The beginning of the school year can be one of the most dangerous times for female college students. It marks the start of the "red zone" – from the first day on campus until Thanksgiving break – when the risk of sexual assault is said to be highest.
More than 50% of college sexual assaults take place between August and November, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, which advocates nationally against sexual violence. College women ages 18 to 24 are three times more likely than women in general to experience sexual violence. Most college victims of sexual violence never file a report with law enforcement.
Teens away from home are often trying to establish themselves as independent adults for the first time. They're eager to break rules and are thrown into social situations that make people feel familiar with one another – like dorms – even though they're not.
"Sexual assault is normally perpetrated by those who gain enough of the victim's trust that they're willing to be alone with them," said Kristen Houser, chief public affairs officer at the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. "When you're young and naive and you think all the kids in your building are your friends, you're more likely to become a target."
Many colleges have stepped up their sexual assault prevention and awareness efforts to address the red zone, but activists say that's not enough. They criticize the policies for focusing more on how women can avoid rape (travel in groups, don't put down your drink) and less on discouraging men from committing violence.
"We need more honesty that there is a sexualized culture, that girls are participating in it, but that they deserve to be able to participate in it without being assaulted," said Vanessa Grigoriadis, a journalist who spoke extensively with universities, survivors and the accused for her book Blurred Lines: Rethinking Sex, Power, and Consent on Campus.
In fact, sexual assault prevention efforts may increase victim-blaming – the idea that survivors are partly responsible for what happened to them. That's especially possible when prevention efforts focus on victims rather than perpetrators, according to a 2018 review of several studies.
"Victim blaming can be harmful beyond immediate ethical considerations, reducing the likelihood that victims report assaults and increasing post-traumatic guilt and stress," wrote Nicholas Christenfeld, a psychologist at the University of California-San Diego, and one of his graduate students, Carl Jago.
Context matters, Christenfeld and Jago wrote. They found prevention strategies offering practical advice to potential victims can mitigate victim-blaming by reminding them not everything is in their control.
Though sexual assault is never the victim's fault, Houser said, and it is not a woman's responsibility to stay safe, all students can take "common sense" steps in the interest of personal safety.
Take advantage of the red zone before it's gone till next year. They even say in the article that your victim is unlikely to call the cops on you.