Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us

In the Classroom


Dartmouth College. (Photo: Josue Mendivil/Flickr)

Strange Situations: Attachment Theory and Sexual Assault on College Campuses

• August 29, 2014 • 6:00 AM

Dartmouth College. (Photo: Josue Mendivil/Flickr)

When college women leave home, does attachment behavior make them more vulnerable to campus rape?

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.

Anne Skomorowsky
Anne Skomorowsky is a psychiatrist at Columbia University and a Public Voices Fellow with The Op-Ed Project.

More From Anne Skomorowsky

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 24 • 4:00 PM

We Need to Normalize Drug Use in Our Society

After the disastrous misconceptions of the 20th century, we’re returning to the idea that drugs are an ordinary part of life experience and no more cause addiction than do other behaviors. This is rational and welcome.

October 24 • 2:00 PM

A Letter to the Next Attorney General: Fix Presidential Pardons

More than two years ago, a series showed that white applicants were far more likely to receive clemency than comparable applicants who were black. Since then, the government has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a study, but the pardons system remains unchanged.

October 24 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, Middle School Math Teacher?

Noah Davis talks to Vern Williams about what makes middle school—yes, middle school—so great.

October 24 • 10:00 AM

Why DNA Is One of Humanity’s Greatest Inventions

How we’ve co-opted our genetic material to change our world.

October 24 • 8:00 AM

What Do Clowns Think of Clowns?

Three major players weigh in on the current state of the clown.

October 24 • 7:13 AM

There Is No Surge in Illegal Immigration

The overall rate of illegal immigration has actually decreased significantly in the last 10 years. The time is ripe for immigration reform.

October 24 • 6:15 AM

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

October 24 • 5:00 AM

Why We Gossip: It’s Really All About Ourselves

New research from the Netherlands finds stories we hear about others help us determine how we’re doing.

October 24 • 2:00 AM

Congratulations, Your City Is Dying!

Don’t take population numbers at face value.

October 23 • 4:00 PM

Of Course Marijuana Addiction Exists

The polarized legalization debate leads to exaggerated claims and denials about pot’s potential harms. The truth lies somewhere in between.

October 23 • 2:00 PM

American Companies Are Getting Way Too Cozy With the National Security Agency

Newly released documents describe “contractual relationships” between the NSA and U.S. companies, as well as undercover operatives.

October 23 • 12:00 PM

The Man Who’s Quantifying New York City

Noah Davis talks to the proprietor of I Quant NY. His methodology: a little something called “addition.”

October 23 • 11:02 AM

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.

October 23 • 10:00 AM

The Psychology of Bribery and Corruption

An FBI agent offered up confidential information about a political operative’s enemy in exchange for cash—and they both got caught. What were they thinking?

October 23 • 8:00 AM

Ebola News Gives Me a Guilty Thrill. Am I Crazy?

What it means to feel a little excited about the prospect of a horrific event.

October 23 • 7:04 AM

Why Don’t Men Read Romance Novels?

A lot of men just don’t read fiction, and if they do, structural misogyny drives them away from the genre.

October 23 • 6:00 AM

Why Do Americans Pray?

It depends on how you ask.

October 23 • 4:00 AM

Musicians Are Better Multitaskers

New research from Canada finds trained musicians more efficiently switch from one mental task to another.

October 22 • 4:00 PM

The Last Thing the Women’s Movement Needs Is a Heroic Male Takeover

Is the United Nations’ #HeForShe campaign helping feminism?

October 22 • 2:00 PM

Turning Public Education Into Private Profits

Baker Mitchell is a politically connected North Carolina businessman who celebrates the power of the free market. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four non-profit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.

October 22 • 12:00 PM

Will the End of a Tax Loophole Kill Off Irish Business and Force Google and Apple to Pay Up?

U.S. technology giants have constructed international offices in Dublin in order to take advantage of favorable tax policies that are now changing. But Ireland might have enough other draws to keep them there even when costs climb.

October 22 • 10:00 AM

Veterans in the Ivory Tower

Why there aren’t enough veterans at America’s top schools—and what some people are trying to do to change that.

October 22 • 8:00 AM

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.

October 22 • 7:04 AM

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

October 22 • 6:00 AM

How We Form Our Routines

Whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.

Follow us

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.