In order to understand why sexual assault is prevalent specifically on college campuses, look to the way party culture is played out in a social structure on campuses. In their ethnographic study entitled “Sexual Assault on Campus: A Multilevel, Integrative Approach to Party Rape,” Elizabeth A. Armstrong, Laura Hamilton and Brian Sweeney used interviews from a party at a midwestern university to analyze college partying culture.
The essay makes connections between the individual, social and organizational factors that go into creating environments where sexual assault is likely to occur. At the crux of the party environment is the concern over social status.
The men interviewed expressed that they received a boost in self-esteem from having sex with girls they thought of as having high social status. Girls, however, expressed the same boost in self-confidence but from attention through flirting with high-status men. This means that men are generally more interested in having sex in college whereas women are more concerned about making a good impression to their peers.
It’s important to understand how the fraternity party scene is gendered. Since underclassmen are not allowed to consume alcohol in their dorms or at local bars, freshman girls often resort to going to fraternity parties in order to partake in a party scene dominated by men. The men are in charge of venue, alcohol, transportation and music. Women are expected to be uninhibited and to trust their party mates.
The researchers report that at least one women in each of their focus groups admitted to being a victim of sexual assault. However, they found the party culture is too engaging to let the negative experiences of women change it.
“The frequency of women’s negative experiences in the party scene poses a problem for those students most invested in it,” the authors wrote. “Finding fault with the party scene potentially threatens meaningful identities and lifestyles… Partying provides a chance to meet new people, experience and display belonging, and to enhance social position. Male attention is of such high value to some women that they are willing to suffer indignities to receive it.”
As a result of party culture’s stronghold at American universities, students too often resort to victim blaming in order to rationalize party rape. Blaming victims allowed women to feel safe from sexual assault, according to their research, because if they assume the blame, they can also assume more control.
Many of the women they interviewed attributed the bad things that happened to their friends as their own mistakes. A woman who was the head of a feminist group on campus stated that her friend who was sexually assaulted had “made every single mistake and almost all of them had to do with alcohol.”
Victim blaming also has to do with social status. Girls who feel they are at a high sexual status—upperclassmen, girlfriends of fraternity members or athletes—are less likely to be victims of sexual assault and therefore feel that this issue only applies to women of a lower perceived status, like freshman, non-sorority members or those without a fraternity boyfriend.
When blame is put on women by women, it takes away from any criticism on the party scene or male behavior. Telling women to drink less or dress modestly allows implies men are unable to control their sexual desires.
The dialogue surrounding sexual assault on college campuses and victim blaming lies in methods of sexual assault response and prevention education. And this starts with more scrutiny placed on male behavior in college party culture.
“Sexual assault education should shift in emphasis from educating women on preventative measures to educating both men and women about the coercive behavior of men and the sources of victim-blaming.”
As a survivor of sexual assault on this college campus, I feel strongly about this subject. I knew I would never to go the police or my administrators. I couldn’t bare to have my parents involved. I thought about his affluent parents and how hard they would fight to have their popular, lovable son proven innocent.
I thought about what the officer would think when I told him that I had consensual sex with the guy in the past but that this time was different. I’d read about what happens to girls when they go to the authorities and it just seemed easier to keep it to myself than to turn my life upside down. Statistically, the chances of me being blamed and him found innocent were high. I went to the health center the next day to get plan-b, I told the nurse what had happened to me. We both knew what this was and we both knew it was wrong but we said nothing other than that I would have to wait three weeks to be tested for STI’s. He still goes to IC and I run into him from time to time.
My story is only one of millions. More than 20 percent of college-age women are sexually assaulted. There are around 16 million students enrolled at campuses across the country. If roughly 9 million of those students are women, then almost 2 million women are being sexually assaulted each year as sexual assault rates remain steady despite the increase in reports. These women are in your classrooms. These women raise their hands to express their frustration toward the patriarchy or the way our president spoke about us during his campaign. You might think it’s cute to see us waving around our feminist flags, spitting out words like “patriarchy,” but that’s because we’re forced to put into academic terms the weight of sexual violence and oppression towards ourselves and fellow women.
This is why Emma Sulkowicz’s “Carry That Weight,” performance spoke to so many who are silently suffering. I am encouraged by New York’s affirmative consent legislation and new programs educating students about sexual assault response and prevention. Still, we need to address the fundamental flaws in college party culture and our public dialogue surrounding sexual assault and victim blaming. We need to be honest with ourselves about why young women are afraid to come forward and make it easier for them to come forward. We have to stop putting athletes and fraternity members on a pedestal. We have to stop placing the blame on women. Younger students need to be made aware of how common sexual assault on and off campus.
I never thought it could happen to me until it happened to me. Yet, here I am, the 1 in the one-fifth ratio, just another statistic.