Campus sexual assault

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Campus sexual assault is sexual assault of a student attending an institution of higher learning, such as a college or university. Sexual assault is any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient, and includes rape.[1]

Sexual assault for higher education students occurs more frequently against women, but any gender can be victimized. All ethnicities and social classes are affected. While the rate of violent crime against higher education students aged 18–24 in the United States declined significantly from 1995 to 2002, the rates of rape and other sexual assault largely remained the same.[2] Estimates of sexual assault, which vary based on definitions and methodology, range from 0.61% of female students sexually assaulted annually to 19–27% of college women and 6–8% of college men sexually assaulted during their time in college.[3][4][5][6]

In response to charges that schools have poorly supported women who have complained of sexual assault, in 2011 Office for Civil Rights under the Obama administration used an interpretation of Title IX to issue "guidance" to universities. The so-called "Dear Colleague" letter advised academic institutions that they must make changes to how they handle sexual assault allegations, including lowering the standard of proof, setting time limits on a response to allegations, and limiting the accused's rights to cross-examine the complainant. The OCR guidance also included the threat to withdraw federal funding to schools that do not comply.[7] Legal experts have raised concerns about risks of abuses against the accused.[8] Following changes to disciplinary processes, dozens of lawsuits against universities have been filed by men alleging bias and/or violations of their rights.[9]

Prevalence and incidence of rape and other sexual assault[edit]

Research consistently shows that the majority of rape and other sexual assault survivors do not report their attacks to law enforcement. Reasons for not reporting include fear of reprisal, shame, uncertainty about whether a crime was committed, or a belief that an incident was not sufficiently serious enough to report.[10][11][12] Although survivors of sexual violence suffer psychological consequences, they may reason that the costs of reporting—e.g., loss of privacy, humiliation, having to testify to police or at a college disciplinary hearing—outweigh any potential benefits. Women of color, women who are raped by an acquaintance or family members, and women who were using drugs or alcohol when they were assaulted are generally less likely to report the crime to police.[12]

As a result of non-reporting, sources that rely on police records or official crime reports, such as the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports, may underestimate the number of rapes and sexual assaults in a given year.[13] Victimization surveys represent an alternative method for measuring allegations of rape and sexual assault that are not recorded by the police.[14]

Research estimates anywhere from approximately 0.35%.[4] to 10%[3] to 29%[15] of women have been victims of rape or attempted rape since starting college. Methodological differences, such as the method of survey administration, the definition of rape or sexual assault used, the wording of questions, and the time period studied contribute to these disparities.[15] There is currently no consensus on the best way to measure rape and sexual assault.[14]

2015 Campus Climate Surveys[edit]

The 2015 Association of American Universities (AAU) Campus Survey on Sexual Assault, one of the largest studies ever of college sexual violence, drew responses from Campus Climate Surveys of 150,000 students across 27 schools, including most of the Ivy League schools. Schools that participated in the survey included: Caltech, Texas A&M, Iowa State, University of Texas, Case Western, University of Florida, University of Pittsburgh, Purdue University, University of Arizona, Columbia University, Cornell University, Washington U. in St. Louis, Ohio State, University of Minnesota, University of North Carolina, University of Oregon, University of Virginia, Brown University, Michigan State University, Harvard, University of Missouri, University of Pennsylvania, Dartmouth College, University of Wisconsin, Yale University, University of Southern California, and University of Michigan.[16] It found that more than 20% of female and 5% of male undergraduates said that they were victims of non-consensual sexual contact, defined as behaviors ranging from unwanted sexual touching or kissing to penetration, through either physical force or incapacitation, since entering college.[16] The overall response rate was 19%. While they noted that low response rates were only an indirect indicator of the reliability of the results, they found evidence that their estimates of sexual assaults may have been biased upward because respondents were more likely to have been assaulted than non-respondents.

