Justin Peligri: Being honest about the role alcohol plays in sexual violence

Throughout my entire time at GW, I’ve been cognizant of the pervasiveness of sexual assault on campus – both in my capacity as a friend to survivors and as an opinions writer advocating for sensitive policies.

We still have a ways to go before such crimes are eliminated from campus. But since I came to GW three and a half years ago, a series of improvements have been made, from top-down adjustments like eliminating the sexual assault policy’s time limit on filing formal complaints, to student-driven activism like last semester’s “It’s On Us” campaign. These positive changes perhaps suggest that the toughest days – when the stigma of the issue was at its peak – are behind us.

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Justin Peligri

But I got to thinking about the topic again after last week’s New York Times story about women at GW and elsewhere who are contemplating hosting parties on their own “turf” – namely, at sorority houses – to minimize the number of sexual assaults that occur at fraternity parties.

“The whole social scene is embedded in the fraternity house, and makes us dependent on them. I find this a dangerous scenario,” a female student from the University of Michigan told the Times.

But I don’t think moving the party down the street completely eliminates the risk.

That’s why students, regardless of gender, should realize that they do have important choices to make. Binge drinking happens at various places across campus – often, but not always, at fraternity parties. Students should make the conscious decision to drink less if they know that alcohol consumption could land them in a dangerous situation.

Suggesting that we all moderate our drinking might make me a curmudgeon, but it isn’t victim-blaming. Here are the facts with which we all should arm ourselves before we head out for the night: The risk of sexual violence increases when alcohol enters the equation. In fact, studies show that more than half of college students who experience sexual assault say alcohol was involved.

Students Against Sexual Assault’s vice president, Laura Zillman, aptly discussed students’ choices in a letter to the editor Friday.

“A person should always be able to make themselves feel safe, especially in a college environment – whether that means choosing not to drink in certain situations, watching out for friends at parties or even using products like ‘anti-rape’ nail polish,” she writes. “If taking particular steps makes someone feel more comfortable, they shouldn’t feel ashamed to do so.”

The most effective way to prevent rape on college campuses is to teach people not to commit these horrible acts. That’s where I’d like to see GW someday. I know, however, that the unfortunate reality is we’re not there yet. And no matter how much we try to fool ourselves, our world and our campus is far from utopian. Until we get there, it falls into our hands to look out for ourselves and our friends.

Now, I don’t have to think about my security in the same way women do. But I do know what it feels like to make some tough decisions for the sake of my own safety.

I’ve made the choice, for example, to not publicly display affection for my boyfriend in certain situations. Nick is from New York City, and we spend time together there often. But as familiar as we are with Manhattan’s sprawling grid, we have come to realize the reality: Even in the age of dawning marriage equality, hate crimes against gay people are on the rise – and I have forced myself to remain aware of that fact.

I grapple with that decision often. But it was made in the name of my and Nick’s safety, and at the end of the day, it’s not a decision I regret.

We can apply a similar formula to campus sexual assault. Even in an era of proactive measures on GW’s part, sexual assault happens. We all know this to be true – we’ve received far too many harrowing text message alerts over the past few months.

That’s why I advocated last semester in favor of bringing a female-driven taxi fleet to D.C. that would only transport women. A service like this was instituted in New York City last fall.

In a perfect world, women shouldn’t have to self-segregate themselves in order to get from Point A to Point B – but it comes as no surprise to any of us that big cities are dangerous. In this flawed world in which we live, SheTaxi and options like it, though not ideal, could be a smart path for some women to take.

And that’s why I think men and women should be more judicious about their drinking choices. Nobody should be blamed when they’re attacked, but they also shouldn’t be bystanders to their own personal lives.

There’s a difference between encouraging friends to take some precautions before going out – namely, having one or two fewer shots to remain as alert as possible – and blaming someone after they’re assaulted. I’ve always held the conviction that there’s only one person to blame when assault occurs: the rapist.

All I’m trying to say is that in the face of disturbing statistics, I want my friends and all fellow Colonials to know that we are not helpless. We all have the agency, the strength and the authority to make decisions.

Despite my passion, I’ve struggled to find the smartest ways to express my thoughts about what I know is a justifiably sensitive topic. So if there is something to take away from these words, I hope it can be this: You are not alone. You are not incompetent. You are not powerless.

Justin Peligri, a senior majoring in political communication, is a Hatchet senior columnist.

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