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Opinion: OU professor discusses campus sexual assault spikes during football season

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Julia Ehrhardt

Professor Julia Ehrhardt.

Editor's Note: Professor Julia Ehrhardt was asked by the editors of OU FORUM to write a piece for the October issue entitled POWER: GENDER-BASED VIOLENCE ON CAMPUS. The issue is available on FORUM's website. At the request of the Daily’s editors, she has slightly amended the original piece, which appears below. She thanks the editors of the OU FORUM for all of their work to raise awareness about sexual violence at OU through both written and artistic expression and for accepting this piece. She would also like to thank Jeff-Fine Thomas, M.A, L.M.F.T. for his fervent commitment to empowering women to survive attempted and actual sexual assaults. Finally, she would like to thank David Lisak, Ph.D., who, during her first semester in college, changed her mind about rape.

I try not to pay too much attention to OU football, because it doesn’t make me excited. It makes me worried and anxious. I wonder what’s going to happen on Monday whether we win or lose, and not only because I’m angry that students may shirk their homework to go to games and other football-related events. “Remember that football is not an all-day affair,” I always remind my first-year students, and I tell them if they take a selfie in the stadium or in front of a television holding the book I’ve assigned for the next week I give them extra credit for class participation. I can count on one hand the number of students who take me up on this offer, but that is not also the cause of my worry. I’m anxious about what’s going to happen on Monday not in class, but outside of it.

Something often happens on Mondays after football games, something that experience has grimly taught me to anticipate. On Mondays, chances are that a student I know — or one that I don’t, or both — will come to my office to tell me that someone has sexually assaulted her over the weekend. (I’ve deliberately used female pronouns and nouns in this piece, because the vast majority of people who have experienced sexual assault are women and most of the assaulters are men. However, as you know, this is not always the case).* So, on Friday afternoons before I turn off the lights and make sure my Faculty Ally card is visible from the outside of my window, I clear the papers and books off of my chairs (if any of you have ever been in my office you know this is not quick work) in case a woman comes in and needs help during the extra office hours I hold. (Incidentally, no one has ever come to my office to tell me that he sexually assaulted someone over the weekend and needs help). I’m not going to recount how many times this has happened over the course of my career, or how all of these women ask me to believe them (as if I would even think for half a second that they were lying), or the details of these assaults. Suffice it to say that when these students come to talk to me and tell me that they simply couldn’t fight an assaulter any more after hours of brutality had passed; that their rapists had taken or hidden their cell phones as part of a planned assault; that they want to immerse themselves in bathtubs full of bleach; or that they didn’t want anyone to know — that I have heard them before. Many times.

Statistics about the risk factors of sexual assault tell me that my Friday afternoon routine makes sense, and so does what probably ensues on Monday. Jia Tolentino writes in The New Yorker that “if you isolate any single hypothesis or argument or statistic about the problem of college sexual assault, there will be some way to make it seem wrong, even specious.” So, I am combining statistics here to explain how fall football weekends create a perfect storm for campus rape.

The first few weeks of a semester usually carry the highest risk for sexual assault, and the fall semester at football schools is a prime time for rapists to act. New students are eager to participate in time-honored traditions such as tailgating, pre-partying before games, and victory celebrations at fraternity and off-campus parties. And when there is a college party, there will be alcohol free for the taking, and students who are eager to fit in will drink, whether they are playing beer pong, succumbing to peer pressure (to which sorority or fraternity pledges are particularly vulnerable), or celebrating the freedom to get drunk without sneaking booze out of a parent’s, friend’s or friend’s parent’s liquor cabinet. Some have never consumed alcohol before and don’t know how much of it they can tolerate. Since over half of reported campus rapes occur at parties off campus between midnight and 6 a.m., I think you can see where I am going here. Women are especially at risk for sexual assault if they are inside an unfamiliar place where men are consuming alcohol, and many first-year students — any student — may not know the layout of rooms in houses, apartments or dorms where they have never been before. That makes it hard for them to know how to get away if someone starts giving them unwanted sexual attention or won’t leave them alone. Football is a game in which aggression and violence are mandatory and being able to “score” is a laudable accomplishment for many college men. These facts engender an ironic paradox. When a tackle occurs, football fans roar in celebration of legalized physical assault. Sexual assault is a crime of violence met with silence and disbelief.

