Broad Recognition

A Feminist Magazine at Yale

Why Yale Students Don't Understand Date Rape

Photo: Streeter Phillips

In a conversation with a normally nonjudgmental and mothering friend, I alluded to the date rape of someone we both knew; my friend rolled her eyes and asked, “What does that even mean?” Her reaction is not unique for this campus. Many Yale students approach the topic of date rape with a disconcerting blend of hesitancy and cynicism. Neither Yale, nor its students, can be blamed in full for this ambivalence—few issues on American college campuses are as contentious, or as pertinent, as that of date rape.

This summer at Columbia University, I conducted a sociological study to explore how Yale undergraduates understand date rape, and consequently to discern their feelings towards its legitimacy as a felony. I wanted to examine students’ reactions to the term “date rape” and to see whether or not their perceptions of date rape conformed to current legal definitions.

Connecticut law states that “[a] person is guilty of sexual assault in the first degree when such person,” among other possible offenses, “engages in sexual intercourse with another person and such other person is mentally incapacitated to the extent that such other person is unable to consent to such sexual intercourse” (General Statutes of Connecticut, Title 53a, Chapter 952)[1]. The law specifies that “‘mentally incapacitated’ means that a person is rendered temporarily incapable of appraising or controlling such person’s conduct owing to the influence of a drug or intoxicating substance administered to such person without such person’s consent, or owing to any other act committed upon such person without such person’s consent.”[2]

…an intoxicated victim of sexual assault is considered more responsible for putting him or herself in such a state and situation, whereas an intoxicated aggressor is considered less culpable…

Acquaintance rape is the most common type of rape committed in the United States.[3] About a quarter of American women will be the victim of rape at some point in their lives; female college students are in “the highest risk category for date rape.”[4] American college campuses, which witness a high level of binge drinking, face the unsettling statistic that alcohol consumption is twice as likely as force to lead to lack of consent in a sexual encounter.[5]

Much of the controversy about date rape centers on its definition. How do we define “consent”? As we see above, according to Connecticut state law a person is not in a position to consent to sexual intercourse if he or she has been served drugs or alcohol “without such person’s consent.” Does this qualification suggest that if a woman drinks to the point of blacking out—after having bought drinks for herself—and someone has sex with her unconscious body, it is not considered date rape? On the other end of the spectrum: if a man or woman cannot legally give consent while even slightly intoxicated, is all drunken sex deemed date rape?

Many feel that the use of verbal as well as physical force should be regarded as rape. As one cynical sociologist points out, there are problems with this provision: “If verbal coercion constitutes rape, then the word ‘rape’ expands to include any kind of sex a woman experiences as negative.”[6] Must consent always be verbal? After all, different parties in a sexual encounter can interpret non-verbal signs differently. For instance, “a smile in response to being asked ‘do you have a condom?’ could indicate consent giving in an established relationship, but might indicate nervous apprehension on a first date.”[7] Can consent only be established after taking consideration of the context?

I hoped, through this sociological study, to find out where Yalies stood on the matter. I administered a web-based survey with the aid of Facebook. Yalies who were already in my network of “friends” were invited to participate: 72 responded, all between the ages of 18 and 23.[8]

In the survey, respondents were presented with the following hypothetical setting:

“Scenario A. Two college students, a boy and a girl, leave a party at which neither has been drinking. The two return to the boy’s apartment in order to “hang out.” After spending some time talking, they begin heavy petting. All clothing is removed except undergarments. The boy shows interest in sexual intercourse. The girl says “no,” and the boy responds by trying to persuade her verbally. Although the girl continues to show interest in the boy sexually, she explicitly says that she is uninterested in having vaginal intercourse. He continues to initiate vaginal intercourse. The girl remains passive and does not react, positively or negatively. Would you consider this date rape?”

69.4% of respondents considered Scenario A date rape, even without either party’s being intoxicated. Only 9.7% responded that it was not date rape, and 20.8% responded “depends” or “unsure.”

