Reality Check: Rape on College Campuses

Perhaps the most important thing to know about campus rape is that it happens. It happens to regular college students who think they're safe when they end up in the wrong circumstances with the wrong person. And the rapists are often students who would otherwise be considered trustworthy.

The term "date rape" is often applied to these attacks, because the victim is highly likely to know her assailant. But the term is a misnomer. The "rape" part is right. The "date" part isn't. It's not something that typically follows a dinner-and-a-movie date. It's much more likely to happen when a group of people are consuming alcohol or drugs, and two people — who may have only gotten to know each other that evening — pair off.

Only when they're in a bedroom together might things start to go gravely wrong. It comes down to consent. The woman, who typically has a significantly lower tolerance for alcohol and drugs than a man, might become incoherent or otherwise incapacitated, even if she doesn't totally pass out. In short, she cannot decide for herself whether to have sex. The issue of consent is central — that woman is no different in the eyes of the law than an 8-year-old child or a comatose patient, both of whom cannot under any circumstances be considered to consent to sexual contact. If the man proceeds to have sex with her, it's not enough that she didn't say "no." Since she physically lacked the ability to consent, it's a clear case of rape.

Between one-fifth and one-quarter of college women who attend school for five years will either be raped or be the target of an attempted rape, according to a research report prepared for the U.S. Department of Justice. Most cases occur, they report, when college women are alone with a man they know, at night, in a residence such as a dorm room. They also found that "frequently drinking enough to get drunk" was a consistent trait of the sexual assault victims.

Female freshmen face the greatest risk of being raped between the start of college and Thanksgiving Break, according to a report produced by the American Council for Drug Education and the Children of Alcoholics Foundation. With regard to alcohol, such students might be considered vulnerable during that time because they may:

  • Wrongly believe that all students drink excessively and feel that they must, too.

  • Don't know how much alcohol they can handle, and may not find out until they've gone past that limit.

  • Fail to understand how heavy drinking can render students oblivious, unconscious, or susceptible to grave harm.

  • Feel a false sense of security when drinking with fellow students who may themselves be impaired and not in a position to be trustworthy.

These factors can form a tragic mixture when combined with a male student — often one who's had too much to drink, himself — intent on having sex.