Back to school got ugly very quickly last week at Old Dominion University in Virginia, where sexually suggestive signs about “freshman daughters” were displayed outside of a private house off campus as students moved in.
One of three large, hand-painted banners on the house, said to be occupied by Sigma Nu fraternity members, said this: “Rowdy and Fun. Hope your baby girl is ready for a good time.”
Another banner, with an arrow pointing to the front door, said “Freshman daughter drop off.”
The third: “Go ahead and drop off mom too.”
And just like that, the issue of campus sexual assaults made one of its first headlines of the new school year.
The photos featured Georgetown students and alumni who had all survived sexual assault and date rape.
In one photo a young woman hides her face with a poster where she wrote what a friend asked after she revealed that she’d been assaulted: “Well, what were you wearing?”
A couple of weeks earlier, Alabama sorority Alpha Phi drew criticism for a recruitment video showing a lack of diversity and excessive objectification of its members.
The sorority has since deleted the video from YouTube, changed their Twitter and Facebook accounts to private and stopped responding to requests for comment from the media.
A Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll released in June estimated that 20 percent of young women who went to college over the last four years were sexually assaulted.
In a crude way the banners at Old Dominion placed a target on the very group of students believed to be most at risk: freshman women.
These next few months for them are particularly risky. Sexual assaults on campuses are apt to happen in the first few weeks of their first semester in college.
More than half of all campus sexual assaults take place between August and November, according to the 2007 Campus Sexual Assault Study
College health and counseling centers refer to those months as “the red zone,” which is why it’s usually the time of year college officials hold sexual assault awareness seminars for new students.
Some of the newest research into stopping sexual violence among college students suggests that teaching women self-defense can significantly lower their risk of being assaulted.
In a study published in The New England Journal of Medicine, 893 first-year female students from three Canadian universities completed 12 hours of lessons on assessing risk, learning self-defense and defining personal sexual boundaries.
The students were surveyed a year after they completed the intervention.
University of Windsor professor Charlene Senn and her colleagues found a 46 percent reduction in sexual assault and a 63 percent drop in attempted rape among those women a year after they completed the course.
Kimmel, a professor at Stony Brook University in New York and author of “Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men,” writes that the guy who rapes a woman on campus is not a made-for-TV rapist.
“This is probably not the stereotypical rapist who jumps out of bushes,” Kimmel writes.
“He’s the guy who eyes you seductively when you walk into a party, dances with you flirtatiously, and seems so solicitously chivalrous in making sure your drink is always refilled.”
Sexual assault “likely happens the most on residential college campuses where there are lots of people of the same age going to alcohol-soaked parties in all-male residences with no official administrative oversight — in places there is a high-level of gender inequality in social life, a pervasive attitude of male sexual entitlement — in places where men bond over sexual conquests and believe that true brotherhood means silence,” Kimmel concludes.
Do they know what consent is?
When photos of the signs near the Old Dominion campus began circulating on social media on Friday, university officials quickly and publicly denounced them.
“The moment University staff became aware of these banners, they worked to have them removed,” the school said in a statement. “At ODU, we foster a community of respect and dignity and these messages sickened us.
“Ours is a community that works actively to promote bystander intervention and takes a stand denouncing violence against women.”
TV reporters in Norfolk reported over the weekend that members of the Sigma Nu fraternity lived in the house. On Monday, the fraternity suspended its chapter at the school pending its own investigation.
School officials used the incident to spotlight student participation in the national “It’s on Us” campaign against sexual violence on campus. More than 1,500 students signed a pledge online vowing to watch out for one another.
Schools have been on the hook about sexual assaults that happen on their watch since 2011, when the U.S. Department of Education threatened investigations and penalties for schools that didn’t protect students from sexual harassment and violence. They’re required to do so under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.
The White House got involved last year by launching the Not Alone campaign, part of a task force working on helping federally funded schools – grade school to universities – do a better job of protecting students from sexual assault.
Last Friday in Illinois, Gov. Bruce Rauner signed legislation designed to prevent sexual assaults by requiring the state’s colleges and universities, among other things, to offer more awareness training for students and employees and give victims access to a confidential adviser to help them get medical and legal help.
Legislation is also pending in Massachusetts that would clarify the roles of college officials, police and rape crisis counselors involved in individual cases, its backers say.
U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri has been vocal for years on the issue of campus sexual assaults. She told The Kansas City Star in July that while making Title IX compliance visits to campuses around the country last year, she frequently heard that many students get all the way to college without understanding the meaning of “consent” and what makes healthy relationships.
She and Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia are pushing for teach safe relationships legislation requiring sex education classes to include a focus on dating violence, stalking and assault. They want safe relationship education included in sex education classes in all public middle school and high schools.
That and other efforts emphasize that preventing sexual assault isn’t just a women’s issue. The White House task force report was careful to not make men in general the “bad guy.”
“One thing we know for sure: we need to engage men as allies in this cause. Most men are not perpetrators – and when we empower men to step in when someone’s in trouble, they become an important part of the solution,” read the April 2014 report.
“If she doesn’t consent – or can’t consent – it’s a crime. And if you see it happening, help her, don’t blame her, speak up.”