Talking to Freshmen about Sexual Assault is Hard

by Laura Miller

I have the hardest job in the world. No, it’s not talking to freshmen about sexual assault. Did you read the title? I said that was “hard” not the “hardest.” The hardest job in the world is talking to adults about what we’re going to tell the freshmen about sexual assault.

I’m a senior at Goshen College this year and starting my second year of a student initiative to train other students about bystander intervention. You may have heard about bystander intervention on NPR, or something. I don’t know, I’m not old. Basically the premise is that, for the last 30 years or so, people at colleges have tried to stop sexual assault on campuses. They held workshops for men about how not to perpetrate (which sounds awesome), but turns out that lots of men in the workshops would get defensive about this. “I’m not a rapist,” they would say, while tuning out the rest. People also held workshops for women telling them how not to be raped. But it turns out that women can’t actually control that since no one chooses to be raped. Women felt re-victimized, and the “tips” were actual crap, so those workshops needed to stop. The bystander intervention workshops try to create the least amount of resistance by saying that we all witness events, participate in conversations, and interact with survivors, so we all have the chance to intervene to stop sexual violence. Along the way, the workshop facilitators sneak in definitions of consent and examples of rape culture. We name campus resources and ways to report. We discuss facts and statistics. We explain Title IX rights. We work through scenarios together.

Sounds amazing, no? In the past year that students have been doing this, we’ve had lots of success and support from a whole variety of people. But the issue that causes the most resistance and stress among adults is, perhaps unsurprisingly, alcohol. There’s a lot to understand in this triple-layer stress cake. First, Goshen College is a dry campus. Second, Goshen College is a Mennonite-affiliated college, so it’s dry for religious reasons. Not only is alcohol not allowed, but we also don’t talk about alcohol, because then we’d be acknowledging its existence. So it’s much easier to pretend that alcohol doesn’t exist, and those few who drink will receive their punishment eventually (either here or in the afterlife). For many, alcohol is not only terrifying, it’s immoral.

Now combine this fear of alcohol with rape culture, and you can understand why there is so much resistance. When I say rape culture, I want to be clear that I don’t mean that people overtly support rape. I mean the many societal beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors that, together, make up a culture in which rape happens regularly and with impunity, and survivors are not supported. Rape culture tells us that drinking a lot somehow means that you are also willing to have sexual interactions with people (ie. “Give her more to drink--it will loosen her up,” “I’m gonna wait until tonight when she’s had a few drinks,” “Of course she wanted to hookup, she’s a partier,” etc.) Rape culture tells us alcohol and sex go together like rama lamma lamma ka dinga da dinga dong. People then use this rationale as an excuse (ie. While groping someone randomly in a room full of people wouldn’t usually be acceptable, everyone believes that alcohol makes this kind of okay so I’m going to do it, and especially using it as an excuse afterward: “We were both drunk and were hooking up--she’s just crying rape because she’s embarrassed about it.”)

So what happens when you combine anti-drinking sentiment and rape culture at my college? You get the kinds of statements from faculty and staff like, “Maybe it would be safer for women if they didn’t drink,” and “At some level, people need to take responsibility for their actions and deal with the consequences of drinking,” and “Your training needs to do a better job of really exploring the dangers of alcohol” and “I think you need to be telling students they should not drink” and “While we shouldn’t blame the survivor for being raped, we must acknowledge that drinking put her in a dangerous position.” School policies make it harder for students to return to a place they feel safer (like their dorm room) because the consequences for getting caught drinking are so high. Why are all of these things problematic? Because they not only continue to perpetuate victim-blaming myths related to sexual assault and alcohol, but they also do not get to the root of the problem of sexual violence. Nor do they address problems related to drinking in any helpful way.

Alcohol is a double-edged sword: it’s both a tool used by perpetrators to incapacitate people and it’s then an excuse the next day because they can claim that everyone involved was just really drunk. And best yet, this double-edged sword is entirely cloaked by rape culture and societal norms. We saw it in the Stanford case: the perpetrator used the survivor’s extreme drunkenness as an opportunity to perpetrate. Then, he attempted to use her inability to remember to claim it was consensual. And finally, he blamed it all on alcohol and is even starting a foundation to try to stop drinking on college campuses.

So what’s the solution when we’re educating first-year students? When adults say they want student educators to talk about the risks of drinking, that’s code for wanting us to teach that students just shouldn’t be drinking. I would happily talk about safer drinking and partying tips specific to our campus if there was time. I would tell students that if they are getting drunk for the first time in college, they should consider getting drunk little by little with their roommates and not venture past their dorm room until they know how their body has been affected, despite the dry campus rule. I would tell people to stay away from specific people (not just when drinking). I would tell people to try to stay away from the vats of unmarked Jungle Juice. I would tell people to go to and leave parties with at least two others. I would tell people that it’s still possible to consensually hook-up after drinking, but not if people are incapacitated and only if consent has been given and received. I would tell people that if we lived in a world where alcohol didn’t exist, there would still be sexual assault. But, those kinds of specific conversations are not what educators seem to want because I’m not discounting alcohol use entirely.

What are we left with? Student peer educators are left with constraints on all sides--told that we are the sole entity who will talk about alcohol and sexual assault and yet not allowed to meaningfully grapple with it in presentations. Despite these constraints, tomorrow morning I will stride into an all first-year class and take them through a workshop. It might not change too much, I’m not deluded, but hopefully I’ll make an impact on a few.