Campus rape

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Campus rape is the rape of a student attending an institute of higher learning, such as a college or university, though not all reported incidents of students being raped occur on campus property. The topic of campus rape might also include discussion of other sexual assaults.

Rape on college campuses occurs against men and women of all ethnicities and social classes, and many victims totally or partly blame themselves for the occurrence, which may lead to underreporting. "Women generally do not report their victimization, in part because of self-blame or embarrassment."[1]

While the rate of violent crime against college students has declined significantly since the late 90s, the rates of rape and sexual assault victimization remained unchanged.[2] Studies indicate that anywhere from 3.5 to 35 incidents of rape or attempted rape per 1000 female students occur annually. The 3.5 rate is based on the U.S. government's NCVS which is recent, has a large sample, and uses the criminal definitions of rape and sexual assault, whereas other studies may use broader definitions, use very small samples, or reflect periods when the overall crime rates were higher.

Prevalence and incidence of rape and sexual assault[edit]

The majority of rape and sexual assault victims do not report their attacks to law enforcement. As a result, sources that rely on police reports, such as the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports, tend to significantly underestimate the number of rapes and sexual assaults in a given year.[3] Researchers rely instead on victimization surveys to measure rape and sexual assault in order to assess the scope of sexual violence victimization.

Results of surveys measures of the prevalence and incidence of rape and sexual assault among college students offer widely disparate estimates. The NCVS estimated an annual prevalence rate as low as 0.43% in 2013 for all sexual assaults of women, with attempted or completed rape at 0.35%.[4] Some estimate anywhere from 10%[5] to as many as 29%[6] of women having been victims of rape or attempted rape since starting college. Methodological differences, such as the method of survey administration, the definition of "rape" used, the wording of questions, and the time period studied contribute to these disparities.[6] There is currently no consensus on the best way to measure rape and sexual assault.[3]

National Crime Victimization Surveys[edit]

The National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) is a national survey administered a twice year by the Bureau of Justice statistics (BJS). The purpose of the NCVS is offer a uniform report of the incidence of crime including rape and sexual assault victimizations, in the general population.

A 2014 assessment by Sinozich and Langton used longitudinal data from the NCSV to measure rape and sexual assault among college aged US women from 1995 to 2013. Their findings indicated that rape, a subset of all sexual assault, had an incidence of 1.4 per 1,000 female students (0.1%) in 2013[4] during the period studied. The study also found that college aged women (regardless of enrollment status) were assaulted at a significantly higher rate than non-college age women, 4.3 per 1,000 (0.4%) per year versus 1.4 per 1,000 (0.1%) per year, but that women who were not enrolled in college were 1.2 times more likely to be assaulted than college aged women who were enrolled.[4]

Rape/Sexual assaults reported on National Crime Victimization Survey (1995-2013).[4]

The NCVS is one of the few national level, longitudinal sources of data on rape and sexual assault, and it has relatively high response rate (88%) compared to other studies of sexual victimization. Data is collected using telephone interviews, which permits clarifying questions, and uses a bounded time frame of six months, limiting the likelihood that results are overestimated due to "telescoping" (the reporting of events occurring outside of a reference period as though they occurred within the specified period).[4]

On the other hand, results reported by the NCVS are consistently lower than studies using other methodologies, and researchers have charged that the question wording, context, and sampling methodology used on the NCVS leads a systematic underestimate of the incidence of rape and sexual assault.[7][3][8] A recent assessment of the NCSV methodology conducted by the National Research Council pointed to four flaws in the NCSV approach: the use of a sampling methodology that was inefficient in measuring low-incidence events like rape and sexual assault; the ambiguous wording questions related to sexual violence; the criminal justice context in which the survey was administered; and the lack of privacy offered to survey respondents. The authors concluded that these flaws make it "highly likely that the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) is underestimating rape and sexual assault."[3]

Campus Sexual Assault Survey (2007)[edit]

