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Campus Safety “Tips”: Outdated, Out of Touch, and Dangerous

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May 6, 2014

causes-of-rapeLooking at the typical “Campus Safety Tips” is an adventure through every rape myth imaginable.  Not only do these tips reinforce outdated thoughts about sexual assault, they ignore the one fact that cannot be repeated enough. Most victims of sexual assault know the perpetrator, whether it be a friend or an acquaintance.  The mythical man in the bushes outside your window or the creepy man in the alley are the least of most victims’ worries. It is the people whom you know and let your guard down around who are the most likely to violate your trust. Somehow, many universities fail to acknowledge this risk and treat sexual assault no different than being mugged.

With that in mind, I looked at campus safety tips from colleges and universities from around the United States and took the top 3 most frequently offered tips and show what utter drivel these tips are in relation to the reality of the real danger women face on college campuses. Safety tips for preventing sexual assault have to be tailored to the unique circumstances that surround issues of sexual assault. These tips rooted in outdated myths of who, why, and how sexual assaults occur only do a disservice to students and to the entire campus at large.

Myths:

1) Lock your doors (West Virginia, HawaiiOklahoma State)- Right, lock your doors. Pretty sound advice, right? No. If most women are assaulted by people that they know, then it stands to reason that this person would already be an invited guest in your home. So you are locking yourself into your home with your potential assailant. Not a great safety tip.  This would be a good tip if there had been a rash of break-ins in the neighborhood or on campus. Once again, universities are failing to see and acknowledge the inherent differences between the crime of sexual assault and robberies or muggings.

2) Never Drink (UCLATulaneNotre Dame)- None of the campus websites I visited ever explicitly said “never drink;” what they did say, however, was, “never leave a drink unattended,” “never accept a drink from a stranger,” and “do not drink to the point of intoxication.” On the surface, these sound like helpful tips that many women (including myself) have been told by well-meaning parents looking out for the well being of their children. Delving deeper into these tips reveals that the  tip is really an accusation. Advocates who fight for the rights of sexual assault survivors often argue against using this type of language when talking about sexual assault. Why? Because it creates an “if/then” situation; for instance, if a woman was drinking, then she deserved to get assaulted.”  On the flip side, it creates a false  sense of safety, “if I don’t drink, then I will not get assaulted.” Sexual assault cannot be avoided, thwarted, or stopped  due to alcohol alone.  Again, if most sexual assaults occur between people who are known to each other in some way, why wouldn’t you accept a drink from someone you know, leave a drink with a friend when going to the restroom, and feel comfortable getting drunk with people you trust? The tips do not acknowledge the reality of college life, like the instant friendships and the culture of drinking present at many universities across the U.S.

3) Never Be  Alone (especially at night)(U of Northern KentuckySpelmanNicholls)-  Well, it is difficult to get alone time at a university, but not impossible. This myth once again is rooted in the idea that the only safe space for a woman is with a guardian. This tip is rooted in the idea of women being prey, that the mere presence of a woman alone in the street is enough to “entice” a man to attack. This thinking is also distinctly linked to questioning what the woman was wearing, how short her skirt was, etc. As if the answers to those questions will somehow reveal why she was attacked. If we flip this myth on its head, what are we saying? A woman alone at night deserves or should expect to be attacked? What kind of campus culture is supported by upholding this enduring fallacy that if a woman is alone she should not expect to be safe? It only reinforces gender stereotypes (for both men and women) and upholds outdated social norms about gendered violence.

Despite my critical review of current campus safety tips there is hope on the horizon. President Obama’s recently enacted Campus Sexual Assault Task Force addresses sexual assault without falling into the traps of these myths. The President outlines a plan for universities to be more transparent with assaults on campus, engage men, support victims, and creating a better response plan for when assault happens on campus. More information about this task force can be found at www.notalone.gov

Tiana Patterson is an LSRJ  Law & Policy Fellow at Choice USA.

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