more authority to act in the situation.
- Be Direct: Speak up in a situation to directly address the aggressor, calling out the issue and acting to defuse it.
- Distract: If you’re addressing the issue head-on seems scary, you can always create a distraction to remove the uncomfortable party from the situation and prevent it from escalating.
- Enlist Others: There are sometimes situations best handled by those with more authority or expertise, whether that’s an RA, an advisor or coach, or even the police. Looping in people better equipped to defuse an unsafe situation is just as important as stepping in yourself.
3. Stay Engaged
Acting in the moment is crucial to preventing potentially harmful situations, but creating safer communities doesn’t end there. In some ways, that’s when your responsibility begins–both as a friend and as a member of your greater school community.
Afterward, follow up with the person(s) involved to make sure they’re okay. If they feel unsafe or if they’ve been harmed, refer them to a resource that can help, whether it’s your on-campus counseling or health center or an outside clinic or hotline with staff trained on these issues. You’re not expected to be the expert here—all you have to do is help them connect with someone who is.
Depending on the offense you’ve witnessed, you might also consider making a formal report. While this is something best decided on a case-by-case basis, you can always reach out to resources, for example, an advisor or your Title IX Coordinator, to understand the issue better and decide if and how to proceed. You don’t have to have it all figured out when you reach out–helping you figure it out is exactly why they’re there.
You might still be thinking: but I’m not in college or I already know how to keep myself safe. This is all great, but it doesn’t really apply to me.
The thing is, sexual assault happens in every community to every kind of person, and the actions of every single person influence whether it continues unchecked or is taken out. It’s everyone’s issue—including yours. Only when we stop putting the burden of prevention on the most vulnerable and instead make an active stand against such violence, will we see real change.
And remember: even though sexual assault spikes at the beginning of the school year and each semester, it can—and does—happen anytime, anywhere, to anyone. So practice these strategies throughout the year, whether it’s August or April.
You’re not alone: if you or someone you know is struggling with sexual assault, free and confidential help is available 24/7 through RAINN (Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network) at 800-656-4673 and online at hotline.rainn.org.
[i]Source: Campus Sexual Assault Study, 2007; Matthew Kimble, Andrada Neacsiu, et. Al, Risk of Unwanted Sex for College Women: Evidence for a Red Zone, Journal of American College Health (2008).