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Yvonne Abraham

Campus rape defenses carry a terrible message for women

Students held up a sign about rape at Stanford University on Sept. 16, 2015.TESSA ORMENYI/AP

Greetings, graduating seniors. May I have a word with the young women among you?

You’re done with high school. Soon you’ll be out on your own, in college. Please don’t get yourself raped there.

Get yourself raped? You read that right. As the last week has shown, avoiding rape on campus is on you. Perhaps you believe if someone assaults you, that person is responsible. But the stories out of Stanford University and Worcester Polytechnic Institute say otherwise. In California, a swimming star convicted of sexually assaulting an unconscious woman was given a six-month sentence in a county jail because the judge concluded he had already suffered enough. His father says he’s so down about what happened to him that he’s lost his taste for pretzels and steak.


Here in Massachusetts, attorneys for WPI’s former insurance company, AIG, suggested a student was partly responsible for her own rape because she’d made poor decisions, allowing the security guard in the building where she lived while studying in Puerto Rico to lure her to a dark rooftop and attack her. (He is serving 20 years for that crime.)

Those cases hold plenty of lessons you’d best take to heart if you don’t want to end up like those women.

First of all, don’t drink, ever. It seems alcohol causes rape. It made the victim at Stanford unconscious, which is how freshman Brock Turner was able to assault her behind a dumpster. Turner’s attorneys made a big deal out of the fact that she was so drunk. And, Turner and his defenders argue, alcohol made Turner commit the assault that got him booted out of the prestigious school. What happened that January night was all about “the party culture” at Stanford, he claimed, rather than an abhorrent act of violence by one student. Never mind that plenty of drunk people manage to avoid violating people they’ve just met.


The WPI student had also been drinking, and attorneys grilled her about that. After all, drinking impairs your judgment, making it harder to stop somebody assaulting you. You might as well be asking for it.

Second, don’t ever put yourself in a situation where you might be raped. For example, don’t go to a frat party, like the victim did at Stanford. Don’t get into an elevator with a security guard employed by the building where your university requires you to live, like the victim in Puerto Rico did. Also, avoid all other places where you could be raped — lest a defense attorney later suggest that being in that place was tantamount to consent.

“Would you agree . . . that if you had not gone to the roof . . . this incident wouldn’t have occurred?” a WPI attorney asked the victim in that case. Sure, probably. Also, if she had not gone to Puerto Rico at all. Or if she hadn’t enrolled at WPI in the first place. Just a series of lousy decisions on her part. Be sure you don’t make the same mistakes.

But say you do, and you cause someone to rape you. And suppose you insist on holding somebody responsible — by subjecting the guy who did it to a trial, thereby making it impossible for him to compete in the Olympics and enjoy a rib-eye. Or by suing your college for failing to sufficiently vet the security guard you assumed was employed to protect you.


If enough people believe you (no guarantee there) and there’s enough evidence (ditto) and the case goes to trial, it’s best to make sure the person who assaulted you is not a handsome white guy with a bright future whose family can afford aggressive attorneys with no compunctions about ripping you apart on the stand.

Also, you’re likelier to see your attacker get more than a slap on the wrist if that person has other convictions. In the Stanford case, the judge looked at Turner, a stellar athlete who hadn’t been arrested for rape before, and decided he’d already paid a high enough price for his actions.

“I think he will not be a danger to others,” Judge Aaron Persky decided. Well, let’s hope others don’t get close enough to test Persky’s faith in Turner — or anyone like him.

That means you, future freshmen. You know what to do.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at yvonne.abraham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeAbraham.