Addressing Sexual Violence on College Campuses: Planting the Seeds of Respect at Home // Alyssa Benedict, MPH

As college begins for students across the country, a number of articles have been written about the “welcome” signs being displayed by fraternity members and other students - signs that promote predatory behavior towards young women. At Old Dominion University in Virginia, one banner read, “Rowdy and fun; Hope your baby girl is ready for a good time." Another banner read, "Freshman daughter drop-off."  A banner displayed at West Virginia University read, “She called you daddy for 18 years, now it’s OUR TURN,” while another university displayed the message, “21 to drink, 18ish to sleep over.” One quick search on the internet reveals countless other banners being displayed on campuses across the country, all with a similar message - that the arrival of young women is providing young men with opportunities for sexual exploitation. 

This photo and others are pictured here.

One of the most disturbing things about these incidents has been the public’s response. A quick browsing of the comments below the articles that have been written about these offensive banners reveals that many do not understand the seriousness of these actions or the culture of violence against girls and women that they promote. One commenter wrote, “These are hilarious, it’s what happens in college and people just need to chill out.” Countless other comments indicate that we have a serious problem - we have managed to build a culture where girls and women continue to be objectified and actions such as these are dismissed as “boys will be boys” behaviors. These messages create a physically and psychologically unsafe atmosphere for young women as they enter their adult years, the impacts of which are incalculable.

There are various critically important actions that need to take place in various corners of society to eliminate this anti-female culture. One such corner is the home. As I look at these banners I imagine the young men who participated in creating and hanging them. I then picture these young men as boys.  What happened between boyhood and now to make them believe this behavior is okay? If we know that a persistent anti-female culture exists in this country - one that allows countless young women to be sexually assaulted every year on campuses across the country - we need to parent our boys with intention. This means actively exposing them to messages about girls and women that are humanizing and diverse. It also means taking the time to actively counteract the negative messages boys receive about girls and women - messages they receive very early on as part of their socialization as males. Exposing boys to models of healthy and respectful communication and interactions between all genders is also critical, as is making careful choices about books, music and movies.  As boys  get older, parenting them  with intention means having honest conversations about the anti-female statements they will hear, the objectifying behaviors they will see and how to navigate a culture that doesn’t always respect girls and women.  This includes having conversations about healthy relationships, responsible sexuality and the deleterious impacts of pornography.

Colleges and universities need to respond to these incidents and actively work with students, faculty and staff to build safe campus cultures that value and respect young women. We need to take our own actions at home to raise sons who will do the same.

Written by Alyssa Benedict, MPH

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