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October 17, 2021

The Sexual Assault Double Red Zone: Awareness and Safety

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Students, vaccination cards and fake IDs in tow, returned to campus anticipating parties, nights out and literally any gathering that consisted of more than five people. After a year of being cock-blocked by COVID-19, these events–the supposed epitome of the college experience–were finally (somewhat) plausible again. Yet, amidst the streams of Taylor Swift and the tank-top-and-shorts combo, it’s valuable to consider the real implications of the revived college party scene.  

The Red Zone, a term coined by Robin Warshaw in the novel I Never Called It Rape, refers to the weeks from orientation to Thanksgiving break in which 50% of all college campus sexual asssaults occur. Largely impacting first years, Promoting Awareness Victim Empowerment states that the Red Zone is attributed to three main influences: an Uptick in parties that celebrate the return to campus and Greek Life, younger students being exposed to campus culture for the first time and a lack of sexual violence education or knowledge. The Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault also writes that, “As older students return to campus intending to make up for the lost time during the pandemic, the number of social events that will take place this fall will likely increase.”  

However, with two classes of students — first years and sophomores — arriving on campus for the first time at most universities, researchers project the number of sexual assaults to double, resulting in the Double Red Zone; while it’s too soon to have national data on the last two months, we’re already seeing mass protest over how universities have responded to sexual assaults. 

Undoubtedly a scary time for most, knowledge about the Double Red Zone should not be motive to sit in fear; but rather, it should encourage you to do your part to keep yourself and others safe by actively dismantling cultures of sexual violence on our campus. The responsibility to foster a safe community is on the shoulders of everyone who participates in that community. 

Everyday conversations about college sexual assault prevention is largely predicated in what at-risk individuals can do to decrease the probability that they will be assaulted: Understanding what constitutes sexual assault, walking in illuminated areas, covering your drink, the buddy system, location sharing and the list goes on. Though proliferating and implementing these strategies is definitely invaluable, it’s equally as imperative to interrogate the ways in which campus culture exacerbates sexual assault; as the cause of assault is never that someone didn’t “do enough to not be assaulted” but the assaulter themself. 

Reagardless of what university is in question, campus culture feeds into rape culture, and as stated by Indiana University: “Many of these incidents [of sexual assault] happen at or after parties.” 

I’ll admit, I love parties. I love the cute outfits and the dancing and drinking and the meeting of new people. Yet, parties being fun is not a pass to excuse the ways they can perpetuate sexual violence. I’d contend that not all parties are bad parties. The problem arises when a party promotes a binary gendered, sexual space wherein assaulters, typically men, come expecting sex while women are commodified and indebted to them. 

It starts at the door. If you’re at Collegetown on a Saturday night, looking down the roads of beat up houses, you’ll typically see a group of people (more often than not, men) standing at the door, guarding their rooms overflowing with colored light and music. Whether it be only allowing groups with a high girl-to-guy ratio from entering or permitting women to enter for free while requiring men to pay, these systems promote the expectancy for sex. 

Don’t get me wrong, it is totally okay to go to a party wanting to hook up with a hot stranger. Again, it’s the expectation for sex and system of indebtedness that is problematic because it overlooks consent. Sexual assault thrives in ecosystems where power dynamics exist. We all know that cis men hold power in our patriarchal society, and when they’re put in a place where they feel as though they are deserving of sex, consent is disregarded. Sex isn’t something that should be expected, but wanted by both parties. As supported by Molly Hopkins of Ramapo University, “Many college males accept the false notion that women are at parties solely to please them.”

Furthermore, Hopkins continues, “Seventy-five percent of men and fifty-five percent of women reported drinking or taking drugs prior to an attack… Intoxication makes it easier for rapists to control their victim.”

Once again, drinking at parties for fun is absolutely fine. Alcohol does not cause rape or assault: The perpetrators do. However, the combined forces of alcohol and common systems of loyalty among friend groups and fraternities is another aspect of college culture that exacerbates sexual violence. In a gendered space, as those found within fraternities, men are typically concerned with notions of loyalty and are more likely to value members over victims of assault–discouraging accountability and encouraging sexual assault. 

Being critical of yourself, your friends and your environment is crucial. Knowing how your actions or lack of actions allow these cultural phenomena to occur is fundamental in curbing sexual violence. When we have these conversations, become cognizant of our thought processes, and learn to truly support survivors can our campus become a safe place to be. 

Furthermore, holding perpetrators accountable when assault does occur is beyond indispensable. 

Megan Simard, a survivor and previous student at Queen’s University, shares her story and brings attention to the gross systemic failures of university institutions that denied her the justice she deservingly sought out. She writes, “I had failed to be the “perfect rape victim,” and so I had no chances of securing a conviction. Our systems are an obstacle course that keeps us from reporting.” Students and staff pushing for accountability cognizant to the wants of the survivor serves to alleviate some of the harms provided by institutional derelictions. 

As a survivor of assault myself, I think it is valuable to once more say that assault is never at the fault of the survivor. The aftermath of assault is conducive to feelings of isolation, shame, blame and dehumanization. Though I can’t guarantee that healing from assault will be easy, it is unquestionably possible for anyone. If you have experienced sexual assault, do not be afraid to reach out to help from your friends, family, the Victim Advocates program at Cornell, a support group, teachers or anyone that you trust. Have the courage to advocate for yourself in ways that are most comforting to you and seek out joy within your life: your survival is an act of protest deserving celebration. At the end of the day, it is not a matter of whether or not you are capable of getting through it, that is guaranteed, but how much you will grow because of it. 

Members of the Cornell Community may consult with the Victim Advocate by calling 607-255-1212, and with Cornell Health by calling 607-255-5155. Employees may call the Faculty Staff Assistance Program (FSAP) at 607-255-2673. An Ithaca-based Crisisline is available at 607-272-1616. The Tompkins County-based Advocacy Center is available at 607-277-5000. For additional resources, visit health.cornell.edu/services/victim-advocacy. 

Kacey Lee is a freshman in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]

Correction: the initial version of this article misstated the name of one of the organizations mentioned; it is the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault, not the Maryland Coalition for Sexual Violence.