Take Back the Debate

We need a new approach to combating sexual assault on college campuses

In recent weeks, two articles about sex have been widely read on campus. One, by Michael F. Cotter ’14, described that the social epidemic of rape goes underappreciated. The other, by Nathalie R. Miraval ’14, reported that there is a previously unnoticed group of undergraduates who like kinky sex. These articles are totally different, and the contrast expresses the central dilemma of sex at college. While many young Americans have a sexual coming-of-age in their early twenties, in the social environment of college this transformation can be accompanied by significant collateral damage: sexual violence.

Obviously, no sane person is “for” sexual assault, but it’s worth listing the consequences here. Sexual assault renders lasting personal trauma. It affects a person’s trust in others, the degree to which they feel safe in a place they consider home, and the health of future relationships. On a larger scale, the prevalence of sexual assault stokes gender wars and breeds mistrust within close college communities. In this context, a vital part of making college campuses places of both safety and personal development is combating sexual violence. Unfortunately, the conversation on this subject is polarized and distorted. So, moving forward, we should re-evaluate our entire framework for confronting sexual assault.

As reported by the U.S. Department of Justice, 20 to 25 percent of women will be victims of completed or attempted rape during their undergraduate careers. Because students spend an average of nine months a year for five years in college, this means that slightly under 3 percent of college women become victims in an academic year. Many of these assaults are by the same people. As a 20-year longitudinal study by University of Massachusetts psychologist David Lisak found, on college campuses, repeat offenders account for nine out of every 10 rapes. Therefore, the problem of combating sexual violence largely entails identifying and punishing outliers.

Why is it so easy for sexual assailants to hide on college campuses? It is the framework of social interactions at college that creates an environment where these people can masquerade as an inevitable part of the “sorry for partying” lifestyle.

First, college men are often taught to use overtly sexualized interactions as a diagnostic tool for sexual interest, instead of words. Grinding is a perfect example— a guy grabs a girl from behind and starts dancing with her, “mons pubis a mons pubis,” as Tom Wolfe memorably described in his college set piece, “I Am Charlotte Simmons.” It’s a process so bizarre that it happens only in the dark. Unwanted grinding and groping are low-level interactions that seem of little consequence, but they set a standard for hooking up that encourages physical boldness by men and poor communication by women. Indeed, the trope that girls are fundamentally indecisive and have to be told—physically—what they want is at the root of the “No means yes, yes means anal,” chant of the infamous Delta Kappa Epsilon chapter at Yale.


Second, college women can be willfully naïve or purposefully dishonest about their romantic intentions. They are often not vocal when they are not interested in a guy and find small actions discomforting. They may only let on that, “that guy is so sketchy,” after the fact, and thus let men get away with minor cases of sexual harassment. Such social magnanimity is excessive and not a luxury college females have if they want to contribute to a safer mode of social interaction.

Given this reasoning, we should begin to combat sexual assault by encouraging a healthier overall standard of social interactions, with less presumption and deception. Instead of “consent,” advocacy groups should preach “communication” throughout the process of hooking up. This means guys should seek concrete indications of consent from the initial stages of an interaction. This also means girls should be more honest about their everyday intentions, and more frequently say “we can only hang out in a friends capacity.” An open and honest paradigm of communication can minimize hurt feelings and harm.

In this landscape of more transparent sexual communication, it will be easier to identify and avoid genuine predators. Those who won’t listen when someone says “I don’t want to dance,” will probably not listen when someone says, “I don’t want to have sex.”

Sexual violence at colleges is being taken seriously by nearly everyone but students. Legislative measures, such as the 2011 Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act, have taken important steps, such as assuring prompt investigation of accusations and mandating awareness training. However, the efforts of middle-aged adults can only take us so far. In order to tackle this issue, a majority of undergraduates themselves have to join the cause. It is in the arena of small actions that we can take the most meaningful steps toward combating sexual violence.

Anita J Joseph ‘12, an editorial chair emeritus, is a social studies concentrator in Leverett House. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.