Although the new experiences during a student's freshman year of college are fundamental in shaping his or her college experience, the lack of familiarity also has its downsides — like increasing students’ vulnerability to sexual assault.
The “red zone” refers to the time between a freshman’s arrival on campus and fall break. During this period, national statistics have shown that freshmen are more likely to be sexually assaulted.
According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, more than half of college sexual assaults occur in the months of August, September, October and November.
Although experiences with sexual assault can cause lifelong trauma in those affected and are pivotal to prevent, many freshmen have no idea what the “red zone” even is.
Katie McGowan had never heard the term “red zone” before, but she was not surprised to learn its meaning.
“I think freshmen are so vulnerable to sexual assault in their first few weeks because it is a new environment and you’re trying new things and putting yourself in certain situations you may not have before college,” McGowan (freshman-environmental systems engineering) said. “Alcohol is a new thing for some and that could also influence likelihood of sexual assault.”
According to 2018 data from alcohol.org, at least half of all student sexual assaults involve alcohol. Approximately 43 percent of those assaulted have alcohol in their system, while about 69 percent of perpetrators have alcohol in their systems.
The transition from high school to college throws many new obstacles in new students’ ways, as freshmen adjust to being away from home, finding new friends, balancing academics and finding a place to belong within such a massive university.
Jennifer Pencek, programs coordinator for the Gender Equity Center, described how these complications can create an environment where vulnerability to sexual assault is especially high.
“There’s lots of reasons freshmen are vulnerable to sexual assault when they first arrive here,” Pencek said. “Think about what it’s like to be in a new area with new people. You don’t have the same support system and you’re trying all of these things for the first time, whether that be drinking or partying. There are people who will take advantage of that.”
Pencek stressed that sexual assault is not only a Penn State issue, but something that happens every day, everywhere. However, she said she feels it’s in the university’s hands to do what it can to combat the likelihood of it occurring. Even before students arrive on campus, they begin to have conversations revolving around sexual assault, which begins as early as New Student Orientation.
Jordan Thibodeaux recalled discussing consent and sexual assault at new student orientation, but found the conversation to be lacking any substantial knowledge.
“You don’t learn anything you didn’t already know,” Thibodeaux (freshman- petroleum and natural gas engineering) said. “I think there should be a training or self-defense class to go with the talk.”
Most of the discussion regarding sexual assault on campus focuses primarily on the preventative side, which is why Thibodeaux wants to learn more about what to do if she finds herself in a situation where sexual harassment or abuse is about to occur.
Students get to hear from the Gender Equity Center during their first-year seminar, and must complete modules regarding alcohol safety and sexual assault when they first arrive on campus. However, some students think these strategies may not be working too well.
Additionally, not all students complete SAFE and AWARE. In 2017 — the most recent data available — 7,591 University Park students completed SAFE and 7,355 students completed AWARE — compared to the roughly 8,500 students enrolled at University Park, as previously reported by the Collegian.
Dana Osgood completed the SAFE and AWARE modules, and although she found the intention to be right, she doesn’t see the programs as doing much to help solve the issue.
“I think most people just skip through it because most of the questions are common sense-based,” Osgood (freshmen-meteorology) said. “I think sexual assault should be more of a main focus on campus.”
For some, sexual assault may be just another topic they have to hear about because of university policies, but for others, it’s a real-life fear or experience they think about every day, especially before social events.
“I usually only go out with a group of people because I wouldn’t feel safe by myself,” Olivia Neill (freshman-geography) said. “I don’t want to put myself in a dangerous path. People should have the freedom to do what they want, but I’d never put myself in a situation where I’d be preyed upon. It’s not fair, but it’s something I have to think about.”
About eight in 10 assaults are perpetrated by someone the victim knows, according to data from the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network. Of these, about four are committed by an acquaintance, while about three are committed by a partner.
One of the more common topics regarding sexual assault revolves around what to do and not do to prevent it. Although it’s always important to be cautious of your surroundings, Pencek said more needs to be done to change the conversation from concentrating on the potential victim to the perpetrator.
“The issue is that a lot of conversation starts with a laundry list of things a woman specifically should and should not do. This is the wrong way to go about dealing with the issue because it’s putting the blame on the victim and it’s excluding victims that aren’t female,” Pencek said. “You can’t put the burden on someone to not get hurt. We need to switch the conversation to focus on the initiator.”
For students that have experienced sexual assault and do not know what to do, Pencek stressed that there is not one correct way to approach what happened.
“Trauma impacts everyone differently,” she said. “You don’t have to do anything you’re not comfortable with and you don’t need to follow the same path as anybody else, but it’s important to know that there are resources available. Our office is both free and confidential.”
The Gender Equity Center is located in 204 Boucke Building and is open Monday to Friday from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.