The XX Factor

College Women: Don’t Depend on “Bystanders” to Rescue You from Assault. Rescue Yourselves.

If that’s the third beer, maybe don’t order another.

Photo by Johannes Simon/Getty Images

Teaching young people to intervene when they suspect sexual assault is an important tool in reducing such crimes on college campuses. An article by Michael Winerip in the New York Times on “bystander intervention” describes these programs that teach young people how to spot suspicious behavior and what to do about it and points to some early successes. Winerip writes, “The hope is that bystander programs will have the same impact on campus culture that the designated driver campaign has had in reducing drunken driving deaths.” He adds, “Both take the same tack: Drinking to excess can’t be stopped but the collateral damage can.”

The bystander programs are an excellent idea. But let’s not just shrug and agree that “drinking to excess can’t be stopped.” (Think where we’d be in the war on tobacco if we just assumed smoking couldn’t be stopped.) I worry about an unintended consequence of bystander education: It is dangerous to give young people—particularly women—the false sense that there will always be someone around looking out for them, someone more intent on guarding their safety than they are themselves.

Of course the rise of the designated driver has helped cut the toll—which remains heartbreakingly high—of drunk driving deaths. But the anti–drunk driving movement was about more than creating the idea of the “designated driver.” It was about getting the culture to change its attitude about anyone getting behind the wheel drunk. Last fall I wrote an article in Slate about how avoiding intoxication was a crucial way for young women to reduce their chances of becoming victims of rape. Just as we’ve turned cigarette smoking from sexy to repulsive, we must continue to work at shifting the culture of campus binge drinking. Right now extreme drunkenness is a normal, even celebrated condition on many campuses. But I’ve yet to hear a good argument in favor of people—women and men—regularly getting so wasted that they are no longer able to make good decisions. And the examples in Winerip’s story illustrate that well.  

In January the Obama administration announced a task force to address campus sexual assault, noting the appalling fact that college parties are one of the most likely places for young women to be raped. Vice President Biden made a powerful and important plea for young men to reduce this toll by stopping their male classmates from becoming offenders. “Men have to take more responsibility; men have to intervene,” he said. But I wish he and the president had added some remarks about the dangers to both sexes of getting blind drunk. In Winerip’s article he notes that between 2005 to 2010, more than 60 percent of the sexual violence claims made to a leading insurer of colleges and universities “involved young women who were so drunk they had no clear memory of the assault.”

Winerip describes some of the instructions students are given for strategies to prevent sexual assault, from “accidentally” spilling a drink on a possible rapist, to “forming a conga line and pulling him away from the woman he’s bothering” to suddenly turning on the lights at a party. But for these interventions to work there have to be enough people at enough parties who stay sober enough to commit themselves to monitoring the activities of their friends. In other words, these programs rely on having enough students who don’t drink to excess. And in the real world of a raucous campus party, it’s going to be difficult for a small number of not-drunk people to keep tabs on the intoxicated masses. 

Bystander and consent education are important tools that will, I hope, be effective at changing the frat-fueled notion that getting as many women into bed by any means possible is a sign of manhood. Winerip also mentions how “enlightened self-interest is a powerful motivator” for young men. That is, if they lack the moral compass to understand the inherent violation of taking advantage of a woman who’s had too much to drink, that they might be able to grasp the effect on their futures of becoming lifetime sexual offenders.  

Both Winerip and Obama mention the serial predators who commit many of the campus sexual offenses. These stealthy sociopaths often pretend to help a classmate who’s had too much to drink, then take her back to her room and rape her, as described in studies by Antonia Abbey and David Lisak. They can slip below the radar because they are canny at choosing victims who aren’t able to clearly remember the crime. I’m glad everyone is finally talking about how dangerous campus parties can be for women and about the need to do something about it. I applaud the movement to teach young people to look out for each other. I just wish it were more socially acceptable to tell them that they must also look out for themselves.