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Sexual Assault on Campus: Prevention and Protection

Though generally safe places, campus crimes do occur, including instances of sexual assault and rape. Here we share tips on staying safe on campus and avoiding these horrific crimes.

What's happening on campus, how to stay safe, and what to do if sexual assault happens to you

For many if not most people, going to college is an amazing experience. It’s a place where you’ll learn more than you ever imagined and forge lifelong friendships and lasting memories along the way. We like to focus on those many positive parts of college. But, as with so many things in life, college has its darker aspects too, like campus crime and assault. Unattended dorm rooms get robbed. Students encounter muggers walking home. And young women and men become victims of sexual violence.

New people and places, unfettered freedom and excitement, and a prevalence of drugs and alcohol often combine to create dangerous situations for co-eds, especially women. According to the 150,000+ students at 27 schools who participated in the Association of American Universities Campus Survey on Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct in May 2015:

  • 11.7% of all respondents said they had experienced "nonconsensual sexual contact by physical force, threats of physical force, or incapacitation" while in college.
  • For women specifically, that figure jumps to 23.1%, including 10.8% who had experienced forced penetration.
  • Only 5%–28% of these cases were actually reported to campus authorities (depending on the nature of the attack), often because those attacked didn't think the incident was "serious enough." Other reasons for not reporting included not feeling emotionally strong enough to do so and feeling like the report wouldn't be taken seriously by authorities.
  • However, more than 60% of all students (those who had and had not been assaulted) thought a report of sexual misconduct would be taken seriously.
  • 25% of all students said they were aware of the resources available to them, were they to be sexually assaulted.

Fortunately, there are many resources available not just to assist victims but to educate students and advocate for policies that prevent sexual assault. One such organization is Just Yell Fire, which teaches girls and women how to prevent, combat, and cope with sexual assault and abuse through seminars and free videos. We spoke with Just Yell Fire’s founder, Dallas Jessup (who was only 14 when she started the organization in 2006), about ways to stay safe on campus. You can read her advice below. (For more information regarding staying safe on campus, check out our other articles on Campus Health and Safety.)  

How might college students, particularly freshmen, be surprised by campus social life?

It is a lot harder than you think to balance your social, home, and academic life. There is always something cool and fun to do, and it is your responsibility to find a balance. There is also a newfound freedom with no stops. You have no one to tell you what to do; you have to make your own choices and learn when to say no. Many girls have never been exposed to total social freedom—there are a lot of temptations, and you have to remember that every action will have a consequence on your academic life and your future, good or bad.

What is the first step women should take to keep themselves safe on and off campus?

Understand the safety precautions your school has in place, whether that be text alerts, blue lights, on-campus transportation, or security escorts. Familiarize yourself with your campus and its surroundings in order to avoid sketchy areas. If a group on campus has a reputation for use of date rape drugs, poor treatment of women, or violence, take heed; there is usually a reason for the reputation. Learn basic self-defense techniques like the ones we teach in Just Yell Fire: Campus Life. Be smart, have fun, and always trust your gut.

How can young women identify potentially dangerous people and situations?

The important thing to remember is an attacker can be anyone. It can be your best friend’s boyfriend, the cute guy in French class, a 40-year-old man. It is not necessarily a creep; girls have been killed by a jealous boyfriend, raped by their roommate’s brother, drugged by the bartender at a cool club, or beaten by their uncle. You have to trust your instincts, assert your rights, know that no one has the right to touch you if you don’t want them to, and leave if you feel uncomfortable.

What, if anything, do you recommend women carry with them for self-defense?

Typically we don’t recommend carrying anything for self-defense. This tends to give you a false sense of safety when, realistically, you probably won’t have the item in your hand when an attack happens. (Acts of sexual violence are more often than not perpetrated by people and in situations where you wouldn't be carrying around a can of mace anyway, like while incapacitated at a party or on a date. It's important to remember the advice above—really, that no means no and only yes means yes.) If you are attacked, I recommend learning some very easy get away techniques and use the element of surprise to disengage your attacker. All this being said, if you are walking alone at night, having keys between your fingers ready to strike someone’s eyes is not a bad idea.

Where can people who have been sexually assaulted turn for help?

If you have been raped, the first thing to remember is it is not your fault. Go to the hospital and call the police, but do not take a shower or wash yourself. The DNA is vital. Your school probably has a crisis hotline, or you can call campus security. According to a study done by the CDC, a person that has been raped is now three times more likely to be raped again. You have the power to change these statistics by becoming empowered to protect yourself and stand up for your rights. After the assault, do find someone you feel comfortable to talk with. This is a very traumatic event; don’t think you can go it alone or just forget about it. You can do this—too many have. It takes help to overcome such a horrendous violation.

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