Most respondents who reported sexual assault to the AAU said they did not report the incident to police or campus authorities because they did not consider the event “serious enough" to report, even when it included forced penetration.[5][17] More than half of those who reported forcible penetration said that they did not report this crime because they did not think it was serious enough.[18][19][20] Stuart Taylor Jr., a Brookings Institution fellow, remarked, "This most plausible explanation is that most of those classified by the survey as “victims” of sexual assault or rape did not really think that they had been sexually assaulted."[21]

KC Johnson, a Brooklyn College history professor who tracks college sexual assault issues, noted that if the AAU survey were taken literally, the rates "suggest a violent crime rate at most campuses higher than in any city in the country." Stuart Taylor Jr. argued in a Washington Post op-ed article that the survey was subject to non-response bias and used an overly broad definition of sexual assault.[22]

Several universities conducted independent sexual assault studies rather than participating in the AAU surveys. Unlike typical campus surveys that rely on volunteer student responses, the University of Kentucky made their survey mandatory. Diane Follingstad, Director of the Center for Research on Violence Against Women at UK, said that volunteered data is not always representative. “A survey that goes out to a campus is relying on whomever is willing to complete it. There is always a concern that samples are skewed.” She added, "As best we understand, we do not know of another survey at a university that includes all their students"[23] The UK survey encompassed 80% of students (24,300 respondents), roughly 5,000 students did not participate in time for the first round of data, and students had the option of opting out of questions if they felt uncomfortable answering them.[24] According to preliminary results, 5% of students reported incidents of completed or attempted vaginal, oral, or anal sex that occurred without their consent in the last year.[25][26] These results were comparable to previous surveys that used similar measures of sexual assault, such as the 2007 Campus Sexual Assault survey.[24]

A survey conducted by Rutgers University found that 12% of men and women had experienced some form of sexual assault, while at the University of Michigan, 22% of female students said they had been assaulted in the last year.[27] Rutgers researcher Sarah McMahon explained why they used a broader definition: "We think the one-in-five statistic is important. We know sexual violence means different things to different individuals, so we used a broad definition." McMahon noted that the phrase “unwanted sexual contact” made it “nearly impossible” for researchers to distinguish among types of sexual violence that differ in severity.[27]

National Crime Victimization Surveys[edit]

The National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) is a national survey administered twice year by the United States Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). The purpose of the NCVS is to 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 NCVS to measure rape and sexual assault among college aged U.S. 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 per 1,000 females 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 a 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] RAINN (the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) considers the NCVS to be one of "the most reliable source of statistics" about sexual violence and uses it as their primary source.[28]

However, results reported by the NCVS are consistently lower than studies using other methodologies. Researchers, such as Bonnie Fisher and Mary Koss, 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.[14][29][30] A recent assessment of the NCVS 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 definitions of assault; and the lack of privacy offered to survey respondents (phone interview vs. completely anonymous survey). The authors concluded that these flaws make it "highly likely that the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) is underestimating rape and sexual assault."[14]

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.[3]

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.".[31] Likewise, commenting on the Whitehouse's use of the CSA's 1 in 5 statistic, Mary Koss stated, "is not the soundest data (the White House) could use."[32]

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".[33]

A 2017 systematic review determined that about one in five women who had been in college had been sexually assaulted while enrolled there, in line with the widely cited and frequently criticized conclusion of the CSA survey.[34]

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

In 2000, the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) and the 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."[35][36]

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."[31]

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 US, 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.[29] The combined figure for rape and attempted rape of women since age 14, 27.5 percent, became known as the "one in four" statistic.[37]

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, and noted that 73% of the respondents did not report having been raped when asked directly.[37] Subsequent studies have derived similar results using reworded drug and alcohol questions, and found that most victims reported being emotionally and psychologically affected to some degree, regardless of whether they classified an event as "rape".[10][38]

Other studies of the time, such as those by scholars Margaret Gordon and Linda George, found much lower measured rape prevalence,[37] 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 one of several accepted approaches used by both academic researchers and multiple U.S. federal government agencies.[30]

Non-US studies[edit]

Campus sexual assault has received less attention from researchers outside the United States.[citation needed] 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.[39] 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.[40] 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.[41]

Report on Sexual Assault and Harassment at Australian Universities (2017)[edit]

The 2017 Change The Course study conducted nationally by the Australian Human Rights Commission reported that 21% of students had been sexually harassed during 2015-16 and 1.6% of students had been sexually assaulted during 2016. The most common form of sexual harassment was looking/staring at someone, followed by "inappropriate comments".[42] Sexual assaults at social events and residential colleges were reported as a particular area of concern. The study was prompted by activism by women's groups on campuses due to claims that universities were not effectively responding to incidents of sexual assault.[43] The Education Minister Simon Birmingham and the Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins threatened repercussions for the university industry, including the 39 universities who took part in the study, if they failed to act to reform campus culture contributing to the issue.[44][43] The study also found that 87% of students who were deemed sexually assaulted, and 94% of students sexually harassed, did not make a formal complaint or report to their university.[42]

