Beth* thought Brian* was sweet – a little shy – but trustworthy. She knew from her parents to look for men who respect women. But when he got her alone, near their University of Minnesota campus, he began to push too hard, too fast. He didn’t stop when she asked him to. He didn’t seem to care when she said no. She realized what was about to happen, and her brain shut down.
Most people still envision sexual assault as a rare occurrence committed by strangers. In fact, 8 out of 10 times the rapist knows the victim, according to the National Institute of Justice.
The good news: Thanks partly to the 2013 Campus Sexual Violence Elimination (SaVE) Act, more victims are comfortable reporting rape to college authorities, often confidentially.
The bad news: The number of rapes has not gone down in decades. Research consistently indicates that 1 in 5 college women are victims of non-consensual sex.
“It’s a lion’s den out there, and we’re still asking our young people to fend for themselves,” says Caroline Palmer, law and policy manager for the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault (MNCASA).
A persistent focus on “stranger danger” has clouded efforts to understand the real risks of sexual assault on campus:
1) Many young adults don’t know how to have healthy conversations about relationships, says Yvonne Cournoyer, MNCASA’s prevention program manager. With movies skipping over what happens between “the look” and people tearing their clothes off, she says, young people don’t know how to fill in the gaps.
2) Men who force themselves on women often don’t view themselves as predators – or they feel entitled. Many people don’t recognize that someone under the influence is not capable of giving consent.
3) Women are more likely to be sexually assaulted in their first two years of college, when they are new and inexperienced with alcohol.
4) The trauma of assault often renders women unable to fight off an attack or shout for help because of a hormonal influence called tonic immobility. Few non-stranger rapes are reported because the woman trusted the predator, and erroneously thinks she “let it happen.”
5) Because most acquaintance rapes are not reported, some predators are free to repeat their crimes again and again. A University of Massachusetts, Boston study of “undetected rapists” showed that 76 men accounted for 439 rapes or attempted rapes, for an average of 5.8 each.
6) Bystanders don’t step in when someone is being taken advantage of. Behaviors leading to an assault often have witnesses. The goal, says Donna Dunn, who recently retired as MNCASA’s executive director, is to keep aggressive behavior from becoming criminal.
7) We encourage women to reduce their risk by being in control: avoiding drinking, taking a self-defense class, de-feminizing their wardrobes. But it would be more effective to change attitudes that “boys will be boys.” We still tend to think “victims have to act right” in order to prevent rape – as if it is a natural consequence, Dunn says.
“Rape is a preventable crime,” says Katie Eichele, director of the Aurora Center at the University of Minnesota, which also offers support for sexual assault victims at nearby Augsburg College.
The Aurora Center has a multi-pronged approach to reducing the numbers of rapes. It is helping educate students about what is and is not legitimate consent.
The center is working toward changing social norms about what constitutes healthy sexual behavior, encouraging bystanders to become “interrupters,” and helping women feel empowered to report violence, sexual assault and stalking.
A big step is teaching men what healthy masculinity is. “That’s the tough one a lot of organizations are grappling with,” Eichele says. Duluth-based Men as Peacemakers helped create training resources, now required for all Minnesota high school coaches, to prevent sexual violence and encourage respect for girls and women.
Although leaders at MNCASA and the Aurora Center are encouraged by changes, they know more training of first responders and students is needed. “I’m proud of the intervention and policies we’re creating in Minnesota,” which is considered a leader nationally, Eichele says. “But we are at the very beginning of prevention efforts.”