According to the White House Task Force to Protect Students From Sexual Assault, one in five women is sexually assaulted in college. The vast majority of campus rape victims know their assailants, but fewer than 5% are reported to law-enforcement. Students are more likely to turn to school disciplinary boards to help prevent date rape and harassment complaints. Although colleges can help prevent harassment complaints by expelling the perpetrator, preventing date rape presents another problem.
The problem is that colleges have very little leverage to prevent sexual assault while students are under the influence of alcohol or drugs. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse reports that 4 out of 5 college students drink alcohol, and about half of those who do drink, consume alcohol excessively. And, of the more than 97,000 students who are victims of sexual assault or date rape, the vast majority was under the influence.
What we have, then, is a mental health problem. Why do 2 out of 5 students drink excessively? Why do 599,000 students receive unintentional injuries while under the influence; and why do between 1.2 and 1.5 percent of students attempt suicide due to drinking or drug use?
As reported in an earlier blog, Exploring Addictions: Reducing college binge drinking, it was suggested that we often drink to relieve the stress of having to comply with demands of authority figures. The first sip or the first puff can transport us into a less stressful state. And, while in this stress-remitted state, we feel less inhibited and don’t know when to stop. All reason has been put aside. The irrational takes over, free from others telling us what to do. We become risk averse, socially amoral and at the mercy of our base instincts.
I am reminded of Susan, an 18-year-old freshman home for the holidays. Her mother, Gertrude, was a socialite and very proud that Susan was accepted by a highly prestigious college. Susan’s father, Myles, was head of an accounting firm and a workaholic. Susan wanted to drop out of college and become a hairdresser, much to her parents regret. Her mother brought Susan to see me during the holiday break, and Susan, after initial resistance, began to tell her story.
Susan claimed that her mom had always been a real “spoil sport,” insisting that Susan come straight home from school, not have friends come to the house, complete her homework, clean the dishes after dinner, do more homework and go to bed. Susan claimed her father was a “real fake,” that he had recently undergone a religious conversion and was going around asking his friends and relatives, “Do you know Christ?”
Susan told me that she could hardly wait to leave home and go off to college. She said she always felt socially inhibited, but at college she was welcomed into a sorority and began to feel socially accepted. One Saturday night, before attending a party at a fraternity house, one of her new friends brought the group together to pop a pill, said to be the hottest thing for fun at a fraternity party. Susan, along with the others took the pill. And, at the party, feeling completely uninhibited, she became wild.
Susan did not get back to the sorority house until just before daybreak and was sick all day with a hangover. But a month or so later, she found that she was pregnant and did not know who the prospective father was. Susan asked my help to inform her mother.
I had trepidations concerning her mother’s response and was prepared to spend the entire afternoon with her. Gertrude screamed and howled so loud, and so long, that persons in adjoining offices had to evacuate. “Why?” “Why?” “Why?” Gertrude bellowed. “What have I done to deserve this?” Gertrude sobbed.
I told Gertrude that although Susan had been compliant while growing up, she had never been exposed to the exigencies of adolescence and teen situations to learn how to make her own decisions. Moreover, both mom and dad had contributed to the problem by not preparing Susan for the social challenges she might encounter in college. Instead, they ensured that Susan would be a victim of sorts, inexperienced and unprepared on how to socially navigate and take self-protective precautions. And now, while under the influence of Ecstasy, Susan was at the mercy of the first predator who might come along.
“But,” Gertrude whimpered, “Why this?”
Because Susan wanted, so desperately, to be understood and be loved for her true self, not the perfect little-goody-two-shoes that mom and dad had wanted her to be.
After a long silence, and in a reflective state, Gertrude began to talk about her mother. One evening, when Gertrude was about 13-years-old, she and her younger brother got out of bed and looked down from atop the spiral staircase onto a cocktail party. A drunken man approached her mother at the base of the stairs, and her mother just laughed as he put his hand on her leg. From that point on, Gertrude rejected her mother and became enmeshed with her father. Her father died of heart disease five years later and Gertrude was devastated. She met and married Myles, who, coming from a well-to- do background, reminded her of her father, but he did not take to the social life. After Susan arrived, Gertrude began to see in Susan the reincarnation of her mother’s reckless impropriety.
But for now, I suggested that Gertrude own up to the reality of the current situation and look at the possible options for Susan. Gertrude said her worst nightmare had come true and she wanted Susan out of her life, before she, Gertrude, had a nervous breakdown. Gertrude said Susan would become a major embarrassment for Myles, who was certain to offer Susan a one-way ticket to a religious order in California. I asked that Gertrude not talk to Susan at home about the situation, but come with Susan to the next session, so that they might jointly decide the best course of action.
Susan decided, with Gertrude’s support, to get an out-of-state abortion. Susan decided, also with her mother’s support, to drop out of college. They agreed that Gertrude would ask Myles to pay tuition and living expenses for Susan to enroll in a hairdressing school in California. Gertrude was saddened that Susan needed to separate and become her own person. But Gertrude also felt resigned, if not relieved, that she could no longer control Susan. Susan, now empowered to take charge of her life, began to feel good about herself and responded to her mother with heart-felt gratitude.
In sum, it will take more than college compliance with all the 2013 federal Title IX Student Sexual and Harassment guidelines of appointing Title IX coordinators, teams, deputies, and Clery training for students to prevent sexual assault. The first line of responsibility is at home, where as children, we can be taught to make rational decisions in the light of possible consequences. In its stead, we are taught to comply with the demands or authority figures, which lead to unresolved intrapersonal conflict. This conflict, when unresolved, will dog us for the rest of our lives, giving rise to periodic irrational episodes of defiance, in a misguided attempt to free ourselves from others telling us what to do.
This blog was co-published online Psychology Today, Campus Confidential: Coping with College