LGBTQ students[edit]

Within the broader population of students on college campuses, LGBTQ students experience an especially high incidence rate of sexual violence. Because of vulnerability associated with being a minority, LGBTQ people are more likely to experience sexual violence than their heterosexual peers. For example, 10% of sexual minority men, 18% of sexual minority women, and 19% of non-binary or transitioning students reported an unwanted sexual encounter since beginning college as opposed to heterosexual majority.[45]

A direct association has been found between internalized homophobia and unwanted sexual experiences among LGBTQ college aged students, suggesting that the specific stresses of identifying as LGBTQ as a college aged student puts people more at risk for sexual violence.[46] The obstacles that LGBTQ students face with regard to sexual assault can be attributed not only to internalized homophobia, but also to institutionalized heterosexism and cisexism within college campuses.[47] Moreover, outreach campaigns about domestic and sexual violence often do not include the experiences of LGBTQ individuals, meaning that prevention efforts may not be reaching them.[48]

Disclosure rates of LGBTQ students and campus sexual assault[edit]

Within the broader category of LGBTQ students as a whole, gendered and racial trends of sexual violence mirror those of sexual violence among heterosexual college students, with sexual violence occurring at a higher rate among women and people of color.[49] A study published in the American Journal of Psychology found that the disclosure rate of LGBTQ college aged students who experienced intimate partner violence was significantly lower than their heterosexual counterparts, with 35% of LGBTQ students disclosing their assaults in comparison to approximately 75% of heterosexual students.[48] This study suggests that differences in disclosure rates may be due to minority stress indicators such as a sense that one needs to conceal one’s identity or fear of appearing different from one’s peers.[48]

It was found that lesbian women withheld disclosing their assault due to feelings of shame about their sexuality, and that other LGBTQ sexual violence victims chose not to disclose due to fear of exposing their sexual orientation.[48] Further, when LGBTQ students do decide to disclose to a formal resource (a doctor, counselor, etc.), these formal resources are often ill-equipped to deal with the specific vulnerabilities and stresses of LGBTQ students, leaving LGBTQ students feeling unheard and leading them to be less likely to disclose or seek help in the future.[49]

Sexual violence and mental health among LGBTQ students[edit]

Incidents of sexual assault among LGBTQ students may be influenced by a variety of situational factors. Many members of the LGBTQ youth community suffer from serious depression and suicidal thoughts. The prevalence of attempted suicide among LGBTQ populations ranges from 23% to 42% for youth.[50] Many LGBTQ youth use alcohol to cope with depression. One study found that 28% of those [who are "those"?] interviewed had received treatment for alcohol or drug abuse.[50] Furthermore, rates of substance use and abuse are much higher among LGBTQ college students than heterosexuals, with LGBTQ women being 10.7 times more likely to drink than heterosexual women.[51] Unfortunately, many predators target those appearing to be vulnerable and it was found that over one half of all sexual abuse victims reported they had been drinking when they were abused.[52]


There are three broad approaches used to explain sexual assault.[36]

The first approach, “individual determinants”, stems from the psychological perspective of rape. This approach views campus sexual assault as primarily the result of individual characteristics possessed by either the perpetrator and/or the victim. For example, Malamuth & Colleagues identified individual characteristics of hostile masculinity and impersonal sexual behavior as critical predictors of sexual aggression against women. Their psychological model states that men who display hostile masculinity traits (e.g. a desire to control/dominate women and an insecure, hypersensitive and distrustful orientation toward women) and impersonal sexual behavior (e.g. an emotionally detached, promiscuous and non-committal orientation towards sexual relations) are more likely to support the use of violence against women and engage in sexual assault. Their findings have been replicated in college student samples and non-student adult samples (Malamuth et al., 1991; Malamuth et al., 1993). Further, narcissistic entitlement and trait aggression have been identified as major individual risk factors for rape (LeBreton et al., 2013). General desire or need for sex, contrary to popular opinion, is not significantly associated with sexual assault indicating that sexual assault is act of dominance rather than sexual gratification (Abbey & McAuslan, 2004).In regards to victims, white women, first-year students, non-students on college campuses, prior victims, and women who are more sexually active are more vulnerable to being sexually assaulted.[53]

The “rape culture” approach stems from second-wave feminism.[54] “Rape culture is a term used to describe the way rape, sexual violence, and sexual assault are linked to the culture of society.”[55]