In 2007 the National Institute of Justice funded the Campus Sexual Assault (CSA) survey, a web-based survey of 6,800 undergraduates at two large universities using multiple explicitly worded questions about sexual victimization. According to the results, 19% of women and 6.1% of men had been victims of at least one completed or attempted sexual assault since entering college. The study's authors also found that the majority of women were assaulted while incapacitated, that perpetrators were usually friends or acquaintances rather than strangers and that Freshmen and Sophomores were at a higher risk for sexual assault than Juniors and Seniors.[5]

However, Christopher Krebs, the lead author of the CSA, cautions that the results from these two schools in no way nationally representative, noting, in a conversation with one reporter: "We don’t think one in five is a nationally representative statistic.” and “In no way does that make our results nationally representative."[9]

In a follow-up study in 2008, the authors of the 2007 Campus Sexual Assault Survey examined sexual violence experiences at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). 3,951 undergraduate women from four HBCUs were given the same questionnaire used in the 2007 CSA. The study found that 14.2% of women attending these schools had experienced a completed or attempted sexual assault, and 8.3% had been victims of rape. The authors noted that incapacitated sexual assault was rarer among HBCU compared to non-HBCU students, and suggested that the differences in prevalence rates seemed "to be driven entirely by a difference in the rate of incapacitated sexual assault, which is likely explained by the fact that HBCU women drink alcohol much less frequently than non-HBCU women".[10]

National College Women Sexual Victimization (NCWSV) survey (2000)[edit]

In 2000, The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) and the United States Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) updated the 1997 National College Women Sexual Victimization (NCWSV) survey. In it, 4,446 American college women were chosen randomly and surveyed. The effort consisted of behaviorally specific questions that describe an incident in graphic language and cover the elements of a criminal offense, such as "Did someone make you have sexual intercourse by using force or threatening to harm you?" According to that survey, 1.7% of women had experienced a rape and another 1.1% had experienced an attempted rape.

The National Institute of Justice pointed out in a report that this single estimate does not take into account variation between semesters and calculated, with caveats, that it can climb to between one-fifth and one-quarter over the course of a school career. They caution, however, that "These projections are suggestive" and "To assess accurately the victimization risk for women throughout a college career, longitudinal research following a cohort of female students across time is needed."[11][12]

Emily Yoffe, writing for Slate noted that this approach is problematic, which the researchers also detail in their footnotes. It takes the 1.7% assault rate from the survey and makes mathematical projections that presume students are there for 60 months, and that their experience in the first year (the highest risk period) is the same for all 5 years. She then goes on to state "The one-fifth to one-quarter assertion would mean that young American college women are raped at a rate similar to women in Congo, where rape has been used as a weapon of war."[9]

Koss Study (1985)[edit]

In 1985, Mary P. Koss, a professor of psychology at Kent State University, conducted a national rape survey on college campuses in the United States, sponsored by the National Institute of Health and with administrative support from Ms. Magazine. The survey, administered on 32 college campuses across the USA, asked 3,187 female and 2,872 male undergraduate students about their sexual experiences since age 14. The survey included ten questions related to sexual coercion. Out of the 3,187 undergraduate women Koss surveyed, 207, or 6%, had been raped within the past year. 15.4 percent of Koss' female respondents had been raped since age 14, an additional 12.1 percent of female respondents had experienced attempted rape since age 14, and 4.4 percent of college men reported perpetrating legal rape since age 14.[7] The combined figure for rape and attempted rape of women since age 14, 27.5 percent, became known as the "one in four" statistic.[13]

According to Christina Hoff Sommers, a self-described "equity feminist" who is a critic of mainstream feminism, the Koss study and the oft-quoted "one in four" statistic is based upon flawed methodology. One of the three questions used by Koss to calculate rape prevalence was, "Have you had sexual intercourse when you didn't want to because a man gave you alcohol or drugs?" According to Sommers and professor Neil Gilbert, this wording left the door open for anyone who regretted a sexual liaison to be counted as a rape victim, even if neither partner thought of the situation as abusive.[13] Subsequent studies have derived similar results using reworded drug and alcohol questions, and found that most victims reported being emotionally and psychologically affected regardless of whether they classified an event as "rape". [1][14]

