Saverin and Walstrom: Making our campus safer

Last week, Yale Police Assistant Chief Ronnell Higgins reported that a female graduate student was followed off of a Yale shuttle bus by five men. They harassed her, and one grabbed her and began to forcibly kiss her. Days before, the News reported that a male student entered a suite of sleeping female students in Saybrook.

Both of these incidents are frightening, and police reporting to the Yale community has generated discussion around campus. When shocking examples of crimes against women appear in our inboxes, they often cause us to question our feelings of safety. Though these incidents certainly stand out, sexual misconduct extends beyond “stranger violence,” — and even beyond the alcohol-fueled night at Toads that “Relationships: Untitled” portrays. Many of us have friends or acquaintances whose lives have been affected by sexual violence. Studies done by academic and criminal justice researchers consistently find that about one in four college women will experience attempted or actual sexual assault by the time they graduate. About nine out of ten of the perpetrators are people known to the survivors, and very few of the assaults will be formally reported. We are currently in the window of time — beginning the moment students arrive on campus and lasting until Thanksgiving — during which most sexual assaults of first-year women occur. Like the e-mails from Ronnell Higgins, these facts are scary. But the solution is not to lock ourselves away in fear; we need to take positive action to make our campus a safer place.

Sadly, there is no quick fix for the problem of sexual violence. At Yale, when we are informed about incidents of violence, Yale Police usually follows the report with a “reiteration” of the importance of using Yale’s security services like the Minibus or the University escort service. This admonition, conspicuously absent in the recent e-mail about the shuttle bus incident, both reinforces our fears (“Don’t you know what could happen if you walk home alone?”) and places the onus of violence prevention on its potential victims (“If only you had taken the minibus…”). Too often, we approach violence with simplistic and misleading directives. Most women have heard warnings against wearing clothes that might “suggest” our intentions or even our consent. And, on its webpage addressing sexual assault, Yale HEALTH advises students, for example, to “avoid being alone in public, particularly at night”— a piece of advice no one could consistently follow, and even if we could, one that would not always protect us.

Stopping sexual violence at Yale is a complicated process that requires looking more broadly into sexual culture and gender relations. Violence against women doesn’t happen because we walk alone at night or wear “suggestive” clothing; it happens because we live in a culture that creates and sustains violence against women. Effectively preventing sexual violence requires a focus on its root causes, the heterosexist expectations of male aggression and female passivity. Even our language gives these standards away: Men are encouraged to “score,” while labels like “slut” shame women for active sexuality. Those may feel like outdated norms, but they still shape many of our interactions, from the person who dances with you without asking to the person who begs you to set aside your boundaries.

Sexual violence hurts individuals at Yale but also hurts our community. We need to have long, thoughtful conversations about gender norms and sexual expectations on campus — and how to change them into a culture of respect and affirmation. Everyone needs to be invested in the project of ending sexual violence. As we work to build a campus that’s safe and fun for all, your activism can be as simple as not laughing at a rape joke, supporting diversity of sexual choice and expression and only accepting a full, enthusiastic, happy “YES!”

Together, we can stop sexual violence. Join us.


  • Anonymous Bosh

    Appeals to Fear, Authority, Belief
    Biased Sample, Hasty Generalization
    Guilt by Association, Burden of Proof

    Again with the fear-mongering… YES sexual violence occurs (largely to women but also to men); YES the rate is too high (in that it exceeds zero); YES we should build a campus that is “safe and fun for all” (um, studious, too).

    BUT, when you write something as vague, incendiary, and WRONG as “**[s]tudies done by academic and criminal justice researchers consistently find that about one in four college women will experience attempted or actual sexual assault by the time they graduate,**” one must request:


    Why? Well… One typical source, Fisher, Cullen & Turner’s 2000 study,”**[The Sexual Victimization of College Women][1]**,” (National Institute of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics 10; DEC 2000) can be mined to fulfill one’s agenda. In one part, the study’s definition of **rape and attempted rape** included items such as “verbal threats” and “psychological coercion” (whether or not any sexual interaction took place).

    Further, the study reports nearly 50 percent would not describe the incident as “rape”; 80 percent stated that the incident resulted in neither physical or emotional injuries.

    BUT, at a more critical level–and in the study’s OFFICIAL FINDINGS–the estimate is that a total of roughly **3%** of college women are the victims of **attempted** (1.1%) or **completed** (1.7%) rape each academic year.

    Another study–a survey, actually–“Acquaintance Rape of College Students,” by attorney Rana Sampson, suffers similarly, but a concrete and telling insight can be had via comparison with Detroit, arguably America’s most violent city


    At the time of Sampson’s report, Detroit’s violent crime rate (to include murder, robbery, assault, **and** rape) was **2.4 percent**.

    The Manhattan Institute’s Heather McDonald wrote, “If **25 percent** [ed. note: or even 25pct/4yrs] of all college women were experiencing a violent crime rate that was **10 times higher** than *anything experienced in the most violent areas*, colleges would be transformed. They would be shut down. **Parents would not be clamoring to get their daughters into** Harvard and **Yale** and Brown and Wesleyan and every other college. You would have a massive revamping of admissions processes because what **this statistic says is that colleges are letting in *tens of thousands of violent criminals***.”

    I say again: This is a very serious topic and Yale should do all it can to prevent crime BUT accepting without scrutiny some “conventional wisdom” (no matter how absurd) and, potentially, distorting reality do little to bolster arguments. People tune out.

    Common sense, folks; common sense…


  • MC13

    Hieronymus’ Bush, there are a few flaws in your “common sense” reasoning. For one thing, all of the numbers you cite from those studies address rape and attempted rape, which is only one of many forms sexual assault (the broader issue Saverin and Walstrom are discussing) can take. Saverin and Walstrom’s statistic was also for over a woman’s complete college career, whereas your 3% is over the course of a single year. Multiply that by 4 (12%) then increase it significantly to account for all of the ways a woman can be sexually assaulted beyond rape, and 1 in 4 sounds about right.

    Further, the authors were careful to note that most of these incidents go unreported and, even when reported, would not be legally considered violent crime, so the comparison to Detroit’s documented violent crime rate is entirely irrelevant and sheds absolutely no light on this discussion.

    Sexual assault on college campuses, including Yale, is as real and prevalent as the authors claim, and needs the kind of serious investigation and action they encourage. Great article, really.

  • Ira

    Agreed with MC13. To add, the assumption that high prevalence of assault cannot exist in the absence of widespread public outcry assumes that people are taking sexual assault seriously when it occurs and creating a sensitive environment to recognize it. Who says they are?