Rape Steps, Tufts University, Onomastic

“The Rape Steps”

“Someone made it their project, I don’t know if it was an engineering student or what, but basically they wanted to design a set of stairs that would be easier for a woman to climb up than a man. Something about a different gait length, or something, I think it’s bullshit. They’re really obnoxious to walk up. Essentially, people race up them, but every time the guys won. So either they’re very poorly designed or some giant conspiracy. They’re called the rape steps because they don’t actually work. They’re supposed to prevent rape, but since they don’t work, the name works either way.”

Samantha and I were walking back to her dorm at around 1:00 AM after buying French Fries at an off-campus pizza shop, when we came upon “The Rape Steps.” “The Rape Steps” are built into a hill and, despite their awkward length and height, provide a short cut between the Tufts University campus and Boston Avenue in the town of Medford, Massachusetts. Trees surround the steps, creating a dark, secluded pathway, although a campus parking lot and streetlights are visible. As we climbed “The Rape Steps,” I questioned Samantha about their ominous title, and she responded with the above story. The story left me slightly freaked out, and a little nervous about the man we had seen a little earlier walking alone. Samantha, however, was not fazed by either the incident or the name of the steps.

The next day, Samantha and I again went down the “The Rape Steps” to get into the town. Since I am relatively short (about 5 feet and 2 inches tall) and Samantha is relatively tall (about 5 feet and 11 inches tall), we decided to test out the theory behind “The Rape Steps.” Running down the steps, we were both able to keep a quick, steady pace, with neither girl outrunning the other. As we ran past a group of students walking up the steps, we overheard them laughing and gleefully saying something similar to “do you remember when we tried out the Rape Steps?” Between that experience and stories that Samantha has told me, “testing out the Rape Steps” seems like a fairly common practice at Tufts University.

The steps do not have an official name, so Samantha believes that the name arouse out of necessity. According to her, the steps are an important landmark on the campus, and first-year students learn the name “Rape Steps” shortly after arriving on campus. She does not remember when she first heard the name or the story, but does not believe that there was a specific context, such as at night, in which students first learn about “The Rape Steps.” She thinks that the title itself is an ironic one, implying that women are more likely to get raped if they are near these steps than other places on campus. The steps are seen as a “failed project,” since it is commonly accepted and proven through trials that the steps are not easier for women than men to run up. In fact, one online compilation of “Tufts University Urban Legends” claims that, “an empirical study will show that men can run up these steps twice as fast as women.” The name, Samantha believes, reflects Tufts’ students’ expectation of excellence, or at least competence, and the humor produced when the University blatantly does not meet those expectations.

Looking at variations in the legend surrounding “The Rape Steps,” reveals an additional explanation for the onomastic. In an article for The Tufts Daily a female student wrote about the “usability” of the steps, or the lack thereof, as an escape route for female students. While the article itself aligns with Samantha’s explanation of the creation of “The Rape Steps,” an alumnus responded to the article with a different creation story. The alumnus stated that when he or she attended Tufts University, an engineering professor had told him or her that an engineering class, as assignment, designed the steps to “[conform] to the contour of the hill.” For the purpose of this collection, it does not matter which story is “correct” or “the truth,” but dominance of the title “The Rape Steps” despite contemporary legends about the steps that are not connected with rape or assault suggests that the onomastic may not have resulted from the steps intended use, but rather their actual use. Samantha told me about the steps at a time when fear of assault, sexual or otherwise, was reasonable. Despite the steps benign quality during the day, the name “The Rape Steps,” and the legend that goes with it, might also reveal a legitimate fear that female students at Tufts University might feel when using the steps late at night. As they do, for example, when coming back to campus from off-campus parties, where the likelihood of sexual assault is also higher. The name does allow Tufts students to identify a landmark easily, but it may also reveal an unspoken of fear that female students at Tufts feel.


Enotes.com. 2011 Tufts University: Tufts Urban Legends. http://www.enotes.com/tufts-university-guide/urban-legends, accessed April 28, 2011.

Birch-Desai, Jaya. The Tufts Daily. 2009 Engineering Psychology and the Rape Steps. http://www.tuftsdaily.com/engineering-psychology-and-the-rape-steps-1.2063372, accessed April 28, 2011.