What Exactly is Acquaintance Rape, & Could it Happen to You?

Don’t walk alone at night. Keep an eye on your drink. Don’t drink too much. These are all things college women are told to do to protect themselves from predators. While these tips can help reduce the risk of danger, they cannot prevent it. This is especially true if the predator is someone you know, or love, or trust; someone who doesn’t make you feel as though you need to be on guard.

Acquaintance rape, also known as non-stranger rape, is classified as rape that's perpetrated by someone who isn’t a stranger — whether it’s a friend, classmate, colleague, partner, ex-partner or otherwise.

How common is acquaintance rape on college campuses?

Jill Sneider, sexual health coordinator at Syracuse University’s Advocacy Center, says acquaintance rape is even more common on college campuses than in the general population. According to The Sexual Victimization of College Women by the U.S. Department of Justice, the perpetrator and victim know each other in 94% of college sexual assault cases. One in every four college women will be sexually assaulted by the time they graduate.

Sneider says one reason acquaintance rape happens so frequently on college campuses is because of the congested atmosphere of young adults all living together. A lot of sexual crime already occurs with people in this age bracket, but living together increases the frequency of these crimes.

“People tend to have this idea that if they’re in a class with someone, then that person seems familiar. So there is a sense that they know that person, even though they really don’t,” Sneider says. “This false sense of knowing someone can lead to situations where a person is trusted without really being known. Also, even when they do really know that person, sometimes that line is crossed and a friend commits an act of sexual violence.”

Kelly*, a sophomore at Carnegie Mellon University, had a friend who was raped at a frat party by someone she knew very well. The friend went upstairs with the guy and ended up passing out because she was so intoxicated. When she woke up, her clothes were off and there was a used condom beside her. The friend reached out to Kelly and a few girls in their friend group, and these girls took their friend to the hospital. Her tests confirmed that she'd been raped.

“This was a guy we all knew well. He was in a fraternity that we associated with often. We had classes with him and were all under the impression that he was a good guy,” Kelly says.  

Laura Hollahan, co-president of Students Advocating Sexual Safety and Empowerment (SASSE) at Syracuse University, agrees that acquaintance rape is a huge problem for college women. “It’s a problem on any campus, big or small,” she says. “Friends take advantage of other friends when somebody’s drunk, or they just assert power over another person.”

How does acquaintance rape affect victims?

Sneider stresses that everyone responds very differently to this traumatic event, but one of the most common initial responses is blaming oneself. She says though this is often an automatic reaction to rape, it is never the victim’s fault.

“That whole notion is so prevalent in our society, about blaming the victim of this particular crime. And people absorb that, and it’s never the victim’s fault,” she says. “Someone commits an act of violence, and that’s who's responsible for the act.”

She says it’s especially common for victims to blame themselves if they were drinking before the incident. However, she stresses that drinking doesn't cause sexual violence. “Somebody could be out every night of the week drinking and nothing happens because there was nobody at that particular event who wanted to commit this act of violence,” Sneider says.

Hollahan also says her most important piece of advice for victims is to not feel shame from the event and not to view it as your fault. “It may be natural to feel shame from the event, but try not to view it as a shameful event on yourself, and seek the help that is out there and try to be strong,” she says. “It’s a terrible thing that could happen to anyone on campus. Just be as vocal as you can while still being within your comfort zone.”

There's a whole range of reactions that victims have after a rape occurs. Sneider says some people don’t tell anyone about the incident because they find it easier to cope by keeping their feelings inside. Others need to tell someone, and feel that talking about it helps them move forward. Some people don’t eat after the event, others will eat more. Some people will sleep a lot, some won’t be able to fall asleep. Some people won’t be able to focus on academics, others will focus more on their work.

The victim may have bruises and physical injuries because of the attack, but sometimes there is no visible harm to her body. Sneider stresses that this does not mean the attack didn’t happen. She says there are many reasons why the victim may not fight back during the assault, and therefore she might appear to be physically fine.

“The reactions are different for every person,” Sneider says. “However, it's a violent act that no one asked for.”

If the victim is unsure if protection was used, it’s important to have a medical exam to check for pregnancy or STIs.

Another way acquaintance rape can emotionally harm the victim is by causing the person to struggle with her ability to trust others. Often, the victim is attacked by someone she thought she could trust. Because that trust was taken away, this makes the victim question who she can possibly trust, if anyone.

According to Yale University’s undergraduate policies, sexual consent is defined as clear, unambiguous, and voluntary agreement between the participants to engage in specific sexual activity. The policy also states that consent cannot be obtained from someone who asleep or physically/mentally incapacitated. So if you’ve blacked out from drinking or are under the influence of drugs and you’re unable to provide sexual consent, the act is still considered rape.

What to do if you or a friend is attacked

Sneider says if you are the victim of acquaintance rape, it’s very important to make decisions based on what you’re comfortable with. If you want to talk to someone about the incident, most campuses have an office or department designated as the place to go for support. If there isn’t a center like this on your campus, there is most likely one in the surrounding community. These places promote a safe, neutral environment for victims to discuss their feelings.

“Sometimes people don’t even know exactly what happened to them, and they just need a safe place to say, ‘I don’t know what happened, but I can just feel that something did and I need to talk about it,’” Sneider says.

If you’d rather not talk about what happened, there are other resources that can help. Sneider says there are many books and websites on the subject, and reading these might be helpful. Counseling centers also have booklets specifically for survivors of sexual violence, which can help you cope with and recover from the event.

The importance of allowing victims to make their own decisions after being attacked was highlighted last fall, when a former Amherst College student named Angie Epifano wrote a letter to the school’s newspaper about being a victim of acquaintance rape on campus. In the letter, which was published and soon went viral, Epifano explained how Amherst College tried to make every decision for her during her recovery process, even forcing her to enter a psychiatric ward and forbidding her from studying abroad. This control broke Epifano down until she eventually withdrew from Amherst. Just read the letter — you’ll see how important it is for victims to be able to make their own decisions and speak up without fear.

