If you followed every single rape prevention tip for young women posted on U.S. college websites, you would lead a circumscribed life.
You would rarely be alone, especially at night. You would not drink. You would take a friend with you to meet every first date. When in public, you would walk only on well-lit, high-traffic footpaths, fastidiously dodging every bush between you and your destination. You would always walk in the opposite direction of oncoming traffic, even on sidewalks. You would ensure that you had a telephone within reach of your bed. Avoidance would be on your mind at all times.
That’s the conclusion of a new article in the journal Sexuality & Culture which analyzes rape and sexual assault prevention tips among a sample of four-year colleges in the U.S. that have physical campuses and a Greek Life.
Researchers Nicole Bedera at University of Maryland, College Park and Kristjane Nordmeyer at Westminster College in Salt Lake City took a systematic sample of 40 such schools, searched their websites, and found nearly 500 prevention tips across the 15 schools who had posted them. The aim of the study was to produce a broader snapshot of institutional guidance on campus sexual assault, as opposed to focusing more narrowly on specific campaigns and literature.
Their findings: Despite recent conversations about focusing on men’s role in sexual assault—see, for example, President Obama’s “It’s On Us” initiative, which presents prevention as a communal responsibility—some schools are still sending the message that women are more responsible for preventing rape.
Of the tips Bedera and Nordmeyer located, over 80 percent were directed at women, less than 14 percent were directed at men, and about 6 percent were gender-neutral. The message, they say, is clear: “[T]he burden of college sexual assault prevention still falls primarily on female students.”
Or, as Bedera told The Daily Beast, “If a school only posts tips for women, the underlying message is that only women are responsible for preventing rape on campus.”
According to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 37.4 percent of women who have been raped were first raped between the ages of 18 and 24. As the CDC notes, a 2009 study in the Journal of American College Health found that nearly 20 percent of undergraduate women—or one in five—had experienced “attempted or completed sexual assault” since coming to school. Last year, The Washington Post cast doubt on the one in five statistic but ended up confirming it this June when a poll they conducted in conjunction with the Kaiser Family Foundation came to the same conclusion.
In recent weeks, the media has been criticized for arriving at a “one in four” figure based on the new campus sexual assault survey (PDF) from the Association of American Universities (AAU)—and some data suggests that non-students may face greater risk than students—but one in five is still a troubling ratio, and one that colleges are desperately seeking to lower as public attention turns their way in the wake of the AAU survey.
If Bedera and Nordmeyer’s findings are any indication, they might want to start by updating their websites, which are, as the researchers note, “the messages [that] colleges make available at all times.”
The rape prevention tips found on college websites, they say, send four main messages to women: You are vulnerable, every location is dangerous, being alone is dangerous, and you can’t trust anyone. Overall, the tips had little to say about men’s role in prevention.
“When men’s prevention tips were included, they continued to highlight women’s vulnerability and placed little responsibility on men to stop sexual assault aside from stopping a sexual encounter should their partner verbally say no,” the authors write.
Some of the most common tips advised women to “communicate sexual limits,” “be aware of [their surroundings,” and “avoid secluded areas.” But if you dig deeper on college websites, you will find a litany of advice that would be virtually impossible to follow in its entirety. For instance, if a female student were to avoid every location flagged as dangerous, it’s hard to see how she could feasibly move between any two locations.
“Women’s tips referenced essentially all possible places a woman could go as dangerous including cars, predictable paths, parking lots, entryways, secluded areas, isolated roads, the internet, dates, men’s bedrooms, women’s personal homes, anywhere with strangers, anywhere with new friends, anywhere with men, anywhere where a woman is alone, and anywhere public after nightfall, as well as the catch-all place of ‘your surroundings,’” the researchers note.
The tips get even more specific from there: Hold your house keys in your hand on your way home, never let a stranger use your phone to make a call, and walk with a confident gait.
“There is no doubt that campus sexual assault is a serious problem, but these tips do more to scare women than prepare them for a dangerous situation,” Bedera told The Daily Beast, noting that most of them seem designed for preventing the rare occurrence of “stranger rape,” as opposed to the much more common acquaintance rape.
“Women deserve effective strategies for combating sexual assault, including strategies that involve men in the effort and that address sexual violence before an attack begins,” Bedera added.
In contrast to the copious advice for college women, the only tip frequently directed at men in their sample was, “No means no.”
As the authors note, there are two schools of thought on providing prevention tips for women. Some critics argue that they do, in fact, help mitigate risk. Slate’s Emily Yoffe, for example, told college women in a controversial 2013 column to regulate their drinking in order to curtail sexual assault. “College Women: Stop Getting Drunk” was the controversial headline.
Others argue that presenting prevention as primarily a woman’s responsibility too easily leads to blaming the victim for engaging in “risky” behaviors. In fact, as the authors note, some of the schools in their sample that did not include tips explicitly noted on their websites that they would place an “unfair burden on women” and lead to “victim blaming.” Instead, these schools provided resources and information on sexual assault rather than bullet-point lists of advice.
“I think that most prevention tips written for women come from a place of good intentions, but we also know that these tips commonly come up when victims are blamed for their own assaults,” Bedera told The Daily Beast. “Any school posting sexual assault prevention tips for women should certainly consider that when deciding which tips they want to emphasize.”
Worse, the authors suggest, circulating tips publicly about pepper spray use and self-defense classes can feed the expectation that women should be able to stop rape as it happens—an expectation that often goes hand in hand with the misconception that rape isn’t truly rape unless physical resistance can be proved.
“Sexual assault prevention tips present a paradox for women in which they are always vulnerable to attack, yet expected to prevent their own sexual assaults,” the authors conclude.
While the study is disheartening, Bedera says, there are signs of change. Women in her sample were the intended audience for the vast majority of prevention tips but Bedera is now seeing that tide start to turn as more colleges teach men about bystander intervention and understanding their own actions in sexual situations.
“In fact,” she told The Daily Beast, “there has been such an explosion of men’s prevention tips that I’m currently working on another study to analyze them.”