More than education, positive peer pressure promotes safety on campus

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September 29, 2009

1:21 AM

“A Serious Incident.” Even amidst the clutter of my College of William and Mary e-mail account, this subject line was hard to miss. The Sept. 15 e-mail came directly from Vice President for Student Affairs Virginia Ambler ’88, Ph.D.’06, informing me that a sexual assault had taken place two days earlier, and reminding me of the resources available to survivors of such attacks.

While I join with Ambler in extending my sympathy to the victim, I question how successful such tactics of awareness really are in influencing the mindset of the student who perpetrated the offence, and those like him who will go on to commit similar crimes on this campus in the future. I have to conclude that there is something intractable about the problem of sexual assault on college campuses, and that there is no substitute for the intervention of one’s peers when it comes to the prevention of such incidents.
College parties are one of the main reasons why the threat of sexual assault is such a great worry, even in a community as close-knit as the College. From discussions I have heard recently, it seems frat parties, in particular, are seen as a potential environment for such assaults — an idea that is not entirely unfounded.

A study funded by the U.S. Department of Education, and administered by One in Four founder John Foubert, has found that guys who join fraternities as freshmen are three times more likely than their peers to report committing a sexually coercive act during their first year of college. Of course, this does not mean that a fraternity member is three times more likely to assault you than someone who isn’t Greek; fraternity members may simply be more forthcoming than regular students in admitting their transgressions. Nor does it suggest that all frat parties are inherently threatening; I know that the overwhelming majority of brothers take every precaution to ensure that their guests are safe and having a good time.

However, this does not change the fact that many who attend parties are underage and unable to get their hands on alcohol elsewhere. Of these party-goers, some are unsure of their limits when it comes to drinking and are reliant on their friends to look after them, should things get out of hand. Add to this the fact that they’re being served drinks by those who may not have their best interests at heart, and you have a recipe for trouble.

It is hard to tell where the College stands in terms of the prevalence of sexual assault on campus. Other in-state institutions such as Virginia Tech, George Mason University and the University of Virginia do not publish data comparable to that which is offered on the College website. In any case, it is inherently difficult to construct an argument based on such information, as it is a fact that many incidents continue to go unreported. What is not in doubt, however, is that all of these universities take the issue of sexual assault incredibly seriously, offering detailed discussions about the nature of the problem and a phalanx of resources for victims.

The College’s statistics suggest that 5 percent of students claim to have experienced rape or attempted rape within the last year, while the same proportion claim also to have been stalked during that time. Although there are multiple organizations on campus dedicated to preventing sexual assault, the implication is clear: for all the excellent work that they do, campus resources and organizations such as One in Four cannot influence the unique combination of circumstances that makes college students vulnerable to sexual assault.

Ninety-two percent of College students said they would intervene if they witnessed a friend trying to coerce an intoxicated person to have sex. You might be tempted to ask what the other 8 percent were up to: twiddling their thumbs? Shouting encouragement?

This serves to emphasize that the most powerful tool in combating sexual assault is the standards set within any group of friends. I would encourage all students to tell someone when they’re being inappropriate, if it’s clear that they’ve crossed a line in his or her advances toward someone else. It’s easy to ignore a One in Four presentation as just another hour of extended orientation. It’s hard to ignore a friend when he is telling you that what you’re doing is wrong.

E-mail Tim MacFarlan at [email protected]

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