Protecting Our Daughters from Campus Rape

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In 1983, I was a Harvard freshman.  I was happy to be at Harvard, naturally. Harvard was pleased too, mostly because the college, which had welcomed female students for only 11 years, had recently taken progressive steps to protect us from being raped on campus.

During freshman orientation, the campus police proudly showed female students all the blue light phones that had been installed on campus walkways.  If you ran to the phone at night after being attacked, and picked up the receiver, the campus police who would come rescue you. 

There were other safety measures, too.  A nice police officer would escort any female student from spot A to spot B after dark, no questions asked.  There was also a free nighttime shuttle bus service so we didn’t have to walk the dark streets around Cambridge alone and unprotected.

All the measures were focused on female students keeping ourselves safe from unknown assailants.  Nothing was said about stopping rapists from raping. 

The assumption was always that female students would be attacked by older strange men in ski masks wielding knives, criminals who came onto campus in search of vulnerable young women. To my knowledge, male students received no education about how, or why, it was important to not rape their classmates.  None of us were told what acquaintance rape was.  No one explained that the true risk were the guys sitting next to you in calculus and history classes, the nice boys who Harvard had invited onto campus with an acceptance letter from the Admissions Office.

Now we know differently. Research shows that 20% of female college students will be raped, and that roughly 10% of male college students commit rape.  Two thirds rape repeatedly, with an average of six victims. Many start raping girls while still in high school; the recent sexual assault of a St. Paul boarding school freshman by a senior (who coincidentally is heading to Harvard in a few days) is one recent, high profile example.

We know now that the riskiest time for a female student is freshman year, from day one through Thanksgiving, a period known as The Red Zone. Unused to living alone, and sometimes new to the risks of drinking alcohol, freshman females are particularly vulnerable to campus rapists, fellow students they meet at campus parties. The perpetrators are almost never caught or punished.  In fact, they don’t even consider what they are doing to be rape. Since alcohol is often their weapon, not a ski mask or jagged knife, many rapists deny that they are forcing a woman to have sex against her will. 

Little has changed since I was a college freshman 30 years ago.

Fortunately, thanks to a slew of young activists including Annie E. Clark and Andrea L. Pino, the founders of End Rape on Campus, victims are being empowered to break the silence about campus rape.  The focus is shifting to perpetrators, and the obligation universities have to protect students from rape.  Using federal legislation including Title IX and the Clery Act, victims are pressuring colleges and secondary schools to prevent campus rape and punish rapists. 

The reason I wasn’t raped in college was simple. Harvard’s administration didn’t warn me about the real risks. But fortunately, one other person did. 

My 19-year-old sister had been at Harvard for 12 months longer than I had, and here’s what she told me freshman week:

“Les, you think you know everything but you know nothing.  A guy is going to come up to you at a party.  He will be cute and probably a hockey or football player.  After talking to you for a while, for some reason, he will want you to go up to his room alone.  Don’t go.  Just don’t go.”

I thought she was ridiculous.  I had no idea she was a one-woman rape prevention task force. I secretly suspected she was playing a practical joke on her pathetic younger sister (it wouldn’t have been the first time).

Then, only a few days later at the Ice Cream Social, a cute, muscular guy came up to me and started talking.  He was also a freshman.  He was also a hockey player.   I was so flattered! 

He was attentive, smiling, and obviously liked me. Now this was college, finally. Hockey Boy told me that he’d heard about a better party elsewhere with upperclassmen.  If I wanted to go, he’d take me. He smiled again and touched my arm.  A delicious shiver went through me.  Sure, I said, smiling back.

However the evening had gotten chilly, he said, rubbing his shoulders. Would I mind going up to his dorm room with him to get his sweatshirt? 

I stared at him in horror. Because of my sister’s warning, I didn’t go.  Who knows whether he would have attacked me, or innocently gotten his sweatshirt and later kissed me goodnight.  I am glad I never had to find out.

What I still wonder today, 30 years later: if my 19-year-old sister, who no matter what she says was not a genius, knew who the true perpetrators of campus rape were, and how to keep me safe, how could my college not know?  If they knew the risks, how could they not warn me and the other freshman girls?  Could it really be that my university, and hundreds of other colleges, have for too long placed their sanitized reputation above the sexual safety of their female students?

It’s up to all of us today – college administrators, parents, and the federal government, plus a few older sisters and activists —  to make sure that we all break the silence about the risks of campus rape. Today, thanks to outspoken rape survivors and painstaking research, we have the information to make sure students can minimize the risks of rape.  Today, we can punish the students, and administrators, who don’t care about protecting women from sexual violence, on campus and off. We can, and for all future college students, we need to.

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