Harmless jokes or examples of a threatening culture of sexual assault?
That’s the key question when examining the off-campus signs seen in Manhattan during Kansas State University’s move-in day last Saturday. One read: “freshman girls drop-off.” The other said: “hope you’re 18!!”
The temptation for those hearing about the signs will be to take the first option. Unfortunately, lived experience suggests the second is closer to the truth.
Manhattan psychologist Sarah Wesch wrote a widely shared Facebook post about the signs. She noted that in her experience with K-State’s Counseling Services, many freshman women reported being raped at the beginning of the school year.
“We know that the first six weeks of college for freshman girls is called the ‘red zone,’ because that’s the time in a college woman’s life that she’s most likely to be sexually assaulted,” Wesch told The Topeka Capital-Journal.
A culture that encourages young men to prey upon young women can’t and shouldn’t be encouraged or sustained. Universities have a role to play. So do the parents and friends of the male students. So do the male students themselves, who have no excuse for making light of such a serious problem.
“But what about the women?” some will ask. Shouldn’t young women learn not to put themselves at risk? Why should they attend parties? Why should they let their guards down?
In a perfect world, there’s no question that college students would be better off focusing on their studies and drinking only coffee and carbonated beverages. In a perfect world, there’s no question there would be fewer campus complications if students didn’t have sex.
The world isn’t perfect, though, and neither are students in their late teens and 20s.
We shouldn’t ask women to take responsibilities and precautions that we aren’t willing to ask men to take. Every female student is someone’s daughter, but every male student is also someone’s son.
“I think that’s that bias we have,” Wesch told The Capital-Journal. “Our anxiety says, ‘Ooh, our daughters could be victims,’ but our anxiety doesn’t say, ‘Ooh, our sons could be perpetrators.’ And I think that bias we really have to get past.”
No single answer exists to eliminating campus sex assaults. Merely removing the banners in question wouldn’t necessarily prevent a particular assault.
All students should take responsibility for themselves and their actions. Law enforcement and the judiciary should take prompt action to hold perpetrators accountable. All of us should be mindful of the messages we send to young men and women, and we should demonstrate respect in our own lives.
Ending rape culture won’t be easy. But it is a moral imperative.