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Why Amherst College's advice to watch out for 'unwanted sexual advances' is offensive
It's not the advice itself, but Amherst's historically weak response to assault
Ah, Homecoming: Time for questionable e-mails.
Ah, Homecoming: Time for questionable e-mails. (Facebook/Amherst College Alumni)
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he debate over whether rape prevention tips for women equate to victim blaming has been playing out in the blogosphere (thanks, in part, to Slate’s Emily Yoffe, who wrote that college women should stop binge drinking in order to avoid rape). And now outcry has hit an actual college campus after an email came out warning of sexually aggressive alumni. But is the criticism warranted?

Katie J.M. Baker at Newsweek reveals that Amherst College in Massachusetts has warned students to watch out for predatory alumni visiting for homecoming weekend. An email for resident counselors that was shared with students stated:

Keep an eye out for unwanted sexual advances. A lot of alums com back for Homecoming pretty jaded with the bar scene and blind dating of the real world and are eager to take advantage of what they now perceive to be an "easy" hook-up scene back at Amherst. Also, many alums tend to be pretty drunk all weekend long. Alert your residents to this unfortunate combination and keep an eye on your friends, your residents, and yourself. [Newsweek]

As with Yoffe’s article telling college women not to binge drink because it puts them at risk for rape, some Amherst students see the memo as just another way to tell students it’s their job to prevent themselves from being raped. Senior Dana Bolger told Newsweek that "It’s so disillusioning how Amherst continues to task women with the burden of not being raped rather than creating a world in which women can walk around without having to guard themselves from being assaulted."

On the face of things, teaching people to be aware of threats shouldn't be disillusioning. In most settings, prevention tips shouldn’t be interpreted as guilting potential victims.

However, Amherst isn’t operating from a clean slate. The reality is that it may be hard for students, especially female students, to trust the university after its very poor and well-publicized handling of former student Angie Epifano’s reported rape. The college allegedly would not even let her transfer dorms to get away from her alleged rapist.

Adding insult to injury, Bolger writes at the National Women’s Law Center that in Amherst’s history:

Only one student has ever been permanently expelled for rape — and that was only after he’d been sentenced to time in prison. In recent years, most students found responsible for sexual assault were suspended for two or four semesters. (A student found responsible for stealing a laptop was suspended for five.) [Nwlc.org]

With this context, the problem is less Amherst’s advice in the homecoming email and more the college’s paltry history when it comes to sexual assault.

And this is what gets lost in the debate over telling women not to binge drink to avoid rape. The advice in and of itself is not offensive. Colleges and other institutions can advise women not to drink heavily, of course, but they should already be doing everything in their power to make settings safer and effectively respond to sexual assault.

As Time outlined in August, they're not:

A wave of federal sexual harassment complaints filed by college students nationwide this year has highlighted the inadequacy of university-level resources for dealing with sexual violence. [Time]

The list of culpable universities is long: Prestigious Yale University lists rape as "nonconsensual sex," and generally responds to it with probation and "written reprimands." University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill asked victims what they could have done differently to prevent rape. And in a May report, the U.S. Department of Justice faulted the University of Montana for how it handled rape allegations leveled against members of its football team. All of these cases suggest the problems with educational and legal institutions' handling of rape exist far beyond the confines of Amherst.

Emily Shire is chief researcher for The Week magazine. She has written about pop culture, religion, and women and gender issues at publications including Slate, The Forward, and Jewcy.

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