BOSTON — As former social chair of the Sigma Chi fraternity at Harvard University, Malik Gill wants to appear especially welcoming to girls who come to the house for parties.
Yet, Gill, who starts his junior year in a few weeks, says he won’t be offering a female classmate a beer.
“I don’t want to look like a predator,” the 20-year-old economics major said. “It’s a little bit of a blurred line.”
Sex and relationships are always tricky terrain for college students. Those arriving this year are finding schools awash in complaints and headlines about sexual assault and responding with programs aimed at changing campus culture that has been blamed for glorifying dorm-bed conquests, excusing rape and providing a safe haven for assailants. For many young men, it’s an added dimension in a campus scene that already appears daunting, said William Pollack, a Harvard Medical School psychologist.
Pollack said a patient recently told him about making out with a girl at a party. Things were going fine, the student said, when suddenly a vision of his school’s disciplinary board flew into his head.
” ‘I want to go to law school or medical school after this,’ ” Pollack said, recounting the student’s comments. ” ‘I said to her, it’s been nice seeing you.’ ”
Victims, especially women, have always had to battle taking the blame for being attacked, said Laura Dunn, founder of the SurvJustice sexual-assault advocacy group. Men have to accept responsibility for sexual aggressiveness when it harms others, she said.
“There are countries where women cover themselves from head to toe in clothing and don’t go anywhere without a male escort to avoid harassment,” she said. “That’s not our country.”
While about 99 percent of rapes are committed by men, according to U.S. government figures, few men are rapists. Data from David Lisak, a sociologist who consults to the military and universities on the issue, suggest that the vast majority of campus sexual assaults are the work of a small group – less than 5 percent – of college men. No one wants to be mistaken for one of these serial offenders.
“I don’t think it’s about me,” said Gill, the Harvard student. “I feel like I’m a pretty good guy. But if I’m talking to a girl and want to gauge her interest, I’m more cautious than I used to be. I don’t want to cross the line.”
Harvard’s undergraduate college and law school are among dozens of institutions under investigation by the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights for alleged violations of Title IX, the law that bars gender discrimination in education. A complaint filed by students against Harvard College says that victims aren’t always separated from their alleged attackers in classes and living spaces. The school rewrote many of its policies this year and submitted them to the OCR for review.
The specter of an assault accusation is often in the back of male students’ minds, Gill said. His fraternity owns a handsome Victorian house outside brick-paved Harvard Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Most brothers live on campus, rather than in the house, which is mainly used for parties. It can become a concern even in innocuous situations, such as when a female friend told him she was interested in one of his pals.
“He was a pretty outgoing guy and did well with the ladies,” Gill recalled. “It’s kind of like the nature of college hooking up – taking numbers – and it doesn’t always pan out but hopefully it does once in a while.”
Gill passed the contact information along. Still, his friend hesitated to follow up.
“Even though she was interested, he didn’t want to pressure her,” Gill said. “He was worried about making her feel uncomfortable.”
Some men feel that too much responsibility for preventing sexual assault has been put on their shoulders, said Chris Herries, a senior at Stanford University. While everyone condemns sexual assault, there seems to be an assumption among female students that they shouldn’t have to protect themselves by avoiding drunkenness and other risky behaviors, he said.
“Do I deserve to have my bike stolen if I leave it unlocked on the quad?” Herries, 22, said. “We have to encourage people not to take on undue risk.”
Focusing on the need for women to protect themselves from sexual assault puts the onus on victims, and removes it from perpetrators, advocates for assault survivors said. People who have been burglarized aren’t blamed for not having enough surveillance gear in their homes, said Tracey Vitchers, chairwoman of New York-based Students Active for Ending Rape.
“This is the only crime where people blame the victim,” said Annie E. Clark, co-founder of End Rape on Campus, based in Los Angeles. “Regardless of what you do, you don’t ask for a crime to be committed.”
Awareness of the danger is already high on campus, said Megan Harman, a sophomore at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. The 19-year-old said she’s already had the experience of rescuing a drunk classmate from a room where she was with a guy who wouldn’t “take no for an answer.”
Harman said she’s also been happy to see some of her male classmates step in when they see girls who look like they’re in vulnerable situations with men.
“My friends and I look out for each other, but can’t always see everything,” she said. “There’s always going to be one bad apple.”
Social situations are already worrying Clark Coey, 18, who starts at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina, this month. Coey said it was hard to avoid hearing about the dozens of colleges under federal investigation for violations of Title IX.
At Lake Norman Charter high school outside Charlotte, Coey said he was taught that you shouldn’t force sex on another person. He’s concerned how that will be defined when other students, including women, may be using drugs and alcohol that affect their decision-making.
“I haven’t learned anything about consent since I was a freshman in a health class,” he said. “They have to give you a better understanding of what’s right and what’s wrong.”
East Carolina has a mandatory online course about healthy relationships, sexual assault, consent and alcohol use that freshmen must complete in their first term to register for the following semester, said Virginia Hardy, vice chancellor for student affairs. The college also addresses the issues at voluntary summer orientation sessions and residence hall programs during the school year that as many as 95 percent of freshmen sign up for, she said.
Often considered a social enhancer by students, alcohol now can cast a shadow over sex when there’s any suggestion that it may have dimmed a woman’s judgment. Oscar Sandoval, a senior at Stanford University, near Palo Alto, California, got a text message late one spring evening from a female friend. Did he feel like hanging out?
When his friend arrived from a party she was drunk, he said. Her flirting and touching made Sandoval uncomfortable. Something about the situation reminded him of educational sessions he’d had in prior years where he’d learned about sexual consent. Sandoval walked his friend back to her dorm.
“Among the people I hang out with, there’s more hesitancy to hook up with someone when there’s alcohol involved,” Sandoval, 21, said. “Something that you might have thought would be OK when you were drunk might not be OK later on. ”
While sexual assault is undoubtedly a real problem, heightened attention in the media has created a “witch-hunt” environment, said Pollack, the Harvard Medical School psychologist.
“Most males would never do anything to harm a young woman,” Pollack said in a telephone interview. Rather than discouraging predators, “we’re starting to scare the heck out of the wrong people.”
Joshua Handler, a junior at New York University, said he’s more cognizant of how his actions could be interpreted because of continuous discussion at the campus about sexual assault – mostly on the Facebook page NYU Secrets where students can anonymously post about their experiences.
Handler, an aspiring film critic, said he’s always been blunt, but he makes it a point to be especially clear about his intentions when talking to women.
More campuses are adopting bystander education programs that seek to recruit men in stopping sexual assault, said Jackson Katz, co-founder of MVP Strategies, which offers violence prevention programs for schools and the U.S. military.
The programs preach that while most men aren’t predators, a few – even those who appear as “nice guys” – may be; that sex requires clear consent from both parties; and that drunkenness is not an excuse for assaulting behavior.
Adam Erickson, a 19-year-old sophomore at Yale University, was at a party last year when he noticed that a female friend appeared to have had too much to drink. While that’s not totally unusual behavior at parties, Erickson grew concerned when his friend began talking with a man who appeared to be showing a lot of interest in her.
“It was a guy I knew a little bit about, and I didn’t like his reputation,” Erickson said. “I just kind of interposed myself and started talking to her about something. The guy got the message and he took off.”