The third approach to explaining rape identifies the contexts in which that rape and sexual assault occur.[56] A significant place for unwanted sexual attention bass been at the houses of fraternities and at nearby bars.[citation needed] This approach suggests that although rape culture is a factor to why sexual assault occurs, it is also the characteristics of its setting that can increase vulnerability. For instance practices, rules, distribution or resources, and the ideologies of the university or college can promote unhealthy beliefs about gender and can in turn contribute to campus sexual assault.[36] Fraternities are known for hosting parties in which binge drinking and casual sex are encouraged, which increase the risk of sexual assault.[57]


Perpetrator demographics[edit]

Research by David Lisak found that serial rapists account for 90% of all campus rapes[58] with an average of six rapes each.[59][60] A 2015 study of male students led by Kevin Swartout at Georgia State University found that four out of five perpetrators did not fit the model of serial predators.[61] Of the 1,084 respondents to a 1998 survey at Liberty University, 8.1% of males and 1.8% of females reported perpetrating unwanted sexual assault.[62] According to Carol Bohmer and Andrea Parrot in "Sexual Assault on Campus" males are more likely to commit a sexual assault if they choose to live in an all-male residency.

Both athletic males and fraternities have higher rates of sexual assault. In a study conducted by the NASPA in 2007 and 2009 suggest, “that fraternity members are more likely than non-fraternity members to commit rape”.[63] In another article by Antonia Abby she found that there are certain characteristics that male perpetrators that put them at risk of committing sexual assault. As she stresses perpetrators vary “but many show a lack of concern for other people, scoring high on narcissism and low on empathy. Many have high levels of anger in general well as hostility toward women; they are suspicious of women’s motives, believe common rape myths, and have a sense of entitlement about sex.”[64] Also, males on athletic teams are more likely to commit an assault after a game. The commonality between the two instances are the involvement of alcohol. Assailants are not limited to these two situations however there can also be a connection made in regards to their status in school.[65]

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.[36] It has been shown that women who have been sexually assaulted prior to entering college are at a higher risk of experiencing sexual assault in college.[66] 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. It has been found that “the role of party rape in the lives of white college women is substantiated by recent research that found that ‘white women were more likely [than non-white women] to have experienced rape while intoxicated and less likely to experience other rape.'”[36] 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.[36] 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.[67] Victims of rape are mostly between 10 and 29 years old, while perpetrators are generally between 15 and 29 years old.[68] Nearly 60% of rapes that occur on campuses happen in either the victims dorm or apartment.[69] A greater portion of the time these rapes occur off campus than on campus.[69] But more research needs to be conducted in this area.

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.[70]

The 2015 AAU Campus Climate Survey report found that transgender and gender non-conforming students were more likely than their peers to experience a sexual assault involving physical force or incapacitation. Out of 1,398 students who identified as TGQN, 24.1% of undergraduates and 15.5% of graduate/professional students reported experiencing a sexual assault involving physical force since enrolled. By comparison, 23.1% of female undergraduates and 8.8% of female graduate students reported the same type of sexual assault, along with 5.4% of male undergraduates and 2.2% of male graduate/professional students. Overall, sexual assault or misconduct was experienced at a rate of 19% among transgender and gender non-conforming students, 17% among female students, and 4.4% of male students.[71][72]

Many victims completely or partially blame themselves for the assault because they are embarrassed and shamed, or fear not being believed. These elements may lead to underreporting of the crime. According to research, "myths, stereotypes, and unfounded beliefs about male sexuality, in particular male homosexuality," contribute to underreporting among males. In addition, "male sexual assault victims have fewer resources and greater stigma than do female sexual assault victims."[73] Hispanic and Asian students may have lower rates of knowing a victim or perpetrator due to cultural values discouraging disclosure.[74]

The Neumann study found that fraternity members are more likely than other college students to engage in rape; surveying the literature, it described numerous reasons for this, including peer acceptance, alcohol use, the acceptance of rape myths and viewing women as sexualized objects, as well as the highly masculinized environment.[75] 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.[76]

Risk factors[edit]

Researchers have identified a variety of factors that contribute to heightened levels of sexual assault on college campuses. Individual factors (such as alcohol consumption, impersonal sexual behavior and hostile attitudes toward women), environmental and cultural factors (such as peer group support for sexual aggression, gender role stress and skewed gender ratios), as well inadequate enforcement efforts by campus police and administrators have been offered as potential causes. In addition, general cultural notions relating to victim-blaming are at play as the majority of assaults are never reported due to shame or fear.[36]

