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Young Men and the Unspoken Danger of College Campuses

For young men, as well as young women, the move to campus brings unprecedented sexual vulnerability. But men are even less likely than women to report sexual assault.
(Photo: Jannis Tobias Werner/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Jannis Tobias Werner/Shutterstock)

As I embark on college tours with my 17-year-old son this summer, I am overwhelmed by all of the data thrown at us in our readings and by our guides—11 percent to 13 percent acceptance rates, average SAT scores in the 2000–2150 range, GPAs for incoming freshman hovering around 3.6 or 3.7. But one set of statistics is notably missing: We hear absolutely nothing about campus sexual assault rates.

Like most parents on college tours, I’ve followed the media coverage of high-profile cases of sexual assault and the various ways schools are moving to address the problem. But my concern is also informed by my own experiences, as well as my work as a physician focused on boys’ and young men’s health.

As the father of a black son in America, I have tried to teach him to respect women both in my actions and non-actions—to respect women as individuals and to respect them for their personal achievements. I have tried to teach by example. I have tried to teach him to be communicative and assertive to his needs whenever necessary. And I have thought long and hard about conversations in our future—the realities of how to negotiate campus relationships, including the sad possibility that race could at some point play a role in how his actions are perceived.

In 2013, the National Crime Victimization Survey found that, when 40,000 households were asked about rape and sexual violence, 38 percent of reported incidents turned out to be against men. 

I also know first-hand—as does my son—that males, too, can be subject to unwanted advances, and that this can start early. I recall how my son, when he was in the seventh grade, was trailed for weeks by a female classmate who wanted to be his girlfriend, refusing to take “no” as an answer until a teacher stepped in. As a fifth grader, I had a similar experience myself when a female classmate cornered me around a tree demanding that I be her boyfriend; I was horrified three years later when I learned that she and another classmate had discussed which of them would have my baby.

For young men, as well as young women, the move to campus brings unprecedented sexual vulnerability. Thirty-three years ago, one of my best friends from high school awoke one night in his college dorm room to find a woman with him in bed performing fellatio. In keeping with the culture of the times, my friend was proud of the situation, and, to be honest, I was a bit jealous. Another young friend who finished college 15 years ago recalled getting intoxicated and waking to a female friend trying to have sex with him. He was upset and stopped the situation in a way that preserved the friendship. And, of course, women are not the only perpetrators: Male-on-male sexual assault has been well documented on the nation's college campuses.

Yes, such stories are anecdotal, but they point to a larger issue. Indeed, research since 1990 suggests that as many as one in six men experience an abusive sexual experience before the age of 18. In 2013, the National Crime Victimization Survey found that, when 40,000 households were asked about rape and sexual violence, 38 percent of reported incidents turned out to be against men. According to the same study, women account for 46 percent of sexual assaults on males.

These reports are in line with my experience at the young men’s health clinic I’ve headed for the past 16 years in New York City. Looking back, I would estimate that roughly three to four percent of my patients report having had sex before the age of 10, sometimes as early as seven or eight, most often with female babysitters. When I heard these accounts initially, I didn’t know what to make of them—were they fantasies or true stories? These young men were not bragging and their reports did not come with an air of bravado. Although never feeling traumatized or ashamed of the incident, they sometimes would ask me if I wanted them to distinguish the “first” time vs. the “true first” time. The distinction was that the “true first” time was later—in adolescence—when they really understood what was going on.

One 12-year-old patient recounted being on a porch with a girl he knew (and liked). She asked him if he wanted to receive oral sex. He said no ambivalently. She proceeded to unzip his pants and give him oral sex until he got scared, pulled up his pants, and went home to tell his parents what had happened. Although this encounter happened at 12 years of age, clearly it was not wanted and not consensual, but with reversed gender roles of sexual aggression.

Such experiences can be especially confusing for young men who have received the cultural message that “real men” are always ready for sex. Sex is all too often treated as a badge of honor. Young men who hesitate or say no are often shamed as “gay,” a word that still has derogatory connotations in all too many places. Both of these issues are likely to contribute under-reporting of sexual assault by boys and young men. (One study found that only 16 percent of men with documented histories of sexual abuse considered themselves to have been sexually abused, compared with 64 percent of women with documented histories in that same study.)

I don’t mean to suggest that male sexual assault occurs on anywhere near the scale that assault of women occurs—though I do see a tremendous need for more research to better assess the problem’s scope. My goal is to broaden the public conversation about sexual assault to acknowledge the fact that boys and men can be—and are sometimes—targets.

Wherever my son ends up in college, I profoundly hope that the silence around sexual assault during our tours gives way to an expansive and nuanced conversation about creating a safe campus environment for everyone.