Many victims also turn to friends during this time of need. Sneider says it’s common for a friend to be the first person a victim tells, and then that friend has a huge weight on their shoulders as well. Therefore, advocacy and counseling centers are open to friends of victims who want to talk about their feelings.

As a friend, it’s extremely important to believe what the victim tells you about their attack. “One of the biggest challenges for survivors is that their friends question them in a way that implies they aren’t believed, and that’s hurtful to a survivor,” Sneider says.

If a friend confides in you about what happened, make sure you ask if there’s anything you can do to help. However, avoid telling the victim what she should and should not do. Even if you value talking things out to solve problems, your friend may not be the same way, or vice versa.

Also, make sure you don’t treat your friend any differently than you did before she confided in you. Sneider says victims won’t want every conversation to revolve around what happened; usually, they want you to treat them the same as always, but to just be aware that they’re going through something.

However, victims will appreciate you checking in with them every once in a while. After someone confides in you, it’s reassuring if you pull that friend aside sometimes and let her know you’re thinking of her.

“The message to the survivor then is, ‘My friend isn’t afraid of what I told him or her, and they can be here for me,’” Sneider says. “It’s important to be very sensitive with the survivor.”

An especially tricky part about acquaintance rape is the fact that it’s not a stranger—it’s someone the victim knows, which severely complicates their relationship and how to deal with the situation. It’s up to the victim whether or not she wants to press charges. Vasavi Kanneganti, a senior at Syracuse University and a volunteer at the Advocacy Center, stresses that this is completely the victim’s choice.

“I think it’s a very messy area, and not everyone who wants to talk about their sexual assault also wants to press charges,” she says.

Kelly says her friend decided not to press charges after her attack.

“She chose not to press charges because of something she called a ‘gray area.’ I can understand what she's talking about,” Kelly says. “It's hard for guys to always know if a girl wants to take the next step. That said, if they do not say yes, then a guy should assume that they are saying no.”

Kanneganti says sitting down with someone at your school’s advocacy center or crisis center can help you figure out whether you want to press charges. Each center determines what they offer students; however, at most colleges, people at these centers will stay by your side through the entire process.

“You’re not alone, thrown to go do that by yourself. You have a support system that will guide you and keep you informed through the entire process,” she says.

Kanneganti also suggests talking with an outside source, like someone at an advocacy center, before deciding how you should personally handle your attacker — whether that’s breaking all ties with the person or discussing the incident. The people at these centers can help you assess your relationship with your attacker and can assist you in figuring out what’s best for you and what will keep you safe.

“Every situation in which rape or sexual assault occurs is different from one another. The attacker could be someone you just met at a party or someone you’ve been in a long-term relationship with,” she says. “Regardless, there isn’t one way to handle the situation.”

What are some precautions women can take?

There's a universal list of precautions that includes things like not walking alone at night, keeping an eye on your drink, and staying away from dark streets and alleys. While these things might lessen the risk of an attack, they won't always prevent acquaintance rape from occurring.

“I think there are definitely things people can do to reduce risk for themselves, but the reality is, if these things worked, we wouldn’t have a problem because we know all the precautions,” Sneider says.

She says this list of precautions can also increase the victim’s self-blame. It adds to the assumption that it’s the victim’s fault for not following every possible precaution. “They can end up feeling like, ‘That’s what I did wrong, I trusted a friend.’ But of course you’re going to trust a friend,” Sneider says. “If that happens, the answer isn’t to add ‘Don’t Trust Friends’ to the list. The answer is to say, ‘No. My friend is responsible for that behavior.’”

Amanda*, a senior at Hiram College, says guys should be taught that their actions are their own responsibility, and that no girl ever “asks for it.” However, she also says women should listen to their instincts. If a guy is giving you the creeps or is making you feel uncomfortable, get away from him as soon as possible.

“Always have a backup plan in case Prince Charming turns out to be a toad,” she says. “Not even a chastity belt and full-on armor will stop a guy who is determined to rape you, though, so never blame yourself if you're not able to get away.” 

The view that rape is the victim’s fault is still prevalent in many places; that’s why colleges around the country are working to create a community of what Syracuse University calls Empowered Bystanders. Many colleges have adopted this approach to violence prevention, though they may call it something different. However, the idea behind it is the same: most people are not victims or perpetrators of these sexual crimes, but all of us see or hear things at times that make us uncomfortable. An Empowered Bystander will speak up about abusive behavior and support individuals who have been abused.

However, this can be difficult for many people. “You could be at a party and you see something going on and you get the feeling that something’s wrong, but we tend to assume it’s not our responsibility or it’s none of our business,” Sneider says. “There are many reasons why we don’t act on those feelings.”

She says you should consider possible courses of action, and then choose something that might impact the situation without putting you in danger.

It’s never easy to be the one to say something wasn’t funny, or to say you’re uncomfortable with how someone is treating his or her friend or partner. If you’re uncomfortable approaching people in this way, Sneider suggests making an indirect comment to diffuse a situation.

“For example, you could hear a couple arguing in the student center, and it makes you really uncomfortable, but you don’t feel you can just walk up to them and make them stop,” Sneider says. “Instead, you could just go up to them and ask them what time it is. That might cut through the tension they’re experiencing at that moment, and that could potentially prevent that tension from escalating.”

In order to prevent sexual violence, Sneider says it’s important to promote dialogue about the subject.

“We realize that the majority of people don’t engage in this type of behavior, and they know when something doesn’t feel right, but they don’t speak up,” she says. “If we do start speaking up, we could change this culture.”