Some of you may be asking, “Why football?" According to a 2015 study by Jason Lindo and his research team, rates of reported sexual assault at Division I colleges rise dramatically during football season. Using data obtained over the course of 22 years, Lindo reported that on weekends when home games were played there was, on average, a 41-percent spike in the number of reported rapes, while during away games the increase was 15 percent. Reported rapes also skyrocketed during upsets when lower-ranked teams beat better ones. Peggy Reeves Sanday, an anthropologist who studies gang rape, has argued that all-male groups such as fraternities and athletic teams have historically exploited and denigrated women, thus perpetuating the rape culture rampant now. Currently, national news coverage has revealed an epidemic of sexual assaults committed by high school, college and professional football players — as well as other male athletes — across the country who have committed gang rapes, and there have been multiple studies that conclude that male fraternity members are three times more likely to rape women than men who are not Greek. As the saying goes, "I may have been born at night, but I wasn’t born last night," and these statistics as well as my own experiences as a faculty member who has taught at OU for 19 years indicate that the forecast for football weekends is a perfect storm for sexual assault.

The editors of THE FORUM asked me to share in this piece information I would like other faculty members to know about sexual assault on campus. Here’s my list:

-When someone is sexually assaulted, the assault is never their fault. Never. Ever. To paraphrase Jessica Valenti, people are raped and sexually assaulted because other people sexually assault them.

-Rape myths that undergird rape culture are myths, not truths. These myths maintain that most rapes are committed by knife-wielding perverts hiding in bushes who attack strangers at night; that women make themselves vulnerable to rape by drinking alcohol or wearing revealing clothing; that a woman who really wants to can escape a rapist; that anyone who doesn’t resist a sexual assault must have wanted it; that people who have experienced rape or sexual assault deserve it somehow; and that sexual assault is inevitable due to human biology, therefore it will always happen, and thus it is a waste of time to try to stop it. (I can’t tell you how many times I have heard this kind of mansplaining away rape in this and other academic spaces, as well as in casual conversations).

-See the *ed sentence above. Anyone of any gender can potentially assault anyone of any gender. Rape is not a gender or sexuality-specific crime.

-People commit rape and sexual assault. So, “rape” and “assault” are active verbs as well as nouns. So, when you discuss these topics, make assaulters the subject of your sentence rather than the assaulted person. Don’t say, “A woman was raped.” Say, “Someone raped a woman.”

-Don’t use the word “rape” as a metaphor and correct others who do, as in “That mechanic really raped me on my bill.” “I so raped the organic chemistry test.” “(insert practice or company here) is raping the earth.”

-Many campus rapists are serial assaulters, meaning that they will rape more than one person. In other words, the numbers of rapists and the number of people who they rape are not equal. There are more in the first category.

-Rape is not a spontaneous crime, but one that is planned through grooming someone for an assault, whether that grooming takes five minutes or five months. Sexual assaults can also be planned by more than one person, whether the intent is gang rape or simply facilitating someone’s ability to sexually assault someone.

-Reporting rape or sexual assault is not the sole responsibility of the person who was assaulted. It is also the responsibility of people who have witnessed the rape or have learned about it from a perpetrator (you have no idea how often people brag or joke about committing acts that fit the legal definition of sexual assault, so learn what these are). OU faculty and staff MUST report knowledge of sexual assaults to the Title IX office (405-325-2215). This is NOT OPTIONAL. When calling, remember that you are not required to give this office the victim’s name, nor should you.

-It is not the job of populations vulnerable to rape to protect themselves from sexual assault. It is the job of sexual assaulters to stop sexually assaulting people and for all of us to establish and enforce legal and social consequences for those who commit rape. When researchers ask college students if they would rape someone if they could be sure that they would get away with it, a majority consistently reply in the affirmative. Because rape is one of the most underreported and unprosecuted crimes that humans commit, many rapists know that they will probably not be arrested, punished or prosecuted for sexual assault. We all need to create and enforce legal and social deterrents for rape and sexual assault.

-Realize that at least one person you know has been sexually assaulted and acknowledge that at least one person you know has sexually assaulted someone.

-Educate yourself about sexual assault on campus and don’t wait to learn about rape until someone sexually assaults someone you know. While you can expect that the people who work at the Gender and Equality Center will point you to resources (and that they will gladly do so), you can’t expect them to drop everything when you walk in so that they can teach you about sexual assault. They are probably dealing with at least one — especially on a Monday during football season.  

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