Respondents were then asked if they would consider Scenario A date rape if the boy forces the girl physically to have sexual intercourse, at which point she gives up protesting. As soon as physical force is put forward, 93.1% call the scenario date rape. I was surprised to see that even 2 respondents said it wasn’t date rape, and that 3 responded “depends” or “unsure.” Interestingly, the two who replied “no” and two of the three who replied “depends” or “unsure” were women. It is possible that men are careful not to approve of physical force in any sexual scenario, wary of the associations with violent, or stranger, rape. Perhaps women would rather not admit to being physically defensive in such a scenario.

Must consent always be verbal? After all, different parties in a sexual encounter can interpret non-verbal signs differently.

When asked if they would consider Scenario A to be date rape if the girl has had 3-4 drinks at the party, 84.7% of the respondents replied “yes”—more than when she is sober (as the case should be, given the legal definition of date rape). Reassuringly, when asked if they would consider Scenario A to be date rape if the girl drinks to the point of blacking out, 95.8% responded “yes”. Only one respondent (female) replied “no.” Research has shown that while men were more likely to blame women, and specifically their intoxication, for nonconsensual sexual acts, women were more likely to blame mutual miscommunication, men’s misinterpretation of signals, and general societal and male attitudes towards date rape.[9] My survey respondents’ answers did not reflect this statistic.

Respondents were next asked to “consider the same circumstances as those of Scenario A, but both students have had 3-4 drinks at the party (from now on referred to as “Scenario B”). Would you consider this date rape?”

Now that both the boy and the girl in the scenario are equally intoxicated, the number of respondents who replied “yes” drops significantly (77.8%). This percentage is lower than when only the girl has had 3-4 drinks, suggesting that respondents believe that the boy’s drunkenness excuses his behavior. Prior studies have shown that an intoxicated victim of sexual assault is considered more responsible for putting him or herself in such a state and situation, whereas an intoxicated aggressor is considered less culpable, his or her behavior perceived as a result of the alcohol’s effects.[10] It is interesting to note that this tendency to view alcohol as lessening an assailant’s responsibility is not apparent when research respondents considered other sexual crimes (such as stranger rape or unwanted touching).[11]

Respondents were asked to consider a version of Scenario B wherein the girl never suggests that she is uninterested in sexual intercourse, but has had several drinks. The number of respondents who decided that this scenario is date rape drops to 18.1%. This is the only time that the percentage of respondents who believed the scenario to be date rape is less than the percentage of those who believed it not to be (45.8%). However, 36.1% responded “unsure” or “depends”—significantly higher than the percentage of respondents who answered thus in any previous scenario. As one study has demonstrated—although most of us already know this too well—American college students have appropriated “an all too common assumption … that if nothing is said [before sexual intercourse] then consent must be implicit.”[12] Considering this last scenario date rape would be the equivalent, for many respondents, of concluding that all drunken sex is date rape, which goes against their instincts and practical sexual experiences.

Many of my respondents felt that being in a relationship justified what they would otherwise consider date rape. When told that the girl and boy are in a long-term relationship, the number of respondents who believed Scenario B to be date rape dropped to 48.6% (from 77.8% when the two were not in a relationship). While some admitted to confusion (answering “unsure” or “depends”), it is interesting that anyone would change their answer from the previous scenario.

When asked whether they approved of the term “date rape,” a majority answered that they did not (54.2%) and many replied “unsure.” This general ambivalence towards the term forces us to question its continued use. Should a new phrase be coined to reflect a wider distance between stranger rape and acquaintance rape? The connotations attached to “date rape” could possibly prevent victims from reporting sexual assault for fear of peers’ judgmental and trivializing reactions.

25.4% of my respondents said that they had endured a non-consensual sexual experience, a percentage that includes nearly half (48.5%) of my female respondents (a higher percentage of women than literature on the subject would suggest). This statistic is unsurprising; those who have had personal experiences with date rape are more likely to be interested in taking a survey on the topic.

…American college students have appropriated “an all too common assumption … that if nothing is said [before sexual intercourse] then consent must be implicit.”

