Saturday, February 24, 2018
Opinion

James: On campus, women must practice safety (w/video)

It was on an evening in the dormitory, days before classes started in my junior year, that I came closest to being sexually assaulted. A handsome, charming member of the golf team, out prowling the near-empty campus with a friend, struck up a conversation with me and my dormmate.

We chatted for more than an hour in the summer heat. His attention was flattering and at some point I ended up alone in my room with him. He kissed me, and before I knew it he was on top of me, pushing his hand into my crotch. Stop, I said. When he didn't, I pushed him hard with both hands and knees, knocking him off balance.

He got the message, got up and left without a word. I locked my door and cried. To this day I don't know what might have happened had I been a smaller woman. And in the fundamentally unfair dynamic of sexual assault, I find myself grateful he had the good sense to move on. It could have easily turned out differently.

In today's lexicon, it would have been a "date rape." We'd both been drinking. We'd both been flirting. He had been invited into my room — initially with others — but invited nonetheless.

I tell this story because young women everywhere are returning to college this month and next, many of them experiencing independence for the first time in an idyllic landscape. But it is not a fair one for women.

The lesson so easy to forget amid the intoxicating atmosphere of freedom from parental oversight and hormones is that the best chance a woman has to avoid unwanted sexual contact is to practice safety. Sure, there is the commonsense advice of not walking campus alone at night — at any time of the week. And to travel with friends to parties with a pact that no one gets left behind when the night is over. But less appreciated is that intoxication in general can put a woman at greater risk of letting her guard down and/or a male assailant of misunderstanding her intentions.

A recent analysis by the Orlando Sentinel found that in 2012 and 2013, four out of five reports of rapes on Florida public university campuses were "date rapes." Victims knew their alleged attackers and were willingly in their company. But the Sentinel also found this sobering fact: Three out of four victims reported being heavily intoxicated at the time of the attack.

It is not fair. A man equally intoxicated faces nowhere near the potential threat of an assault as a woman. A man rarely faces the risk that a female acquaintance won't take "no" for an answer. And it remains an outrage that most of the time no one pays when a woman is violated, a system enabled by outdated federal higher education policies that can impede criminal investigations. The Sentinel found that in Florida's 2012 and 2013 reported campus rapes, not a single perpetrator was convicted of rape. A small portion did receive lesser convictions, but most assaults never even led to an arrest.

Even winning a conviction for an assault is a poor alternative to avoiding an assault if at all possible. It is not always possible. Like the young woman I know who found herself alone early one morning a little over a year ago in a dormitory elevator when two drunken male students stepped on, cornered her and made lewd remarks. She has no idea what might have happened had another male, by happenstance, not gotten onto the elevator and she was able to get to her room.

She did not deserve that. She was one more victim of a culture that objectifies women. But after the experience, she tried to avoid traveling solo on campus at night, even in her dormitory. She made sure, as much as she could, that she practiced safety.

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