The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

You think your drunk college-age daughters are bad with their iPhones? Imagine them with guns.

Guns will not stop rape, especially if we give them to teenagers.

A group of friends toasting with beers.
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Since my 17-year-old daughter left for college last fall, campus rape has been on my mind. According to a study in the Journal of American College Health, women in college are at their highest risk for rape during their first semester.

Six months later, my daughter has not been sexually assaulted.

But she has put herself in harm’s way. How do I know? I’ve looked at her iPhone.

My daughter dropped her first iPhone outside an off-campus party, the kind of sports-related, senior-sponsored event that is infamously associated with sexual assault. When the cops showed up, she stood frozen until someone grabbed her hand and pulled her into the woods. As she ran from the police with her friends, her phone fell into a snow bank and was never seen again.

We bought her a replacement, a highly desirable 5s that she promised to guard with her life. Weeks later, after another party, my “slightly drunk” daughter tumbled down some stairs. She wasn’t injured, but the iPhone screen was cracked.

Her lost cellphone came to mind again when the New York Times reported that legislators in 10 states are working on bills that would make it easier to carry guns on college campuses. The lawmakers argue that putting guns in the hands of college women will prevent rape and make campuses safer for all students.

That claim reveals the legislators’ ignorance of the circumstances around college sexual assault, which typically occurs between people who know each other, and is often complicated by alcohol and drugs. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 80 percent of students drink regularly in college, and more than half of them binge drink at least once a month. Every year, the institute reports, 97,000 students ages 18 to 24 are victims of alcohol-related sexual assault or date rape.

It also makes dangerous assumptions about teenagers’ capacity to handle deadly weapons.

Just imagine that my daughter’s iPhone was a gun. One lies in the snow in a suburban forest. Maybe it will be found in the spring, by children playing in the woods, or other young adults running from the police. The other bounced down a staircase along with several intoxicated teenagers.  What could possibly go wrong?

One might argue that sensible people know the difference between weapons and phones, and would treat weapons more carefully. But the teenage brain — especially one after tequila shots — isn’t sensible.

The National Institute of Mental Health has said the teen brain is “still under construction.”  Judgment, impulse control and planning ahead — what the NIMH terms the hallmarks of adult behavior — aren’t fully developed until kids are old enough to graduate from college. Meanwhile, the capacity for intense emotional experiences, sharp senses and physical vitality of the young make the teenager ripe for risk-taking, without restraint from the mature prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that plans and executes complicated courses of action.

Fortunately, iPhones aren’t weapons; but they are anti-rape devices.  On the simplest level, they promote safety by keeping women and their friends aware of one another’s whereabouts. Women can check in with friends throughout a night of drinking.  They can call or text one another if they need to be extricated from a difficult situation.

Cellphones can call cabs and 911. They take photos and store evidence.

Cellphones also represent the power of connectedness and friendship. Ending campus sexual violence cannot be the private task of a man and a woman alone in a room, and it certainly can’t be done with a trigger finger. Fighting campus rape requires information-sharing and solidarity. Emma Sulkowicz, the Columbia College senior who has been carrying her mattress to class to protest the university’s handling of her rape complaint, has done more to fight rape than anyone could ever do with a weapon (although self-defense actions can decrease harm). Moved by a dramatic narrative about an alleged gang rape on their campus, fraternity brothers at the University of Virginia committed to reexamining their sexual culture.

When such public conversation changes behavioral norms, the teenage brain will have internalized a different, less harmful, repertoire of choices to call upon — even when intoxicated. To end campus sexual assault, college students should use what they already have: their phones, their peers and their developing brains.