Semester and class rank[edit]

Several studies have reported that the risk of sexual assault is higher for students in their first year or second year of college, and that sexual assaults happen more frequently in the periods between August and November when many students are first arriving on campus. This time period is often referred to as the "red zone" by sexual assault researchers and in sexual assault prevention materials.[77]

Although the existence of a "red zone" was initially based mostly on anecdotal evidence, several recent studies have found that the reported rate of sexual assault is highest among freshmen women, and higher among sophomore women compared to women in the third and fourth years of college.[78] A 2008 study by Kimble et al. also found support for the claim that sexual assaults happened more frequently in the fall semester, but the authors cautioned that "local factors" such as the timing of semesters, the campus residential system, or the timing of major fraternity events may influence the temporal risk of sexual assault.[79]

Researchers have posited several possible reasons for the "red zone" pattern: freshmen and sophomores are more likely to attend parties and consume alcohol more frequently compared to juniors and seniors, both of which are associated with an increased risk of sexual assault.[80] Freshmen may be more vulnerable to sexual assault during their first semester because they do not have close friends who could intervene if they are in danger of assault, or because they are not aware of informal strategies that older students use to avoid unwanted sexual attention.[78] Several scholars have also noted that the period between August and November typically coincides with fraternity "rush" week, when students are more likely to attend fraternity parties, which may be associated with a higher risk of sexual assault.[81]

Influence of alcohol[edit]

Both victims and perpetrators of sexual assault frequently report that they were consuming alcohol when the assault occurred. For instance, the 2007 Campus Sexual Assault study found that most sexual assaults occurred after women voluntarily consumed alcohol.[3] In a 1998 study, 47% of men who admitted to having committed a sexual assault also reported that they were drinking alcohol at the time of the attack.[82]

During social interactions, alcohol consumption encourages biased appraisal of a partner’s sexual motives, impairs communication about sexual intentions, and enhances misperception of sexual intent. These effects are exacerbated by peer influence about how to act when drinking.[83] 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.[83] Alcohol provides justification for engaging in behaviors that are usually considered inappropriate. 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.[84] However, a study on the reports of women in college shows that their substance use is not a risk factor for forced sexual assault, but is a risk factor for sexual assault while the victim is incapacitated.[66]

Various studies have concluded the following results:

  • At least 47% of college students’ sexual assaults are associated with alcohol use[4]
  • Women whose partners abuse alcohol are 3.6 times more likely than other women to be assaulted by their partners[85]
  • 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[86]

Some have noted gender-specific and variable standards for intoxicated consent. 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."[87][88][89] Other institutions state only that a rape victim has to be "intoxicated" rather than "incapacitated" by alcohol or drugs to render consent impossible.[90][91][92][93]

In one study[64] that Antonia Abby describes in her article, a group of 160 men students listen to an audiotape recording of a date rape. In the beginning the woman agrees to kissing and touching but once the man tries to remove her clothes and she refuses the male becomes more aggressive verbally and physically. The men were asked to stop the tape at the point that they felt the man’s behavior was inappropriate. “Participants who consumed alcohol allowed the man to continue for a longer period of time and rated the women’s sexual arousal higher than did sober participants. The findings suggest that intoxicated men may project their own sexual arousal onto a women, missing or ignoring her active protest.”[64]

A study conducted by Elizabeth Armstrong, Laura Hamilton and Brian Sweeney in 2006 suggests that it is the culture and gendered nature of fraternity parties that create an environment with greater likelihood of sexual assault. They state “Culture expectations that party goers drink heavily and trust party-mates become problematic when combined with expectations that women be nice and defer to men. Fulfilling the role of the parties produced vulnerability on the part of women, which some men exploit to extract non-consensual sex.”[36]

While alcohol is not involved in every rape or sexual assault it is a factor in many. As the study by Armstrong, Hamilton, and Sweeney suggests it might be one of the reasons for the under-reporting of rape where because of having been drinking victims fear that they will be ignored or not believed.[36]


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.[94][95] 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.[96]

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.[97][98]

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."[99]

Prevention efforts[edit]

