Keep Your Pants On

Colorado State is trying to shut down the annual Undie Run, asserting that it fosters an environment ripe for sexual assaults. Students and others say that this is victim blaming.

May 6, 2019
 

In an annual tradition, the students of Colorado State University strip to their underwear at the end of the academic year and dash across the campus in what is known as the Undie Run. This is a celebration before final exams, a way of students airing stress in a way that many of them perceive to be harmless.

But administrators want to shut it down.

One of their primary reasons? That participants, particularly women, have reported being sexually assaulted during the run and at parties held afterward -- an argument, students and other critics say, that smacks of victim blaming.

Online and in interviews with Inside Higher Ed, these Undie Run supporters say that linking students’ (admittedly minimal) attire to sexual violence promotes the idea that the survivors were somehow asking to be assaulted if they ran around publicly in their underwear.

Campus rape has been a long-standing issue for colleges and universities, though administrators’ handling of such cases has come under new scrutiny.

Though few colleges have radically changed the way they investigate and judge these cases, they are under new pressure to respond to sexual assault.

“I think that, primarily in my experience, that schools are motivated by press,” said Faith Ferber, a student engagement organizer with activist group Know Your IX. “And if a lot of people are assaulted at this Undie Run, and there’s an article about it, that their school is getting bad press, they have a rape problem, schools are afraid of that. They want to do whatever they can shut those things down.”

Organizers of the run have been hyping it up far before its scheduled date on May 10. But administrators have engaged in a full-court press against the event, saying they will ask police to monitor illegal activity and have emailed parents an explanation of why they are intent on stopping it.

One official, Jody Donovan, the assistant vice president for student affairs and dean of students, even wrote on the Undie Run Facebook event from her personal account, listing all the reasons the university will not allow it. She also has responded to students who said that the university’s policies can’t stop them from participating.

“If there is an indication that there will continue to be plans to assemble, there will be a heightened police presence on campus and off campus,” Donovan wrote on Facebook. “If there are plans to assemble off campus, police and university volunteers will also respond. If people assemble, police will take video of the area. Images will be used to follow up on complaints and potential criminal incidents to identify individuals who behave inappropriately.”

An identical message was sent to students and their families -- as well as other colleges in the area, said spokeswoman Dell Rae Ciaravola. This detailed how students could report sexual assaults.

In addition to concerns about sexual violence associated with the run, administrators said they have observed outsiders photographing or filming the run, and they have posted those images online or used them without students’ consent.

Colleges should inform students about potential risks outside sexual assault, said Jess Davidson, the executive director of advocacy group End Rape on Campus. Administrators can flag the potential for students’ pictures to be taken, but ultimately, they’re making the decision, Davidson said. She also said that she thinks the focus on photo taking is a bit of a red herring.

“Most students know if they’re running around in their underwear outside, people are going to be posting it to social media,” Davidson said. “There will be friends taking pictures and putting it up; Instagram stories are going to be happening with the Undie Run. Students are aware of that.”

The university said it estimates the run has forced officials to pay about $150,000 to cover property damages and security, too.

Ciaravola did not respond to additional questions from Inside Higher Ed, including the college’s response over the sexual assault criticism.

Students online blasted administrators and complained the event had gone off without a hitch in previous years.

“My favorite part is when they said it makes it easier for girls to get groped by men when rapists literally hurt women fully clothed,” Andrea Goff, a student, wrote on Facebook. “It’s not about what you're wearing and that’s just another excuse. Don't blame the victim because they wanted to participate in a tradition where we should all be respectful of each other, regardless of how much or little we're wearing. Underwear doesn't change that.”

The organizers of the Undie Run did not respond to request for comment.

Ann M. Little, a history professor at Colorado State, posted to Twitter after she received the emailed warnings for students -- she agreed with administrators

“I understand and agree mostly with the public and personal safety issues our campus police raise about the Undie Run,” Little wrote, adding, jokingly, the easiest way to shut down the jaunt around campus would be to send out administrators and faculty sans clothes.

Races involving partial nudity are certainly not confined to the Colorado State campus. Colleges across the country hold similar rituals, and there are videos online to prove it -- among them the University of California, Los Angeles; UC Irvine; Oregon State University and Northeastern University.

Davidson said that such events always inspire debate about whether they facilitate rape. But she said if Colorado State wanted to help its students, it wouldn’t impose a full ban on the Undie Run. Officials should be teaching students about “bystander intervention” -- how to step in when you witness sexual violence, or offer a ride service so students who have been drinking have a way to arrive home safely, Davidson said.

“It just sends the message that it is the fault of the individual who is running in their underwear,” Davidson said.

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