I’m 18 and I’m Afraid: The Looming Threat of On-Campus Sexual Assault

Social media has allowed students across the U.S. to connect and share stories of harassment and sexual assault on campus—increasing awareness, protecting each other and motivating universities to take action.

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(endsexualviolence.brown / Instagram)

At 10:12 p.m. on Nov. 29, I sat alone in the middle of one of my university libraries and began to cry. I wasn’t crying over a calculus problem or the final papers I needed to write, but an article published about sexual violence at Tulane.

I am 18, a first-year college student at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, more than 800 miles away from my family. At the beginning of the school year, I became aware of the “Red Zone,” a time when sexual assaults on campus are higher, partly due to students struggling to navigate a new environment. At Vanderbilt, from move-in day until early October, we have had six sexual assault alerts. And since then, there have been four more sexual assault reports spanning from early October to mid-December. Throughout my first semester, I have often heard stories about spiked drinks and a lack of consent. Each time I receive an email from Vanderbilt Public Safety, my body stiffens and I feel afraid.

When I found the article about Tulane on Instagram, I started paying more attention to the experience of my peers. I realized my college life is interconnected to that of all students, especially teenagers who grew up in the age of social media. The stories from Tulane were simply one slice of a larger campus rape culture that has somehow become normalized.

I set out to speak to students across the U.S. about how they want to see their school take action and how to dismantle the pervasive campus culture which condones predatory actions.


Sidney Stamm, a junior at Tulane University, led protests against sexual assault on her campus last semester. Stamm told Ms. the first on-campus protest happened before students left for Thanksgiving break, in response to the deactivation of an anonymous Instagram account, @BoysBeware.Tulane.” The page had quickly become an avenue for support and community awareness, where students could warn each other about predators on campus.

“The protest gained traction because students needed an outlet,” wrote Stamm in an email to Ms. “This account was for survivors to share their stories.”

In late October, my Instagram overflowed with posts about the link between USC’s Greek life and sexual assault on campus. Greek life’s connection to sexual assault isn’t new to me—I know guys in fraternities are three times more likely to rape women than guys who aren’t. (My school also has a well-known Greek system, despite Abolish Greek Life’s strong presence.)

“There are plenty of issues with Greek life,” Stamm admitted, “but targeting it as the primary location for sexual assault ignores how it’s a systemic issue and allows administrators to point their fingers at a ‘culprit’ and take themselves off the hook. I think fraternities contribute to rape culture, but non-fraternity students do too. It’s important to not scapegoat so we can place blame accordingly, which I believe should be on our culture of consent, the miseducation of autonomy, the American patriarchy, Title IX failures and administrators.”

Caden Pope, a junior at Auburn University, another SEC school which held protests against sexual assault in 2021, has a different take than Stamm. Pope believes sexual assaults on campus are a direct problem stemming from Greek life at Auburn.

“[Auburn] is always willing to protect the name and reputation of that Greek organization rather than protect the welfare of the students and warn which [Greek organizations] are dangerous and which ones have never been reported,” Pope told Ms.

Pope said Auburn’s loosened COVID-19 restrictions contribute to this culture, since campus events had previously been more regulated.

AnnaOlivia Schwedt, a freshman at the University of Southern California, said USC’s Timely Warning Crime Alerts warned her about two separate incidents of sexual assault on campus last semester. “The first regarded a party at the Sigma Nu fraternity house a month prior which led to multiple students reporting drugging and sexual assault,” Schwedt wrote to Ms. “The second was an individual sexual assault report made against one of the members of that same fraternity during mid-October.” As a result of these alerts, protests occurred across campus.

While Schwedt has felt safe at most of the parties she’s attended at USC, she has heard many accounts of uncomfortable experience from her peers. She said her friends call one fraternity in her hometown with the abbreviation SAE, “Sexual Assault Expected.”

Schwedt recognizes sexual assault as a national problem. She hopes for better education on college campuses around sexual assault, especially within fraternities. If fraternities are here to stay at USC, Schwedt wants to see changes to their events. She believes initiatives like drink testing strips and having licensed and trained bartenders, will be critical contributions to creating safe spaces for students at parties. 

Another USC freshman, who asked to remain anonymous, said USC and other campuses need to create a “more reliable and easily accessible system for [young women] to anonymously report sexual assault so universities can quickly find the culprits and deliver the appropriate punishment for their actions.”

This summer, I heard about Brown University’s alleged mishandling of sexual assault. Carter Woodruff, who will be graduating in December 2022, is a plaintiff in a pending class-action lawsuit against Brown related to campus sexual violence. Woodruff told me in an email she “witnessed, heard about and experienced numerous instances of sexual violence” beginning her freshman year. “The underlying power imbalances and forms of systemic oppression that Greek life embodies, such as racism, ableism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, etc. exist whether or not fraternities are a large part of campus culture.”

Woodruff believes sports teams and fraternities are sources of toxic masculinity and rape culture on Brown’s campus.

Woodruff and another Brown student founded the Instagram account, @voicesofbrown, for students to share stories anonymously. Woodruff later co-founded the group End Sexual Violence at Brown, which led large protests and dialogue around sexual violence on campus.

“Now that this movement has emerged, survivors and allies at Brown are a force to be reckoned with,” Woodruff said. “We won’t back down until we see real progress.”

Students like me in universities in the Southeast are extra fearful for our reproductive rights and abortion access. It’s hard not to feel the blatant anti-abortion and anti-reproductive rights politics in Tennessee. Since I arrived in college, I have been aware of new cases regarding abortion brought before the Supreme Court, such as Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which originated in Mississippi. During my first month at university, a bill banning abortion after six weeks was blocked in Tennessee, and in Texas abortion has been essentially outlawed for almost half a year.

As I head back to campus for spring semester, I acknowledge the importance of education regarding consent and sexual assault. I long for the day when “don’t rape” pervades childhood teachings as much as “don’t get raped” has, when school administrators value the lives of students more than the university’s reputation, and when the nighttime security emails no longer disrupt our dreams.

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About

Ilana Drake is a first-year student at Vanderbilt University. She has written for The 74, YR Media, and other national publications. Her work can be found on her website.