In the United States, Title IX prohibits gender-based discrimination at any school or university that receives federal funding.[100] Since the 1980s, regulators and courts have held that preventing gender discrimination requires schools to implement policies to protect students from sexual violence or hostile educational environments, reasoning that these can limit women's ability to access to education. Under Title IX, schools are required to make efforts to prevent sexual violence and harassment, and to have policies in place for investigating complaints and protecting victims.[101] While schools are required to notify victims of sexual assault that they have a right to report their attack to the police, this reporting is voluntary, and schools are required to hold investigate claims and hold disciplinary procedures independently, regardless of whether a sexual assault is reported to or investigated by police.[7] An estimated 83% of officers on college campuses are male. Research shows that more female law enforcement officers increases the number of sexual assault reports.[102]

The best known articulation that rape and sexual assault is a broader problem was the 1975 book Against Our Will. The book broadened the perception of rape from a crime by strangers, to one that more often included friends and acquaintances, and raised awareness. As early as the 1980s, campus rape was considered an under-reported crime. Reasons included to the involvement of alcohol, reluctance of students to report the crime, and universities not addressing the issue.[103]

A pivotal change in how universities handle reporting stemmed from the 1986 rape and murder of Jeanne Clery in her campus dormitory. Her parents pushed for campus safety and reporting legislation which became the foundation for The Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act. The Clery Act requires that all schools in the U.S. that participate in federal student aid programs implement policies for addressing sexual assault.[104][105]

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.[106] One recent study indicated that universities also greatly under-report assaults as part of the Clery Act except when they are under scrutiny. When under investigation, the reported rate by institutions rises 44%, only to drop back to baseline levels afterwards.[107]

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.[108][109]

Mandatory reporting of campus sexual assaults has recently been included in proposed bills. In March 2015, the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence (NAESV) conducted a survey in conjunction with Know Your IX regarding the right of the survivor to choose to report the assault to police authorities versus legislation which would enforce legal action upon reporting sexual assault to a university or college. "When asked their concerns if reporting to police were mandatory, 79% said, “this could have a chilling effect on reporting,” while 72% were concerned that “survivors would be forced to participate in the criminal justice system/go to trial.”[110]

Affirmative consent policies[edit]

In a new effort to police student conduct, some states such as New York and Connecticut and many schools require "affirmative consent" (commonly known as "yes means yes"). The policies require students to receive ongoing and active consent throughout any sexual encounter. The policies hold that “Silence or lack of resistance, in and of itself, does not demonstrate consent,” in a shift away from "no means no" to a "yes means yes" requirement for sex to be consensual. Schools can include drug or alcohol intoxication in their considerations of whether a student granted consent under this policy such that a "drunk" student cannot give consent. These policies are challenging to students because non-verbal cues are difficult to interpret and the policies are confusing.[111] Furthermore, researchers have found that legal definitions of affirmative consent are not aligned with student understanding and practices.[112] There has also been push-back from the legal community. In May 2016, American Law Institute overwhelmingly rejected a proposal to endorse affirmative consent which would have otherwise required it to be included in the penal codes. A letter written to the committee by 120 members stated "By forcing the accused to prove the near-impossible — that a sexual encounter was vocally agreed upon at each stage — affirmative consent standards deny the accused due process rights."[113] A Tennessee court also found that student expelled under an affirmative consent policy was required to prove his innocence, contrary to legal practice and due process rights.[114]

Student and organizational activism[edit]

In view of what they considered poor responses by institutions to protect women, some student and other activists groups started raising awareness of the threats and harm women experience on campus. The first "Take Back the Night" march took place in 1978 in San Francisco, and then spread to many college campuses.[115] SlutWalk is a more recent movement against sexual violence.[116]

Some individuals have become causes célèbre among activists. Emma Sulkowicz, a student at Columbia University, is known for her performance art Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight). Lena Sclove, a student at Brown University, made headlines for saying that a fellow student, who reportedly sexually assaulted her, was not sufficiently punished after he received a one-year suspension.[117] The man accused in her case has publicly disputed the report and was found not guilty by the criminal justice system. He has been found responsible under the university's preponderance of the evidence standard. Such cases have led to controversy and concerns regarding presumption of innocence and due process, and have also highlighted the difficulties that universities face in balancing the rights of the accuser and the rights of the accused when dealing with sexual assault complaints.[118][119][120] Both cases have led to further complaints of bias by the men against the universities (Title IX or civil) regarding how they handled the matters.[117][121]

One outside group, UltraViolet, has used online media tactics, including search engine advertisements, to pressure universities to be more aggressive when dealing with reports of rape. Their social media campaign uses advertisements that sometimes lead with "Which College Has The Worst Rape Problem?" and other provocative titles that appear in online search results for a targeted school's name.[122]

