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Strange Situations: Attachment Theory and Sexual Assault on College Campuses

When college women leave home, does attachment behavior make them more vulnerable to campus rape?
Dartmouth College. (Photo: Josue Mendivil/Flickr)

Dartmouth College. (Photo: Josue Mendivil/Flickr)

This week, when I drive away from the New England college that will be my daughter’s home for the next four years, she will be on her own in the Red Zone, the window between freshman orientation and Thanksgiving that a 1985 Ms. magazine survey identified as the time frame during which college freshmen are most likely to be sexually assaulted.

Like many mothers, I observe my daughter’s new maturity with a mixture of pride, nostalgia, and trepidation. As I consider her vulnerability to campus rape, I find it useful to return to the work of John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth, psychologists who offer insight into the experiences of young people away from their parents for the first time.

As a psychiatrist with an interest in childhood anxiety, I learned early about Bowlby’s attachment theory, which focuses on the importance of the mother/infant bond. Bowlby’s work was revolutionary because, unlike other psychoanalysts of the mid-20th century, he looked to animal models to understand the interaction between children and their mothers. In what he termed “the environment of evolutionary adaptedness,” the helpless child was threatened by predators and required the constant vigilance of her mother to protect her. Bowlby used the animal behaviorist’s term, attachment behavior, to describe such actions as clinging, crying, and smiling. These infantile behaviors, which promote caring on the part of the mother, were essential for the survival of the primeval infant, and were conserved and elaborated through the process of natural selection.

When anxious and apart from her mother, the child is under a genetically determined compulsion to seek an attachment figure. She cannot explore; she needs to cling.

For the child, the recruitment of the mother as her protector is an active process that continues throughout childhood. In adult life, attachment behavior has been shown to play a role in the doctor/patient relationship, the bond between couples, and even the caregiving behavior of adult daughters toward their demented parents.

Ainsworth expanded on Bowlby’s work and developed a laboratory condition to study attachment behavior, which she called the “strange situation”. Ainsworth noted that development calls for a balance between attachment and separation. The infant must cling to the mother and elicit her care; but she is equally attracted to novelty and must explore her environment. The strange situation provides a standardized setting to study the tension between these conflicting impulses.

In the strange situation, a parent and toddler play together in an unfamiliar room. The child explores the novel environment before a stranger enters and interacts with both parent and child. The parent leaves quietly, and the child is left alone with the stranger, distressing most children. It is what happens when the parent returns that intrigued Ainsworth. Some children greet the parent joyously, some ignore the parent before expressing pleasure, and some appear to prefer the stranger.

Ainsworth labeled attachment styles “secure” and “insecure.” The securely attached toddler enjoys playing with her mother, copes with the anxiety caused by her brief disappearance, and carries on playing when her mother returns. The insecurely attached toddler, like the secure one, is frightened of the stranger, but does not recuperate as quickly when reunited with her mother. Without feeling certain about her mother, the insecurely attached child may be unable to rise to the occasion of unexpected social challenges.

Bowlby showed us that attachment behavior is a stereotyped series of actions that inevitably occur when the infant is threatened with separation. Ainsworth’s strange situation elaborated on this. She wrote that the healthy child uses her mother as a base from which to explore, but that “When strongly activated, attachment behavior is incompatible with exploratory behavior.” When anxious and apart from her mother, the child is under a genetically determined compulsion to seek an attachment figure. She cannot explore; she needs to cling.

“Certain conditions provide ‘natural clues to danger,’ and are therefore expected to activate attachment behavior,” according to the American Psychological Association. “These activating conditions include unfamiliarity, hunger, fatigue, illness, and anything immediately alarming.” Substitute “intoxication” for “illness” and you have the setting for a college party. The college student feels compelled to seek an attachment figure under these circumstances, but may be unable to find a safe person to be with.

The college freshman finds herself in a novel environment. Her behavior is influenced by her attachment style, which Ainsworth has shown remains remarkably consistent throughout life. She may be insecurely attached, lacking confidence in her own safety, and may misjudge who constitutes a safe attachment figure. She brings to the strange situation of the college party her personal and primeval past.

Personal because she is an individual with her own history, making her own choices under a variety of social and emotional influences.

Primeval because the need to form attachments is as old as the environment of evolutionary adaptedness. She is powerfully motivated to connect with another, especially having so recently separated from her primary attachment figure, her mother.

None of which is to say that campus rape or sexual assault is the product of inadequate mothering, or of a young woman’s frame of mind, but as the strange situation shows us, there are a variety of expectable responses to separation from the mother and confrontation by strangers. These responses include expressions of distress, social withdrawal, disorganization, and healthy coping. The young woman now crosses paths with a male, or group of males, who have their own trajectories. What follows may be delightful, innocuous, or unbearable.

This week my daughter leaves home for the freshman Red Zone. While I will be there for her in so many ways, I will not be able to scan the environment continually, watching for predators. My absence will be one factor that places her at risk for sexual assault. Another will be the impulse, refined through millennia by evolutionary pressures, to find a new attachment figure.

Ainsworth distinguished between attachment behavior and attachment, which she defined as a predisposition to seek physical and emotional contact with others. For the freshman girl on her own, unhealthy attachment behavior may lead her to sexually risky situations. But the predisposition to form attachments can be protective. The freshman can develop friendships with other women and with responsible men. She can seek romantic relationships with individuals who are kind and respectful. Acting politically, she can stand in solidarity with other women and men against sexual violence.

In fact, healthy attachment may prove to be the freshman girl’s best defense against sexual assault.