Monday, March 17, 2008

How to keep yourself safer at parties

How to keep yourself safer at parties

In the spectrum of safety, Northwestern is a haven: An army of policemen and faculty work to ensure no harm comes to students and crime rates are low. Most notably for women, there are few reports of on-campus sexual harassment: only three since 2004, according to assistant chief of NU police Daniel McAleer.

But as court proceedings continue for the man accused of raping a 22-year-old female NU student near Simpson Street last May, it’s important to remember that assault, particularly rape, is a reality.

One out of every six women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime. Knowing the laws and drugs related to rape can help women prepare for the worst-case scenario. Following basic safety guidelines can dramatically reduce the risk of assault.

Sexual assault rates are low on campus, and even off-campus, sexual assault is still significantly less prevalent than the national average. According to the Bureau of Justice, 0.5 rapes occur per 1,000 citizens, nationally. In Evanston, that number drops lower: Only 10 incidents of sexual assault were reported last year in a city of around 70,000.

More than half of sexual assaults also go unreported, according to another Bureau of Justice report. This number skyrockets even higher in the case of “acquaintance rape,” when the victim knows the perpetrator. Over three-quarters of all rapes and sexual crimes against women are acquaintance rapes.

Taking safety precautions is vitally important even though the rate of on-campus assault is low, noted McAleer.

“Obviously it’s better to go out in a group of friends,” he said, adding that one member of the group should always remain sober and capable of watching his or her friends.

SESP sophomore Karina O’Donnell said she makes an effort to check out the character of any new men her friends meet.

“We run to the others and see if he’s okay,” said O’Donnell.

O’Donnell said although she always looks out for friends who are drinking, she has little control if a friend decides to leave with a new acquaintance.

Alcohol is the most common element in sexual assault. A study done in Ireland indicated that alcohol was a factor in about 70 percent of rapes. Although many pin rape on “date-rape drugs” such as rohypnol, GHB and ketamine, at least half of all women raped are under the influence of alcohol at the time of assault. Limiting alcohol intake or avoiding situations where alcohol is prevalent can significantly decrease the chances of sexual assault.

“[A woman] should not feel afraid about coming forward because of the amount of alcohol she may have had to drink,” McAleer said. “As far as the law is concerned, no means no.”

In Illinois, the excuse, “I was too drunk to know what I was doing” won’t pass muster: According to state law, if one party says “no” at any point, the other must stop or the situation immediately becomes rape, regardless of intoxication. Still, some women are too scared to come forward, thinking they may be blamed because they had been drinking, McAleer said.

Although limiting alcohol intake can help prevent sexual assault, date-rape drugs also pose a serious threat and are more difficult to detect and control. Date-rape drugs can be easily slipped into unaccompanied drinks, where they quickly dissolve, making an altered drink difficult to identify. A survey of rape victims at Illinois State indicated that 29 percent of women raped in 2006 believed they had been given some form of date-rape drug. These drugs usually induce sleepiness and amnesia, making it easy for a predator to take advantage.

McAleer said that the most important thing to keep in mind when going out, particularly to bars, is to “keep your drink in your hand and don’t allow it to be left unattended.” If you’re unsure about your drink, order another.

“We want to teach people how to avoid becoming a victim,” McAleer said.

Kia Jones, a Communication freshman, always goes out with a group of friends but doesn’t drink.

“I watch out for my friends and watch their drinks,” she said.

Women should never accept drinks from strangers unless they can see them being made. The University Police Web site advises bringing drinks from home to parties.

Coasters that identify date-rape drugs are available. But don’t rely on them as your only line of defense: Research has shown that they are not 100-percent effective and can lull users into a false sense of security.

Northwestern’s safe campus can tempt students to ignore traditional guidelines, but women should never put themselves at risk by failing to follow basic safety rules that drastically lower the danger of sexual assault.

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