Our Turn, a Canadian student-driven initiative to end campus sexual violence, began in 2017. The initiative was launched by three Carleton University students, including Jade Cooligan Pang, and soon spread to 20 student unions in eight Canadian provinces. In October 2017, Our Turn released a survey evaluating the sexual assault policies of 14 Canadian universities along with an action plan for student unions to support survivors of sexual assault.[123][124] The action plan includes creating Our Turn committees on campus to address sexual violence through prevention, support, and advocacy work at the campus, provincial, and national levels.[125]

Obama administration efforts[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 re-iterating that Title IX requires schools to investigate and adjudicate cases of sexual assault on campus.[7] 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 forbade the use of the stricter "clear and convincing evidence" standard used at some schools previously. In 2014, a survey of college 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.[126] The "Dear Colleague" letter is credited by victim's advocates with de-stigmatizing sexual assault and encouraging victims to report. However it also created a climate where the accused rights are considered secondary. Brett Sokolow, executive director of the Association of Title IX Administrators and president of the National Center for Higher Education Risk Management stated, "I think probably a lot of colleges translated the ‘Dear Colleague’ letter as 'favor the victim.'"[127]

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.[128][129] One example of a campus climate survey that was developed in response to this task force is the ARC3 Survey. 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.[130] 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.[131]

In September 2014 President Obama And Vice President Joe Biden launch the "It's On Us" campaign as part of an initiative to end sexual assault on college campuses. The campaign partnered with many organizations and college campuses to get students to take a pledge to end sexual assault on campuses.[132][133]


The Department of Education's approach toward adjudicating sexual assault accusations has been criticized for failing to consider the possibility of false accusations, mistaken identity, or errors by investigators. 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.[134]

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has been critical of university definitions of consent that it considers overly broad. In 2011, FIRE criticized Stanford University after it held a male student responsible for a sexual assault for an incident where both parties had been drinking. FIRE said that Stanford's definition of consent, quoted as follows "A person is legally incapable of giving consent if under age 18 years; if intoxicated by drugs and/or alcohol;", was so broad that sexual contact at any level of intoxication could be considered non-consensual.[135][136][137] Writing for the Atlantic Magazine Conor Friedersdorf noted that a Stanford male who alleges he was sexually assaulted in 2015 and was advised against reporting it by on-campus sexual assault services, could have been subjected to a counterclaim based on Stanford policy by his female attacker who was drunk at the time.[138] FIRE was also critical of a poster at Coastal Carolina University, which stated that sex is only consensual if both parties are completely sober and if consent is not only present, but also enthusiastic. The FIRE argued that this standard converted ordinary lawful sexual encounters into sexual assault even while drinking is very common at most institutions.[139][140]

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.[141] 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."[142]

Many institutions today are facing Title IX investigations due to the alleged lack of response on their campus to sexual assault. New policies by colleges have spawned "a cottage industry" of experts to address sexual assault on their campuses. “The Federal Education Department urges colleges to make sure their discipline policies do not discourage students from coming forward to report sexual assaults."[143] Colleges need to be away of their policies in order to not victim blame their students and provide them with the adequate support that is need for the student. Many campuses are facing the same challenges on how to address the problem of sexual assault and are taking measures to do so, by hiring teams for addressing Title IX complaints.[144]

In October 2014, 28 members of the Harvard Law School Faculty co-signed a letter decrying the change in the way reports of sexual harassment are being processed.[8] The letter asserted that the new rules violate the due process rights of the responding parties. In February 2015, 16 members of the University of Pennsylvania Law School Faculty co-signed a similar letter of their own.[145]

In response to concerns, in 2014 the White House Task Force provided new regulations requiring schools to permit the accused to bring advisers and be clearer about their processes and how they determine punishments. In addition to concerns about legal due process, which colleges currently do not have to abide, the push for stronger punishments and permanent disciplinary records on transcripts can prevent students found responsible from ever completing college or seeking graduate studies. Even for minor sexual misconduct offenses, the inconsistent and sometimes "murky" notes on transcripts can severely limit options. Mary Koss, a University of Arizona professor, co-authored a peer-reviewed paper in 2014 that argues for a "restorative justice" response — which could include counseling, close monitoring, and community service — would be better than the judicial model most campus hearing panels resemble.[146]

