The Top Five Things You Need to Know Before Heading Off to College

As we head into August, the internet is bursting with advice for the college student.  As college professors, we certainly want students to come to college prepared, and given the news coverage over the last few months about sexual assault on college campuses, we thought, surely, that information about the risk of sexual assault and how to protect oneself, particularly for first-year college women in the first few weeks of the semester, would make it onto these lists.  (Actually, we thought no such thing, but we were hoping, optimistic feminists that we are.)

Sadly, though, we found nary a list that even mentioned assault, let alone one that suggested that the young woman heading off to college might need to know of the risks and therefore offered her valuable information about effective ways to defend herself should someone try to rape or assault her.

But no.  What we found, instead, were suggestions about how to confront the problems of packing, laundry, and the Freshman 5/10/15.

So it’s not that we don’t think that it can be hard to know what to pack when you’re leaving home for 4 months; we certainly encourage you to figure out how to operate a washing machine, and healthy nutrition is always a plus.  In fact, as professors, we’d also encourage you to read your syllabus, do your homework, and proofread your papers.

However, what we really want you to know is that if you are a young woman in college, the risk of someone raping or sexually assaulting you, or trying to, is high; the data (you’re going to hear a lot about data in college, so get used to it) from a lot of different sources says that anywhere from 1 in 5 women to 1 in 3 women will be raped or sexually assaulted during her college years.

What we also want you to know is that there are things you can do to protect yourself.

We trust you’ll figure out what to bring, how to set up your room, and how to declare a major, so we’re not going to give you any advice on how to do that.  Instead, here are (drumroll please)….


  1. RAPISTS ARE NOT ALL STRANGERS. Statistically, a person who tries to rape you is going to be someone you know, and quite possibly someone you know and like – a friend, a date, a partner.  So it is important to be aware of the people you know, not just your surroundings, and to pay attention to how you feel when you are around the people you know.  Go with your gut, and trust your instincts.
  2. ALCOHOL IS TRICKY. Alcohol is implicated in an enormous number of rapes on college campuses, and here’s what we know about drinking alcohol:  intoxication can impair your judgment, slow your reflexes, and leave you more vulnerable to dangerous people and situations.  Yep, there are criminals (yes, rape and attempted rape are CRIMES) that will try to get you drunk in order to more easily commit an assault against you.  Know this:  being intoxicated does NOT, we repeat, NOT, mean you are responsible for someone trying to rape you.  No matter what. However, for a variety of reasons – health, safety, GPA, avoiding the Freshman 5/10/15 – we recommend drinking legally and responsibility, knowing your limits around alcohol and other drugs, and being aware of the risks associated with drinking.
  3. YOU ARE ENTITLED TO HAVE AND SET BOUNDARIES. You – not your date, your roommate, your friends, your family, your professors – YOU get to decide what is safe, comfortable, and desirable for yourself, and those get to get to be different for different people, or different at different times for the same person.  And no one has the right to push or override those.  NO ONE.  And what that means is this:  YOU GET TO SAY NO.  And we know how hard “no” can be to say.  Lots of people, but women and girls in particular, often have trouble saying “no” (“NO!”) because they are worried about appearing mean, rude, hurtful, or (gasp) bitchy.  And as college professors, with over 40 years teaching experience between us, we’re telling you it’s okay to say no, and in fact, it’s okay even if someone thinks you’re mean, rude, hurtful, or (gasp) bitchy.  Here’s our best advice to anyone who tells you otherwise:  Fuck ‘em.  (You may quote us on that.)
  4. THERE ARE THINGS YOU CAN SAY AND DO TO STOP SOMEONE FROM RAPING YOU. You may have heard a lot of (perhaps) well-intentioned but (in our humble, data-informed) opinion, stupid advice on this point that says the opposite, like:  Don’t fight back, it won’t work, you’ll get hurt, you’ll make him mad, you’ll make things worse….  In fact, here’s what we know from the data (are you tired of hearing us say “data” at this point?  Too bad.):
    1. YOU HAVE THE RIGHT TO RESIST. Self-defense is a human right, and those aren’t just pretty words.  You have the legal right to defend yourself, and that means against a rapist, too.  And it gets even better – keep reading:
    2. RESISTANCE CAN WORK. Resistance means a lot of things:  walking with confidence, telling someone not to touch you, pushing or shoving someone away from you, kneeing someone in the testicles (“Most incapacitating pain EVER,” our male friends tell us), and more.  Fighting back – verbally or physically – against a potential rape or sexual assault makes it LESS likely that the perpetrator will be successful and MORE likely that the perpetrator will fail.  Self-defense can work, even if a perpetrator is male, is larger, is stronger; you can use it to prevent or thwart an assault from happening.
    3. MORE IS MORE. Stronger levels of resistance – both verbal and physical – make it MORE likely that the perpetrator will fail.
    4. YOU CAN’T TRUST LAW AND ORDER SVU AS YOUR SOURCE OF INFORMATION FOR ANYTHING. (We know this seems off-topic, but just hear us out.)  And we say this as huge Law and Order SVU fans, but here’s the sad truth – they just make shit up*.  And one of the things they say that’s not true, which you’ve probably heard before, is that fighting back is a bad idea because you’re more likely to get hurt.    Just not true in most cases – in most cases, there are no difference in injury rates between women who resist and women who can’t or don’t.
  5. YOU ARE THE BEST PERSON TO DECIDE WHAT TO DO IF SOMEONE TRIES TO RAPE OR ASSAULT YOU. One of the things that happens when we talk about self-defense is that people say things like, “When you tell women they can fight back, aren’t you telling them it’s their fault if they are raped?”, to which we say, “No, of COURSE NOT!”  (Then we roll our eyes and mutter to ourselves because we’re really tired of hearing that.)  We want women to know what their options are; we are not telling women what they should and shouldn’t do.  Every person and every situation is different, and we trust women to make the best decisions they can for themselves in any given moment.   Self-defense is an option, and if you know all your options, you can better make the best choice for yourself to stay as safe as you can in any situation – whatever that choice may be.  We trust you.

