Returning to college this fall may require heightened efforts towards sexual assault prevention
Across the nation, colleges and their students are preparing to return to campus for a fall semester like no other. This year, half of all students at many four-year universities will be experiencing college life for the very first time. First year students will be joining an entire class of sophomores who have yet to live on campus, together learning the ins and outs of campus life, the joys of newfound independence as well as the serious risks that accompany it.
Additionally, many existing students forced to return home in early 2020 are anxiously awaiting a full re-entry to campus and the ability to finally socialize with their peers again. The potential for students to want to make up for a “lost year” have experts worried about the potential increase in high-risk drinking and partying this fall. With it comes another growing concern: a rise in sexual assaults on campus.
Students are at an increased risk of sexual assaults during their first year of college, specifically within the first few months of their first semester on campus. According to data from the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), more than 50% of college sexual assaults occur in either August, September, October, or November. The six-to-ten-week period from the day first year students move into their campus dorms to the week they leave for Thanksgiving break is known as the “Red Zone.” It coincides with a period of elevated binge drinking, which leaves many incapacitated and at-risk.
It should be noted that while there has been a conspicuous decrease in campus sexual assault reporting during the pandemic, sexual violence remained incessant. In June 2020, RAINN witnessed the highest number of calls to its hotline in its 27-year history and continues to see hotline usage near record levels, according to the organization’s press secretary Erinn Robinson. Intimate partner violence also increased when college students had to quickly make arrangements to leave campus and move in with their partners. Sexual violence overall was a serious societal concern during the pandemic.
The pandemic increased the risk factors commonly associated with higher rates of sexual violence such as financial instability, job loss, poverty-related stress, and social isolation. The National Alliance to End Sexual Violence found that 40% of its surveyed rape crisis centers reported an increase in demand for services since the onset of the pandemic.
Furthermore, data show chances of bystander intervention are lower when women are isolated and disconnected from support networks of friends, peers, and crisis centers. Women who worked or studied from home during quarantine were restricted from accessing resources or finding opportunities to leave abusive homes. Public health instructions for social and physical distancing measures also inhibited bystanders from intervening by being able to spot and inquire about warning signs.
The potential for students to want to make up for a “lost year” have experts worried about the potential increase in high-risk drinking and partying this fall. With it, comes another growing concern – a rise in sexual assaults on campus.
At Risk: First Years and Sophomores
It’s On Us is a public awareness campaign, originally founded as an initiative of the Obama-Biden White House, that is dedicated to refocusing the conversation on campus sexual assault to one that is culture and prevention-oriented. It’s On Us operates as a campus organizing program to approximately 300 colleges and universities nationwide, dedicating services to survivor support, bystander intervention, and sexual assault prevention
It’s On Us Executive Director, Tracey Vitchers, also worries about the “Red Zone.”
“Students away from home for the first time might not have partied at all in high school. They desperately want to fit in on campus. They want to have this amazing freshman year college experience seen in movies and TV that American pop culture particularly romanticizes,” she said.
Vitchers explains that this year, an even larger number of students will arrive on campus for the first time this fall inexperienced with drinking and substance use and at-risk for sexual assault. First years, and a large portion of sophomores who had been studying remotely, don’t yet have a “built-in social network of support” and are not yet familiar with the cultural norms and realities of campus life.
“They are completely new to the campus culture environment in a way that upper-class students know through the whisper network: ‘Don’t go to that fraternity;’ ‘Don’t hang out with that sports team;’ ‘Don’t do this, don’t do that.’ Certain populations on campus will get a reputation,” Vitchers said. “[Newer] students don’t know that, and those students coming to campus are incredibly vulnerable – socially and culturally. And then, there are students who are perpetrators of sexual violence who will take advantage of the new students on campus, who just don’t know.”
Vitchers says that while sophomores may be academically and credit-wise considered college students in their second year, they are still socially and culturally at a disadvantage. “There hasn’t been enough of that conversation happening where now you have these two classes of students who are going to be especially vulnerable because they haven’t had that opportunity to learn and understand that campus culture and campus environment,” she said.
“Lost Time” = Increased Drinking and Partying
After a year and a half of following public health guidelines and social distancing measures, many college students in general are eager to let off steam at college parties. Long hours of virtual and remote learning have also caused students to feel stir-crazy at home, restless to engage with others and yearning for independence away from their parents’ supervision.
The classes of 2020 and 2021 who graduated high school during the pandemic may have missed out on prom and graduation, many of the major milestones they looked forward to being a part of. As a result, the incoming students from these classes may feel even more inclined to partake in certain aspects of college culture, such as drinking or substance use partying, to feel socially connected to their new peers.
Advocates advise that colleges and universities prepare for the potentially drastic increase in alcohol consumption after students leave family homes and return to campus. According to a study on college student alcohol use during COVID-19, binge-drinking and alcohol consumption decreased after COVID-19 campus closure. Upper-class students who moved back home with their parents and families may now have a lower threshold for alcohol consumption as well.
Vitchers warns about the social implications post-pandemic. “Students who have been away from their friends for a year and a half miss their friends. They miss their teammates. They miss their fraternity, sorority, and Greek life friends. They miss the people in their a capella group,” said Vitchers.
“What is going to happen is that they are going to come back to campus, and it is going to be chaos. It will be party, after party, after party,” said Vitchers. “And that is a pressure cooker situation for sexual assault because you’re going to have even higher rates of binge drinking.”
Increased Prevention Efforts
Advocates advise that the unique situation facing colleges this fall calls for increased sexual assault prevention efforts prior to the beginning of the semester. Vitchers says that includes parents of college students having conversations about these risks in advance of their students arriving on campus and schools becoming far more proactive in their own communication.
“It’s really important that schools are having this conversation with students and parents before they even arrive on campus,” she said. Colleges and universities and their administrators really do need to start having a bigger public conversation about what this return to campus means for all of these high-risk issue areas – alcohol, sexual assault, drug use, mental health challenges – and those conversations need to be happening. I’m concerned they are not to the degree that they need to be.”
Vitchers recommends that colleges and universities form a plan prior to campus reopening, taking action as soon as students step foot on campus, and understanding and releasing the required information and messaging within the first few weeks of campus this fall. She says a return to campus life this fall may also present and offer a new chance to redefine college norms and culture in regard to drinking and sexual assault.
“I think that there’s a really unique opportunity to reframe what the college experience looks like moving forward – in a way that is positive, prevention-focused, and not just reactive to the potential harm, or destructive to the harm after it occurs. It can be truly oriented towards creating different kinds of social and cultural practices on college campuses.”
Changing culture around sexual assault prevention includes universities providing awareness, education, and support to students as well as having tough conversations about prevention, accountability, campus culture, and how students socialize with one another. “It’s not enough to allow it to happen and say, ‘but we have great survivor support services,’” Vitchers said.
Culture change, she said, begins with the students themselves, “That message is going to resonate tenfold with the population because it is somebody who looks like them, who sounds like them, who is having a similar college experience to them, and who can really speak to them in a way that feels empowering, rather than naming and shaming,” she said. “We look at this issue from a ‘how do we empower everyone, including young men to see themselves as part of the solution?’ Unfortunately, a lot of the systems and prevention education that has been implemented in the past fails them because it just blames them, and it just makes them feel bad.”
While the pandemic may have upended ordinary life, it may present the opportunity to set new examples of what ordinary can be. In many ways, colleges and universities can work towards setting a different campus culture for the fall and for the future. In the meantime, Vitchers and other advocates continue to warn that the problem of sexual assault on campus may get worse before it gets better.