Other studies of the time, such as those by scholars Margaret Gordon and Linda George, found much lower measured rape prevalence,[13] with their research simply asking women if they had been raped rather than asking behaviorally specific questions. The use of multiple behaviorally specific questions in rape surveys has since become an accepted approach used by both academic researchers and multiple U.S. federal government agencies.[8]

Non-US studies[edit]

Campus sexual assault has received less attention from researchers outside the U.S.. Studies that have examined sexual assault experiences among college students in western countries other than the U.S. have found results similar to those found by American researchers. A 1993 study of a nationally representative sample of Canadian College students found that 28% of women had experienced some form of sexual assault in the preceding year, and 45% of women had experienced some form of sexual assault since entering college.[14] A 1991 study of 347 undergraduates in New Zealand found that 25.3 had experienced rape or attempted rape, and 51.6% had experienced some form of sexual victimization.[15] A 2014 study of students in Great Britain found that 25% of women had experienced some type of sexual assault while attending university and 7% of women had experienced rape or attempted rape as college students.[16]


Perpetrator demographics[edit]

Research by David Lisak found that serial rapists account for 90% of all campus rapes[17] with an average of six rapes each.[18][19]

Victim demographics[edit]

Research of American college students suggests that white women, prior victims, first-year students, and more sexually active women are the most vulnerable to sexual assault. Another study shows that white women are more likely than non-white women to experience rape while intoxicated, but less likely to experience other forms of rape. This high rate of rape while intoxicated accounts for white women reporting a higher overall rate of sexual assault than non-white women, although further research is needed into racial differences and college party organization.[12] Regardless of race, the majority of victims know the assailant. Black women in America are more likely to report sexual assault that has been perpetrated by a stranger.[20] Teenage girls[clarification needed] are more likely to think that stranger rape is more serious than other forms of rape.[21] Victims of rape are mostly between 10 and 29 years old, while perpetrators are generally between 15 and 29 years old.[22]

A 2007 National Institute of Justice study found that, in terms of perpetrators, about 80% of survivors of physically forced or incapacitated sexual assault were assaulted by someone that they knew.[23]

Acquaintance rape[edit]

Acquaintance rape is the most common form of rape. In the U.S., 78% of all sexual assaults are committed by acquaintances. Victims between 18 and 29 years old are the highest risk group for sexual assault. In half of acquaintance assault cases, the victim and rapist are somewhat familiar with one another, 24% were perpetrated by an intimate partner, and 2% by a relative. Sexual assault by an assailant upon a person he or she does not know was cited in 22% surveyed incidents among enrolled student respondents.[4] Date rape, a form of acquaintance rape, is a non-domestic rape committed by someone with whom the victim has been involved in some form of a romantic relationship.[24] Date rape constitutes the vast majority of reported rapes. It can occur between two people who know one another usually in social situations, between people who are dating as a couple and have had consensual sex in the past, between two people who are starting to date, between people who are just friends, and between acquaintances. It includes rape of co-workers, schoolmates, friends, and other acquaintances, providing they are dating.[25] Date rape is considered the most underreported crime on college campuses.[26] The term date rape is often used interchangeably with the terms ‘acquaintance rape’ and ‘hidden rape’ and has been identified as a problem in western society.[27]

Gang rape[edit]

Gang rape is a rape perpetrated by multiple offenders at once. The Bureau of Justice Statistics report that only 5% of all rape cases involve more than one offender.[4] Fifty-five to seventy percent of gang rape perpetrators belong to fraternities. Eighty-six percent of off-campus attempted rape or sexual assaults are at fraternity houses.[28] College gang rape tends to be perpetrated by middle- to upper-class men.[29] However since the majority of college students come from middle and upper class income households,[30] this may be a coincidental reflection of student income distribution.