So that should cover it.  College is wonderful, and we want you to be as prepared for it as possible.  This is the best and most important advice we have for you.  Aside from that, we trust you to figure it out.  Although we do think it’s important to tell you that if you overcook microwave popcorn, it will stink up your entire dorm for a week.

Go get ‘em!

Professor Jill and Professor Martha

*If any producers or writers for Law and Order SVU are readings this blog, the authors are totally available for consultation on scripts and dialogue.  Totally.

5 responses

  1. Carol Schaffer | Reply

    Thanks Jill and Martha.
    As you talk about alcohol (or any other drug) being tricky, let’s add that perps may choose a target who is under the influence because our rape culture deems people who aren’t sober as unsympathetic and unreliable witnesses (i.e., “sluts” and “liars”). This wrongheaded perception of sexual assault survivors blocks them from justice, support from their community, and promotes self-blame and shame.
    I second your support of people to make the best decision for themselves in the moment – and hope we can all work towards making the right to self defense a viable right for everyone. There are other factors as well that make it hard to report, be believed, and/or access justice (race, class, gender, age, fear of negative media attention and loss of privacy, to name only a few).

    1. Great point, Carol. Thank you!

  2. I’m glad you mentioned number 5, but a lot of people actually do say that if you don’t fight back you basically are consenting. I was raped in college, by a stranger, and I didn’t fight back. I did struggle at first, but there was knife to my throat and basically to stay alive, fighting back was not a good option. As you said – “Every person and every situation is different, and we trust women to make the best decisions they can for themselves in any given moment.” I wish more people would actually understand that. I took a RAD class presented by my college police department after my rape, and a cop actually told me that even if someone is holding a gun or knife on you, it is your fault if you get sexually assaulted. I ran out of the room crying in a flashback because I felt like a failure and as if it was my fault. I should have expected it though because my schools police didn’t even handle the rape appropriately anyway.

    Excellent post – no one talks about these issues – or rarely at least. Not until it is too late.

    1. Marie, thank you for your comment and for sharing your story. Wishing you the best.

  3. Here is a useful article that shows that ‘Rape Culture’ involves male, female, and institutional attitudes.

    Violations stem from the combination of Inequality, Intent (bad), and Isolation from protective resources combined with minimal respect, communication, and enforcement on an individual and institutional level.

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