Uneasiness about the term “date rape” appeared in the personal narratives shared by my respondents. A number mentioned an unwillingness to classify an experience as “date rape.” Many discussed their own responsibility in the situation. One woman wrote, “I would never call it date rape, but I did feel that a boy intentionally got me very drunk, and we ended up having sex … it is not the type of choice I would normally make, and I don’t even remember making a choice. But, I don’t remember saying no either and he definitely did not force himself [on me].” Another woman wrote, “i was really drunk but i dont think it was rape because i didn’t explicitly say no [sic]”. One of the few male respondents who identified himself as the victim of sexual assault specified, “i was blackout and she was aggressive. I don’t remember saying yes, but it happened.”

From the data, it appeared that most Yale students were relatively informed as to the legal definitions of date rape. It is possible that most respondents understood which answers were “expected” of them (Yalies are usually pretty good at coming up with the “right” answer). I did find, however, that students’ understanding of that definition did not translate to their interpretation of the scenarios. When given concrete examples, their personal instincts prevailed over their intellectual grasp of the concept.

Only through a comprehensive understanding of young adults’ mentality towards date rape and sexual consent can we construct adequate preventative measures. Students’ inability to define sexual coercion or consent will only encourage sexual assault on college campuses.[13] Understanding why date rape carries inappropriately high social acceptance reveals deeper forms of structural sexism.

Whether or not one believes acquaintance rape to be more or less “serious” an affair than stranger rape, date rape has nevertheless become a pervasive problem. Rape, as defined by our judicial system, is most often committed by an acquaintance of the victim. The offense is indeed, as one of my respondents defined it, “the least prosecuted crime in America.”

Adriel Saporta is a junior in Yale College. She is the managing editor of Broad Recognition.


[1] http://www.cga.ct.gov/2009/pub/chap952.htm

[2] http://www.cga.ct.gov/2009/pub/chap952.htm

[3] Johnson et al.

[4] Loiselle et al., 261

[5] Loiselle et al., 261

[6] Sawyer et al. 1998

[7] Humphreys et al., 307

[8] A full description of the study participants illuminates some of the study’s shortcomings. Approximately equal numbers of men and women completed the survey: 39 and 33, respectively. An overwhelming majority of my respondents were heterosexual; there were only six male homosexual and five bisexual (but no lesbian) respondents. A majority lost their virginity between the ages of 18 and 21 (43.1%) and had been with 7 to 10 sexual partners (18.1%). Prior studies have shown that the more sexual experience an individual has had, the less important he or she believes receiving verbal consent to be[8]. Contrary to popular expectations, the majority of female respondents had had 7+ partners (30.3%), while the majority of male respondents could boast only 3 partners. Only 18.1% of respondents were fraternity or sorority members, and 51.4% consumed alcoholic beverages 1-2 days per week. None of the survey questions were required: participants were allowed to skip any and all questions. Needless to say, these figures reveal more than a few limitations in this study. My sample size was relatively small: 72 students cannot possibly speak on behalf of all Yale students. This was a non-randomized sample of convenience: those who took the survey represented those who are on Facebook, relatively comfortable talking about their sexuality, and interested enough (and likely already well-versed) in the subject of date rape. Not only was my sample overly representative of heterosexual respondents, but my survey also did not inquire as to respondents’ understanding of homosexual scenarios of date rape. In addition, it is possible that respondents were concerned that their identity would be discovered, which would have affected their responses.

[9] Gillen et al.

[10] Castello et al.

[11] Wild et al.

[12] Sawyer et al. 1998

[13] (Sawyer et al. 1998)

Comments (1)

  • “…while the major­ity of male respon­dents could boast only 3 part­ners.” Could only boast? Really? Interesting word choice for this blog…
    I’m also curious as to whether you think all drunken sex is date rape. You raised the question, and ended the post by coming down hard against date rape, but you didn’t answer it yourself. Can you honestly say that you think it is?

    Y’11/M/21

    posted by alstempel      December 11th, 2010 at 6:20 pm

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