Staying Safe

Published in the Fall 2009 issue of SSA Magazine

To avoid sexual violence at college parties, women are careful - rather than demanding safety.

DESPITE COLLEGES' WIDESPREAD EFFORTS, sexual violence on campuses has proved a difficult problem to solve. Some estimates suggest that as many as three in ten women are victims of an attempted rape sometime during their college years, and women on college campuses are three times as likely to experience sexual violence as women in other settings.

New research offers insights into the complicated ways that young women negotiate these risks, especially in the sexually charged atmosphere of college parties. Katherine Luke, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Michigan, interviewed 31 heavy-drinking college women and found that they put a strong emphasis on personal responsibility at these events. She argued that the women's attitudes toward partying and sexual violence arise from "internalized technologies of gender" that, in effect, reproduce broader social attitudes.

When asked if partying could be made safer for women, the women in Luke's study expressed confidence that they could keep themselves safe by watching how much they drank, regulating their dress and using tactics like carrying pepper spray. "I know a lot of girls dress very provocatively, like, with the mini skirt and the low-cut tops, and they look like they're out for more than just drinking," said one woman. "And some girls maybe just want to look good. But I think because of that, they're more vulnerable if they've been drinking."

Almost all the women Luke talked to described also a sophisticated strategy that they and their friends used to watch out for each other. In this informal "buddy system" women monitored whom their friends talked to and intervened if a friend left a party with someone they considered inappropriate.

Together, these tactics reflect what Luke identified as a popular attitude that "preventing sexual violence is the sole responsibility of the individual women at risk for sexual victimization." They also echo a message conveyed on many campuses, where anti-rape programs seek to empower women by suggesting ways that they can avoid sexual violence.

Luke examined the themes that emerged in the interviews in light of feminist and post-structural theories about power and sexuality. The women's insistence on individual responsibility and efforts to distance themselves from women they deemed careless or "slutty," Luke said, reflect "powerful social discourses" that female sexuality is shameful and that women bear the blame for sexual violence.

These tendencies also mask the idea that sexual violence is a collective problem and "something their communities or colleges should have responsibility for preventing," Luke said. "[P]revention programs that aim to alter individual attitudes, without addressing the power, complexity and deep cultural entrenchment of the discourses behind these attitudes, are insufficient for preventing sexual violence."

In September, Katherine Luke died of cancer. She was 35.