fbpx In the Red Zone: The Culture of Campus Sexual Assaults

In the Red Zone: The Culture of Campus Sexual Assaults

Be prepared. You may be sending your student into high-risk territory this fall.
Written by

Melanie Lynn Carlson, MSW

Conversations around campus sexual assault happen every year, highlighting evolving federal guidance for campuses, victims' rights, due process for perpetrators and changing students' drinking and hookup culture.

However, there's more to learn, and even more to implement, to create genuine change.

The red zone

Definitions of the "red zone" vary, but most refer to the first two semesters of a student's college career, and many zero in on the period between fall semester's start and Thanksgiving holiday, when some studies have found more than half of college sexual assaults occur, indicating freshmen women are at a significantly heightened risk.

For the past decade, Molly McLay, LCSW, has worked on issues related to campus sexual assault in numerous roles, including as a licensed therapist, prevention educator and researcher.

"There are some challenges in those early days at school, especially for brand-new students, because adjustments, in general, are hard, resources are new, environments are less familiar, and students may be testing new limits for the first time," McLay said. "Moreover, campus cultures (especially at large predominantly white institutions) cater to this by throwing parties geared toward naive new students."

Young people may use their newly found freedom to attend such parties, settings where sexual assaults often occur. But it's not the location that's to blame, it's the perpetrators, who happen to be keenly aware that new students are more vulnerable targets. Up to 90 percent of perpetrators are acquaintances or known to the victims prior to an assault.

Campus prevention programming

Many students arrive at college without absorbing a holistic sex education from their families or during secondary education. Therefore, they may have minimal awareness of things like consent, setting personal boundaries and safety strategies.

Unfortunately, although many universities have online sexual assault prevention programs in place, there is little to no evidence that they are effective.

"I do think that most of the prepackaged online programs out there do not go very far beyond simple compliance with federal and state legal requirements," McLay said. "It takes dialogue or a truly compelling medium to start the conversation and provide the motivation to keep it going. Peer-led [programs] are useful, but it has to be continual messaging and conversations, not just a one-time, one-size-fits-all program."

Party safety strategies

Of course, many freshmen are going to come to campus and want to party. It's simply unrealistic to completely eliminate this possibility, and shouldn't be necessary. Because of this, bystander intervention is a key method toward creating a safer community, including a sense of personal and group accountability.

Bystander intervention training seeks to empower people within social settings to intervene when they see problematic behavior, which may entail enlisting others to intervene in an unsafe scenario, debunking rape myths and/or addressing victim-blaming attitudes. The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) provides numerous resources on bystander intervention.

Preventing sexual assault may also entail preplanning party safety strategies with your friends, such as:

  • Ensuring that you leave the party with the people you came with.
  • Not leaving an intoxicated friend behind at a party.
  • Watching a friend's drink.
  • Taking an intoxicated friend home.
  • Asking someone who is intoxicated if they need help getting home.

"I think shifting the conversation toward active bystander behavior is helpful because it takes the onus off of the survivor to prevent an assault, and rather gives everyone responsibility in making a space safe and looking out for one another," McLay explained.

A hallmark of the college experience is socializing, and parties are just one aspect of students having a collective experience. Young people also come together to talk about big ideas, their future goals and how they want to change the world. Therefore, creating a culture of community accountability is an important mechanism by which to address the prevalence of sexual assault.

Sexual assault as a justice issue

Perspectives on sexual assault have significantly improved over the last decade.

"One perspective that's shifted over time is my understanding that campus assault isn't necessarily more common than off-campus assault. In fact, individuals in the 18 to 24 age range off-campus are more at risk," McLay said. "It makes me think further about which survivors we as a society care about most, who we think needs protection and is worthy of it, and how that is rooted in societal structures around sexism, racism and more."

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, women ages 18 to 24 who are not students are 1.2 times more likely to be assaulted than students.

Efforts to address campus sexual assault have often been narrowly focused. The Review of Higher Education recently published an article that analyzed 10 years of studies on campus sexual assault. Overwhelmingly, the studies focused on victims' drinking behavior as a risk factor and point of prevention. Yet, very few studies investigated perpetrators who are responsible for sexual assault.

Furthermore, studies primarily focus on victims who are cisgender, heterosexual white women, while the experiences and needs of victims from historically excluded groups—for example, women of color, people with disabilities and LGBTQIA+ individuals—are largely left unexplored, despite the fact these groups have higher victimization rates.

The article concludes, "[R]ates of campus sexual violence have not changed in the past 60 years, educators and researchers must stop and ask themselves, 'Why?'"

Whether the red zone is to blame is unclear, but it's certainly one of many factors. Given the tightly interwoven influences of campus culture, community culture and global culture, we might ask why that is and what else we're missing? What other danger zones exist for victims that have not yet been identified and targeted for intervention?