There are higher incidents of gang rape within fraternities for many reasons: peer acceptance, alcohol use, the acceptance of rape myths and viewing women as sexualized objects, as well as the highly masculinized environment. The Neumann study found that fraternity members are more likely than other college students to engage in rape.[28] Part of the prevalence of fraternity rape may be due to the fact that some colleges do not have complete control over the privately owned fraternity houses.[12] Although gang rape on college campuses is an issue, acquaintance, and party rape (a form of acquaintance rape where intoxicated people are targeted) are more likely to happen.[29]

Risk Factors[edit]

Researchers have identified a variety factors that contribute to heightened levels of sexual assault on college campuses. Individual factors (such as alcohol consumption and attitudes toward women), environmental and cultural factors (such as peer group support for sexual aggression), as well inadequate enforcement efforts by campus police and administrators have been offered as potential causes. [31]

Influence of alcohol[edit]

Alcohol consumption is known to have effects on sexual behavior and aggression. During social interactions, alcohol consumption also encourages biased appraisal of a partner’s sexual motives, impairs communication about sexual intentions, and enhances misperception of sexual intent, effects exacerbated by peer influence about how to act when drinking.[32] The effects of alcohol at point of forced sex are likely to impair ability to rectify misperceptions, diminish ability to resist sexual advancements, and justifies aggressive behavior.[32] Alcohol provides justification for engaging in behaviors that are usually considered inappropriate. Studies have shown consistent alcohol use in reported cases of sexual and non-sexual violence. The increase of assaults on college campuses can be attributed to the social expectation that students participate in alcohol consumption. The peer norms on American college campuses are to drink heavily, to act in an uninhibited manner and to engage in casual sex.[33]

Various studies have concluded the following results:

  • At least 47% of college students’ sexual assaults are associated with alcohol use[4]
  • 74% of perpetrators and 55% of victims of rape of a nationally representative sample of college students had been drinking alcohol[32]
  • Women whose partners abuse alcohol are 3.6 times more likely than other women to be assaulted by their partners[34]
  • In 2013, more than 14,700 students between the ages of 18 and 24 were victims of alcohol-related sexual assault in the U.S.[4]
  • In those violent incidents recorded by the police in which alcohol was a factor, about 9% of the offenders and nearly 14% of the victims were under age 21[35]

Some universities only hold men accountable for gaining consent even when both parties are intoxicated. In a recent lawsuit against Duke university, a Duke administrator, when asked whether verbal consent need be mutual when both participants are drunk, stated, "Assuming it is a male and female, it is the responsibility in the case of the male to gain consent before proceeding with sex."[36] Other institutions state only that a rape victim has to be "intoxicated" rather than "incapacitated" by alcohol or drugs to render consent impossible.[37]


Individual and peer group attitudes have also been identified as an important risk factor for the perpetration of sexual assault among college aged men in the United States. Both the self-reported proclivity to commit rape in a hypothetical scenario, as well as self-reported history of sexual aggression, positively correlate with the endorsement of rape tolerant or rape supportive attitudes in men.[38][39] Acceptance of rape myths – prejudicial and stereotyped beliefs about rape and situations surrounding rape such as the belief that "only promiscuous women get raped" or that "women ask for it" – are correlated with self reported past sexual aggression and with self-reported willingness to commit rape in the future among men.[40]

A 2007 study found that college-aged men who reported previous sexual aggression held negative attitudes toward women and gender roles, were more acceptant of using alcohol to obtain sex, were more likely to believe that rape was justified in some circumstances, were more likely to blame women for their victimization, and were more likely to view sexual conquest as an important status symbol.[41][42]

According to sociologist Michael Kimmel, rape-prone campus environments exist throughout several university and college campuses in North America. Kimmel defines these environments as “…one in which the incidence of rape is reported by observers to be high, or rape is excused as a ceremonial expression of masculinity, or rape as an act by which men are allowed to punish or threaten women.”[43]



The Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act requires that all schools in the U.S. that participate in federal student aid programs implement policies for addressing sexual assault.[44] [45]

A 2000 study by the National Institute of Justice found that only about a third of U.S. schools fully complied with federal regulations for recording and reporting instances of sexual assault, and only half offered an option for anonymous reporting of sexual assault victimization.[46]

Numerous colleges in the United States have come under federal investigation for their handling of sexual assault cases, described by civil rights groups as discriminatory and inappropriate.[47][48]

Prevention efforts by the Obama administration[edit]

In 2011, the United States Department of Education sent a letter, known as the “Dear Colleague” letter, to the presidents of all colleges and universities in the United States stating that Title IX requires schools to investigate and adjudicate cases of sexual assault on campus.[49] The letter also states that schools must adjudicate these cases using a “preponderance of the evidence” standard, meaning that the accused will be responsible if it is determined that there is at least a 50.1% chance that the assault occurred. The letter expressly forbid the use of the stricter “clear and convincing evidence” standard used at some schools previously. In 2014, a survey of colleges and university assault policies conducted at the request of the U.S. Senate found that more than 40% of schools studied had not conducted a single rape or sexual assault investigation in the past five years, and more than 20% had failed to conduct investigations into assaults they had reported to the Department of Education.[50] In 2014, President Barack Obama established the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault, which published a report reiterating the interpretation of Title IX in the “Dear Colleague” letter and proposing a number of other measures to prevent and respond to sexual assault on campus, such as campus climate surveys and bystander intervention programs.[51][52] Shortly thereafter, the Department of Education released a list of 55 colleges and universities across the country that it was investigating for possible Title IX violations in relation to sexual assault.[53] As of early 2015, 94 different colleges and universities were under ongoing investigations by the U.S. Department of Education for their handling of rape and sexual assault allegations.[54]


The Department of Education's approach toward adjudicating sexual assault accusations has been criticized by some for failing to consider the possibility of false accusations. Critics claim that the “preponderance of the evidence” standard required by Title IX is not an appropriate basis for determining guilt or innocence, and can lead to students being wrongfully expelled. Campus hearings have also been criticized for failing to provide many of the due process protections that the United States Constitution guarantees in criminal trials, such as the right to be represented by an attorney and the right to cross-examine witnesses.[55]

In May 2014, the National Center for Higher Education Risk Management, a law firm that advises colleges on liability issues, issued an open letter to all parties involved in the issue of rape on campus.[56] In it, NCHERM expressed praise for Obama's initiatives to end sexual assault on college campuses, and called attention to several areas of concern they hoped to help address. While acknowledging appreciation for the complexities involved in changing campus culture, the letter offered direct advice to each party involved in campus hearings, outlining the improvements NCHERM considers necessary to continue the progress achieved since the issuance of the “Dear Colleague” letter in 2011. In early 2014, the group RAINN (Rape and Incest National Network) wrote an open letter to the White House calling for campus hearings to be de-emphasized due to their lack of accountability for survivors and victims of sexual violence. According to RAINN, “The crime of rape does not fit the capabilities of such boards. They often offer the worst of both worlds: they lack protections for the accused while often tormenting victims.”[57]

Since the issuance of the “Dear Colleague” letter, a number of lawsuits have been filed against colleges and universities by male students alleging that their universities violated their rights over the course of adjudicating sexual assault accusations.[58] Xavier University entered into a settlement in one such lawsuit in April 2014.[59]

College reactions[edit]

Some colleges and universities have taken additional steps to prevent sexual violence on campus. These include educational programs designed to inform students about risk factors and prevention strategies to avoid victimization, bystander education programs (which encourage students to identify and defuse situations that may lead to sexual assault), and social media campaigns to raise awareness about sexual assault. [46]

See also[edit]


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Further reading[edit]