Advice to young college women

I was out and about today and heard today’s Diane Rehm Show on The Role of Fraternities and Sororities Today. Although one of the guests did a valiant job of trying to highlight the positive aspects of Greek life on college campuses, the discussion quickly moved to the preponderance of binge drinking and sexual violence associated with Frats. As the mother of two college aged daughters, I am very aware of the problem and rushed home to listen to the entire discussion.


Stephen Joel Trachtenberg President Emeritus of George Washington University made a provocative statement that caused the comments section to explode. He said –

“The women … go to the parties at the fraternities. So it’s not as if the women aren’t drinking. They are, in fact. Without making the victims responsible for what happens, one of the groups that have to to be trained not to drink in excess are women. They need to be in the position to punch the guys in the nose if they misbehave.  Part of the problem is there are men that take advantage of women who drink too much and there are women who  drink too much. And we need to educate our daughters, and our children, on that regard.”

The other guests quickly upbraided Dr. Trachtenberg for implying that young women hold any responsibility for being subjected to sexual violence and the conversation moved on. He backed down and I don’t think he realized just how inflammatory his words were. Using terms like “misbehave” minimizes the serious crime of rape and implying that a 135 pound girl could just “punch the guys in the nose” and escape a potential gang rape is beyond patronizing.

What has stuck with me for the rest of the afternoon was just how much Dr. Trachtenberg’s words echoed the things the administration at my college said to me back in the 80’s. I had a campus police officer once tell me that if I chose to walk beyond the gates of the school to get to my off-campus apartment, I was “on my own.” That didn’t sit well with me. This was before schools had “blue light” systems where students are never very far from a panic button. We were truly on our own in the city.  I was the chair of the Women’s Forum at my college at the time, so I had a built in soapbox. ( If we had social media back then, I could have been dangerous.) I rallied my fellow Women’s Forum members and we petitioned the administration for safer policies. The school ended up creating a pool of students, mostly football and rugby players, that would walk groups of students from the library to the off-campus apartments. I am a firm believer in women standing up to authority.

Since then, I have tried my best to raise two young women with a healthy senses of self-worth and feminist attitudes. I have had many conversations with them about the rape culture we live in and taught them to recognize sexual assault as a violent crime that is never the victims fault. That being said, like Dr. Trachtenberg suggested, I have taught my girls to not drink to excess and not to go to frat parties. The girls think I am exceedingly cynical about the world. I hope I am.

I hope I am wrong about the vulnerability of young women in the world, but just in case, I’ve developed a list of “rules for self-preservation” for my girls. Feel free to share them with your girls.

  • Don’t go to parties where girls get in free. Nothing is ever really free.
  • Never put your drink down.
  • Don’t go to parties where you buy a cup and can drink as much as you want.
  • Always assume the punch is spiked.
  • Only drink beers you’ve opened yourself. Never drink from a keg.
  • Don’t go to parties that are held in basements.
  • Always look for a second way to get out of any room.
  • Don’t go to parties without a buddy, preferably a trusted male buddy.
  • Don’t trust people until you are sure they are trustworthy.
  • Never walk anywhere alone.
  • Walk with your keys laced through your fingers. Go for the eyes if possible.
  • Don’t trust the campus police to report a crime. They work for the school, not for the students.
  • Know your rights. You are valuable. If a young man does something that could ruin his life if it was reported, that’s his problem.
  • Never let anyone tell you that a victim is to blame for a crime committed against them.

Parents, what advice did you send your kids off to school with? Did your parents give you good advice? How do you talk to your children about violence against women?

4 thoughts on “Advice to young college women

  1. (I only heard half of the NPR show, so if they already said this, please delete it.)

    It is an unfortunate fact that women have been forced into the role of sexual gatekeepers, and it is this role that has contributed to the rape culture inside and outside colleges and fraternities.

    The baseball metaphor for physical intimacy is a perfect example of women as gatekeepers. As one rounds the bases in baseball, one is not given each base. One must take the base or steal it. (There is, of course, the intentional walk to first base, but that’s not part of the metaphor.) The baseball metaphor paints sex as an adversarial activity, and women as the other team that must be scored against.

    A woman may choose to engage or not engage in sexual behavior, but it should not be their job to hold men at bay. Men need to restrain themselves. Until sex is viewed as an activity shared among equals rather than a give-and-take contest where one partner tries to resist the will of the other partner, there’s little hope of changing the elements of rape culture that are buried within our sexual mores regarding women.

    1. You are so right, Jason. They did not talk about young women as having agency over their own bodies. A predator-prey attitude is still assumed. It makes me sad that so little has changed in the last twenty years when it comes to young women feeling safe on college campuses.

  2. I agree that we haven’t progressed as much as we should have in curbing violence against women, but I would add in general, not only on campus. Even so, there are many women in developing countries whose situation and expectations of ‘fair play’ in the control over their own sexuality is very limited. A great deal of education and sensibility to the issue on the part of both genders is needed across borders and religions.
    You offer very sensible advice to keep safe, basically ‘be careful’. I suppose that’s all we can do, hope our daughters will be sensible and not find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time.

    1. We absolutely need to keep fighting for all women everywhere to feel safe where they live. It can be overwhelming at times when you think of the way so many girls and women live and how little control they have over their lives. I have been thinking about college kids lately because I have kids in college, but we can’t forget about other mothers’ children. It’s a scary world out there.

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