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First-Year Students at Greatest Risk in Rapes at Colleges

July 25, 1991|MARY LAINE YARBER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Mary Laine Yarber teaches high school English and journalism. Her education column appears periodically

In recent years, college officials and college students have started coming to grips with the problem of on-campus rape. Having finally gotten beyond the denial phase, many colleges are taking steps to make campuses safer and are teaching students how to protect themselves.

Those who are entering college a few weeks from now should be aware that freshmen are a high-risk group in terms of sexual assaults, both as victim and perpetrator. A national survey by Ms. magazine a few years ago found that the average age of campus sexual assault victims and assailants was about 18 1/2, and that a disproportionate percentage of the attacks took place early in the school year--before Thanksgiving.

In light of this, I have some advice to pass on to the college-bound.

First of all, don't get caught up in the common misperception of colleges as a safe and peaceful haven for intellectuals. Even the most prestigious campuses have crime problems.

In fact, one in six women in college says she's been raped, and one in 15 men in college admits to having raped, according to Marybeth Roden, assistant director of the Rape Treatment Center at Santa Monica Hospital.

The vast majority of campus rapes--85% to 90%, according to Roden--are committed by someone the victim knows. One key to avoiding acquaintance rape is to resist the natural tendency to let your guard down around someone you think you know. The nice neighbor down the hall may prove otherwise if allowed the opportunity.

Many acquaintance rapes occur in isolated settings such as a car, or in the man's or woman's room. So guard against being alone with someone you don't know well. Stay in open, public places with your date or acquaintance, and don't go back to his or her room.

Intuition can also be a weapon against sexual assault. Trust any suspicions or misgivings you may have about a situation.

"A lot of women who have been raped have said that some time in the interaction that something felt wrong," said Kathy Rose-Mockry, director of the Women's Resource Center at UCLA. "But they felt it was rude to respond."

"You may never find out whether you were correct in your assumption, but you need to go on your instincts and get out of there," added Kathleen Bartle-Schulweis, a women's issues advocate at USC.

Communication can also help: Be assertive and clear. You have the right to put your personal safety first and you have the right to say no, even though this is often difficult because some women have been taught to be passive and defer to men.

If you don't want sex, say no. But, advises Roden, "say it like you mean it, making sure you back it up with your words, tone of voice, and your body language."

If your date doesn't exactly say no, ask him or her to be more clear. If the answer is still unclear to you, then take it as a no anyway--and back off!

The best single piece of advice for avoiding acquaintance rape, however, can be stated in two words: Stay sober.

"Most people feel, based on their anecdotal client population, that well over 80% of campus rape . . . involves the use of alcohol," said Roden.

Being drunk can make it harder for you to judge situations, communicate what you want or don't want to do, and to physically defend yourself.

Too much alcohol can also make it more difficult for you to hear your date say no, and it may make you act more aggressively.

"If you can stay sober, you have a much better chance of taking good care of yourself and not being harmed," said Bartle-Schulweis.

While rape by strangers accounts for a fairly low percentage of campus rapes, you should still take precautions against it.

There are the obvious tips, such as traveling in groups, avoiding nighttime errands and staying off dark streets.

But consider some additional, less obvious safeguards.

When driving, always have at least a half-tank of gas.

When traffic permits, walk in the middle of the street rather than on the sidewalk, in case someone is hiding in a doorway or behind a parked car.

If you're carrying books or a purse, keep one hand free to defend yourself, and dress so that you can run if necessary.

Stand a foot or two back from the curb when waiting at a corner.

Carry a whistle "screech alarm," and have your key ready before you reach your home or car. Once inside, lock all doors.

Notice the sounds around you; listen for footsteps behind you.

Finally, don't sabotage the security system in your dorm or apartment building. For example, don't prop security doors open just for the sake of convenience; when entering, don't let someone "piggyback" their way in with you.

These are some general guidelines to avoid rape, and safety strategies will vary from campus to campus. Many colleges offer rape prevention programs as part of their freshmen orientation.

In the meantime, you can learn more by calling Santa Monica Hospital's Rape Treatment Center at (213) 319-4000.

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