Some critics of these policies, such as libertarian critics of feminism Cathy Young, Christina Hoff Sommers and Laura Kipnis, have characterized the concerns about sexual assault on college campuses as a moral panic.[147][148][149]


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.[9] Xavier University entered into a settlement in one such lawsuit in April 2014.[150]

Other examples include:

  • In October 2014, a male Occidental College student filed a Title IX complaint against the school after he was expelled for an alleged sexual assault. The assault occurred after a night of heavy drinking in which both parties were reported to have been extremely impaired. The investigator hired by the school found that although the accuser had sent multiple text messages indicating an intent to have sex, found and entered the accused student's bedroom under her own power, and told witnesses she was fine when they checked on her during the sex acts, her estimated level of intoxication meant she was incapacitated and did not consent. A police investigation however found that "witnesses were interviewed and agreed that the victim and suspect were both drunk [and] that they were both willing participants exercising bad judgement."[151][152] The accused student attempted to file a sexual assault claim against his accuser, but the university declined to hear his complaint because he would not meet with an investigator without an attorney present.[153]
  • In March 2015, Federal regulators (OCR) opened an investigation on how Brandeis University handles sexual assault cases, stemming from a lawsuit where a male student was found responsible for sexual misconduct. The accused was not permitted to see the report created by the special investigator that determined his responsibility until after a decision had been reached.[154][155]
  • In June 2015 an Amherst College student who was expelled for forcing a woman to complete an oral sex act sued the college for failing to discover text messages from the accuser that suggested consent and undermined her credibility. The accuser said she described the encounter as consensual because she wasn't "yet ready to address what had happened". The suit alleges that the investigation was "grossly inadequate". When student later learned of the messages favorable to him, Amherst refused to reconsider the case.[156] In its response to the lawsuit, the school stated the process was fair and that the student had missed the 7 day window in which to file an appeal.[157]
  • In July 2015 a California court ruled that the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) acted improperly by using a deeply flawed system to adjudicate a sexual assault allegation and sanctioning the accused based on a process that violated his rights. The student was not given adequate opportunity to challenge the accusations and the panel relied on information deliberately withheld from the student despite repeated requests. The judge also admonished a dean who had punitively increased the student's penalty without explanation each time he appealed, while the student's counsel criticized the dean for a perceived conflict of interest.[158]
  • In August 2015, a Tennessee judge ruled against the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga who expelled a student for rape under a "yes-means-yes" policy. The student had been cleared by the school which later reversed its opinion on appeal using an affirmative consent policy. The judge found the school had no evidence the accuser did not consent, and found the school had "improperly shifted the burden of proof and imposed an untenable standard upon" the student "to disprove the accusation" that he assaulted a classmate.[114][159]

Trump administration efforts[edit]

On September 22, 2017, Betsy DeVos, the Secretary of Education in the Trump administration, rescinded some Obama-era campus guidelines regarding campus sexual assault. The rescinded guidelines included: having a low standard of proof to establish guilt, a 60-day investigation period, and not permitting mediation between involved parties.[160]

College programs[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.[106] FYCARE is one example of an educational program designed to inform students that the University of Illinois has implemented. FYCARE is a new student program that each student at the university is required to take. It focuses on informing students of sexual assault on campus and how they too can get involved in the fight against sexual assault.[161] A cheerful banner campaign at a large university found positive results, suggesting that an upbeat campaign can engage students in productive conversation.[162]

The Bystander Intervention programs is a system many schools are promoting to help students to feel empowered and knowledgeable. The program provides skills to effectively assist in the prevention of sexual violence. This gives a specific to that students can use in preventing sexual violence, including naming and stopping situations that could lead to sexual violence before it happens, stepping in during an incident, and speaking out against ideas and behaviors that support sexual violence. A few schools that are currently promoting the program are Johnson County Community College,[163] The University of Massachusetts,[164] Massachusetts Institute of Technology,[165] and Loyola University of Chicago.[166]

One study found that a large percentage of university students know victims of sexual assault, and that this personal knowledge differs among ethnic groups. These findings have implications for college programs, suggesting that prevention efforts be tailored to the group for which the program is intended.[167]

International students[edit]

International students who experience domestic violence may be afraid to come forward about the abuse. Because their initial point of contact with the university is typically the International Office (IO), the IO should make domestic violence awareness and prevention an important consideration. Orientation programs and ongoing information incorporated into academic year programming may make the sharing of resources more effective. Staff training also may provide a benefit.[168]

See also[edit]


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Further reading[edit]