Two years ago, my stepson started college. My husband’s worries were those customary to any parent seeing their child off to college and their first time living alone: Will he be safe? Will he keep a clean space?Will he succumb to peer pressure with drugs and drinking? Will he manage his money? Will he study? Will he waste my money?
I did not share my husband’s concerns. As a woman who attended college, I know children eventually find their footing when it comes to studying, managing money and cleaning. I knew he’d figure it out even with the hurdles of transitioning from childhood to adult student.
But as a woman who attended college, my concern was how easily my stepson could become a rapist, swept up in the culture of college in which young men are set free without fully-developed frontal lobes, having spent their teen years watching society excuse and even encourage their and their peers at least inappropriate and at most predatory behavior. “Did you talk to him about consent?” I asked my husband in the tone that communicates I’m not really asking a question so much as I am telling him what I want him to do. “I’mma talk to him,” he replied nonchalantly.
“Nah,” I continued, “I mean you need to sit him to down and teach him right now.” And he assured me he would, but I realized that I wasn’t even sure that my husband as a man, even one who has never given me any reason not to trust he knows what consent is, was properly equipped to explain consent. “You want me to talk to him with you?” I offered. My husband declined, but again, I wasn’t really asking.
My husband never attended college. And even if he had, attending college as man really does not prepare you to direct valuable, valid and intricate conversations on consent and rape culture in the same way attending college as a woman does. After all, there’s a reason freshman girls are called “fresh meat.”
College is really just a high school for young adults. Young adults who weeks before had to be accompanied to the doctor for their annual physical and hounded about doing their laundry, are suddenly dropped into a world where they are still mostly provided for by the adults who are no longer legally responsible for them while having the freedom to do whatever they want. Hours away from their parents who enforced curfews and made it harder for them to engage in underage drinking and drugs, 18 through 22-year-olds are free to make all the poor choices they would’ve as minors with the space and opportunity to hide them from their parents. It’s the perfect storm.
So your sons, the good boys who spent middle and high school committing normalized acts of sexual violence and violation (looking under their skirts, grabbing their breasts and running, spying on girls in the locker room) or nerds constantly who’ve fostered a hatred for women that translates to a sense of entitlement to women’s bodies because they were always rejected or jocks used to receiving the adoration and attention of all the girls who are ill-equipped to handle rejection from women they feel they deserve, are unleashed on college campuses emancipated from the limited supervision that prevented them from fully realizing their potential as predators. Now the illegal drinking they had to sneak to engage in at home is expected and ignored. Now they can have women in their rooms overnight and no one will question who they are or demand they leave.
And who will hold them accountable for violating women? Not the administration of the school obsessed with burying sexual assault allegations because they sully the school’s reputation. Not their peers who mostly engage in the same conduct, and even if they do find their conduct morally reprehensible, aren’t willing to stand for and with victims, holding themselves accountable for protecting women from other men. Not their parents who call to ask if they’ve been changing their sheets regularly but never consider the sheets have been changed because they’re stained with all the evidence of rape. Not the media that drags out the past of the victims and are complicit in putting victims on trial.
College campuses are the equivalent of the Wild West for sexual assault. There are no rules. Administration looks the other way. Young women are so used to being violated and having their stories doubted, ignored or being outright called liars that they don’t even bother reporting they’ve been raped or assaulted. Young men see sleeping or intoxicated young women and think nothing of hoisting their skirts. And nobody does anything.
Students are required to enroll in ENG 101 – Freshman Composition to learn the basics of constructing written arguments, effective communication and employing rhetorical language, but no one bothers to ensure these students understand the power behind and respect “no.” We spend years prepping children to perform well on the SAT so they are accepted into college, but no one considers it may be worth it to require students to take a course or three on consent. We laugh at 14-year-old boys slapping girls on the butt and running only to drop them off on a college campus four years later without having addressed, punished and corrected their behavior.
The only response to the rampant sexual assault on college campuses, the only attempt at addressing this problem, the only time anyone ever mentions any plan of action to halt or at least curb the epidemic comes when women are taught how to avoid being raped. It’s more conceivable to teach women to not make themselves easy prey than it is to teach men not to prey. College is supposed to be a place where one learns to challenge perceptions, think logically and critically, learns to see the perspective of others and otherwise hone empathy and intellect. And still, in these alleged institutions of higher learning, the best solution for a problem of men routinely raping women with impunity is to teach women how to avoid the men all around them.
There’s no mandatory orientation where a clearly outlined no tolerance policy is the subject and a bevy of administrators spend hours making it plain that allegations of sexual assault will be promptly, thoroughly and mandatorily investigated. Instead of creating entire offices to tackle and combat the outrageous incidence of rape on college campuses, as one in five female students report having been sexually assaulted, colleges spend money consulting PR firms to help shape public perception of their school and avoid liability. Rather than crafting and executing plans to keep their campuses from fostering the kind of environment that promotes and encourages rape, they prefer to teach potential victims how to navigate this environment.
Rape is not inevitable. And if we’re going to stay invested in the idea that college is a necessity, then we best be just as invested in ensuring women aren’t raped while attending the college we’ve told them is necessary for their success.
That means not only staying in the asses of the school’s administration, ensuring that we demand policies and action that don’t just deter rape but also condemn and severely penalize rapists, but teaching our sons about consent. That means while we buy the books to prep them for SATs, advanced writing and college math, we buy the books to teach them about explicit consent, patriarchy and body autonomy. We don’t just prepare to drop them off to college with trips to Walmart for bedding, hampers and school supplies but with a clear directive to be the men women deserve. We prepare to drop them off not just with conversations about not drinking underage (which they will probably do anyway) but about how alcohol informs consent. We don’t just help them develop effective studying habits but help them develop effective habits for requesting and recognizing consent.
Don’t send your son to a college campus believing he’s the same boy he is under your watchful eye. College is where many young men receive advanced instruction in the toxic masculinity that turns them into rapists, or at least coaxes out their predatory instincts. Don’t let your son’s college experience be some woman’s nightmare.