Let’s stop putting the burden of sexual assault on victims

Ysabela Golden

On Monday, Sept. 11, I and many other students received a timely warning about a sexual assault that had occurred on campus two nights prior. In that moment of reading, I remember feeling disgusted (how could four people just stand there and watch?), pessimistic (there must be hundreds of guys on campus who meet that description) and afraid (haven’t I walked back to my own dorm right around then?). 

One thing I don’t remember feeling is particularly surprised. By now, most people have heard the infamous “one-in-five” statistic. That is, one in five female students will experience sexual assault during her four years on a college campus. 

The percentage comes from a 2007 Campus Sexual Assault study, and generalizing it country-wide has been aggressively contested by critics ever since Obama did so in a White House remark in 2014. But unless you’re exceptionally invested in semantics, whether the exact number is “one in five” or “one in 15” seems irrelevant. We don’t need to know the precise percentage of women getting hurt to realize it is not an irregular occurrence.

We all grew up in a world where we heard stories about the girls who were raped during parties, after dates, leaving classes and walking back to their dorms. We’ve heard the tips and tricks that are supposed to ensure that you aren’t the one caught in these situations. Some of these include never leaving your drink unattended; telling a friend who your date is and where you’re going; and always having your phone out when you’re walking alone. 

But these “solutions” only attempt to shift a predator’s attention away from you and, inadvertently, onto a woman who was less prepared, less informed or simply less fortunate.

This would be why GVSU puts time and effort into its bystander intervention training. According to a 2004 study titled “Violence and Victims,” the mere presence of a bystander makes a completed rape 44 percent less likely.

According to the “It’s on Us” program, GVSU is attempting to take this knowledge the extra mile by trying to “teach potential witnesses safe and positive ways that they can act to prevent or intervene when there is a risk for sexual violence.” Just one person being there to help can make all the difference in the world.

According to the timely warning, there were five to six people there that night. That’s what led me to come back to this email a full week later; that’s what’s running through my mind now when I happen to leave Late Night at the same time as a group of guys. I try to think of how many of my acquaintances meet that given description. I hang back at the door, just a little while, until they’ve all passed out of sight.

It’s easier, in some ways, to think of rapists as solitary creeps who wait around at the ends of dark alleys for the first woman who doesn’t look like she’s carrying pepper spray. But from the limited description we’re given, the attackers from that night sound like any number of completely average friend groups on campus. 

They could have girlfriends, sisters, any number of female friends. They could be anyone, and any one of them was capable of realizing that what they were doing was wrong, of putting a stop to what happened that night. They chose not to.

So yes, it’s important for women to take steps to protect themselves. But it’s infinitely more important that men take steps to protect the women around them. We know from facts that bystander interference is essential to stopping sexual assault, and we know from common sense that a male student has better luck confronting a would-be rapist than a female student would. 

We know “not all men” are rapists, but it would be nice if most men were actively working against them and if we could, as a society, stop putting all the weight of preventing rape on the shoulders of women.