With the first week of the semester upon us, it’s crucial that the USC community heeds warnings from a study that revealed a decisive spike in campus sexual assaults during the first weeks of school. The study, published in 2017, found that among surveyed students at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, the numbers of reported sexual assaults in September and October marked a glaring outlier: There were between 42 and 54 reported cases, compared with 30 or fewer in other months.
Earlier this month, UIUC released a series of commendable recommendations on how to address the systemic issue of campus sexual assaults in the earliest period of the academic year. The recommendations specifically identify groups with higher risk of experiencing assault — the LGBTQ community, students with disabilities and students within the Greek system — and outline how to proactively support these groups. But the recommendations also call for the University to double down on addressing alcohol abuse in connection with sexual assault. The issue is that while alcohol education is important for preventing sexual assault on campus, it is not the sole solution.
UIUC appears to suggest that alcohol — rather than solely abusive perpetrators — is to blame for systemic sexual violence. While education and common sense regulations are key to protecting students from overdose, alcoholism and other dangerous situations, emphasizing alcohol’s relationship with campus sexual assault can serve as an insidious form of victim-blaming.
The school implies that alcohol has a causal relationship with sexual abuse, which places the onus on students to not drink in order to be safe from sexual violence. But, students’ physical safety is a right. It should not be contingent on any particular behavior or effort on their part.
Young women, particularly, are all too familiar with warnings of what they should or shouldn’t do, how they should or shouldn’t dress and when they should and shouldn’t go out to avoid abuse. They should learn self-defense, carry a rape whistle, mace and pepper spray at all times, never walk anywhere alone at night and watch how much they drink — lest they find themselves a victim of sexual violence, and risk be accused of “asking for it.”
Sexual assault also is not a phenomenon limited to wild, drunken parties — not when 59 percent of assaults are committed by someone the survivor knew and had a prior relationship with, according to research from the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network.
There are many reasons that an estimated 90 percent of campus sexual assaults go unreported, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. But shame and fear of blame among survivors certainly contribute to this reality. The suggestion — benign and well-meaning as it may be — that reducing alcohol consumption would prevent assault may only build upon survivors’ concerns by seeming to reinforce the idea that they could have protected themselves had they not consumed alcohol.
Dialogues about the best approaches to sexual assault prevention often conjure the image of a famous, mono-color pie chart often distributed by feminist campaigns. The pie chart includes all of the causes of sexual assault; its key lists items such as attire, going out alone, alcohol consumption and, finally, rapists and/or abusers, but only one of these items is visible on the chart: the last one.
Everyone — students, friends and bystanders — has a moral obligation to do what they can to prevent sexual assault from taking place. Often times, this means intervening when an intoxicated individual is about to engage in a potentially dangerous situation, or limiting the number of drinks a friend has. But we can never allow ourselves to lose sight of the reality that sexual assault is caused by one thing: the active decision of the perpetrator to violate and take advantage of a victim.
Offering cautionary measures to women on how to avoid abuse approaches the issue from the wrong angle. If we truly seek to prevent sexual assault, rather than shame and disproportionately police young women, we should educate men about consent and how to prevent “blurry” situations. In her landmark 2017 book, “Blurred Lines: Rethinking Sex, Power, and Consent on Campus, “Vanessa Grigoriadis reports that in just about every case of campus sexual assault that she examined, both parties agreed that an encounter had taken place. But the dispute was over whether it had been consensual.
No campus is immune to systemic sexual violence, especially during the first weeks of school when new students are at their most vulnerable. It’s crucial that all students know they are supported through any circumstance, and no mistake or behavior on their part could possibly justify acts of sexual violence against them.