Sexual Assault on College Campuses: Facts and Statistics

More than 1 in 10 students experience sexual misconduct on their college campus each year.
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Jessica Bryant
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Jessica Bryant is a higher education analyst and senior data reporter for BestColleges. She covers higher education trends and data, focusing on issues impacting underserved students. She has a BA in journalism and previously worked with the South Fl...
Published on January 17, 2024
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Lyss Welding is a higher education analyst and senior editor for BestColleges who specializes in translating massive data sets and finding statistics that matter to students. Lyss has worked in academic research, curriculum design, and program evalua...
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Data Summary

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    Over 11,580 sexual criminal offenses were reported on college campuses in 2021.[1]
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    Between 2015 and 2021, the total number of sexual offenses reported at higher education institutions increased by 23%.Note Reference [1]
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    Surveys and experts indicate that the number of total offenses that occur on campuses is much larger due to underreporting.[2]
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    As of 2019, 13% of college students experienced nonconsensual sexual contact by physical force or inability to consent.Note Reference [2]
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    During the same year, the majority of students who were assaulted since enrolling said their perpetrators consumed alcohol prior to the incident.Note Reference [2]
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    While graduate students are less likely than undergraduates to report experiencing sexual misconduct, they are notably more likely to be sexually harassed by faculty or instructors.Note Reference [2]
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    In 2021, nearly 13,000 students were victims of domestic violence, dating violence, or stalking incidents.Note Reference [1]

Each year, more than 1 in 10 students are assaulted on their college campuses.Note Reference [2] These incidents can range from harassment and stalking to nonconsensual touching and rape.

Below we cover how many sexual assaults happen at colleges and universities throughout the nation and who has been victimized in these incidents.

How Common Is Sexual Assault on College Campuses?

According to the most recently available data from the U.S. Department of Education's Campus Safety Survey, there were 11,582 sexual criminal offenses reported on more than 10,000 college campuses in 2021.Note Reference [1] This includes incidents of rape, statutory rape, fondling, and incest.

If you or someone you know has experienced a sexual assault, you can reach a crisis counselor 24/7 by contacting the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673). All calls are confidential.

Sexual offenses accounted for one-fifth (21%) of all criminal offenses reported to higher education institutions during the year.Note Reference [1] While reports of all types of crimes on college campuses have decreased significantly during the last 5-10 years, reports of sexual violence have not followed suit.

Between 2015 and 2021, the number of sexual criminal offenses reported on college campuses rose by 23%. Reported incidents of rape peaked in 2018 with 8,588 offenses. Reported incidents of fondling increased by 48% during the period.

Number of Reported Sexual Criminal Offenses on College Campuses by Type of Crime, 2015-2021
School Year Rape Fondling Statutory Rape Incest
2015 5,922 3,414 70 1
2016 6,714 3,622 70 3
2017 7,559 4,527 100 0
2018 8,588 6,381 75 4
2019 6,978 6,196 88 0
2020 5,768 4,635 77 2
2021 6,457 5,065 57 3
Source: U.S. Department of EducationNote Reference [1]

Though the numbers may already seem high, other research indicates that incidents of sexual misconduct on college campuses are likely much more prevalent than what has been reported.

In a 2019 Association of American Universities (AAU) survey of more than 180,000 students at 33 institutions, approximately 13% of respondents said they experienced nonconsensual sexual contact by physical force or inability to consent while enrolled.Note Reference [2]

Intimate Partner Violence, Stalking, and Harassment

Other forms of sexual misconduct also often occur on college campuses, including incidents of intimate partner violence, stalking, and harassment. These offenses tend to fall under the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA).

In 2021, nearly 13,000 VAWA offenses were reported on college campuses.Note Reference [1]

  • 48% of reported VAWA offenses were stalking incidents.
  • 27% of reported VAWA offenses were incidents of domestic violence.
  • 24% of reported VAWA offenses were incidents of dating violence.

Did You Know?

Despite its name, VAWA offenses do not only include offenses against women.

The VAWA legally protects victims of these crimes regardless of their sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity.[3]

In fact, in 2019, transgender, gender-questioning, and nonbinary (TGQN) undergraduate students reported the highest rates of harassment.

College Campus Sexual Violence by Gender

In 2019, nearly 26% of female undergraduate students, 7% of male undergraduate students, and 23% of TGQN undergraduates had experienced nonconsensual sexual contact since enrolling.Note Reference [2]

TGQN undergraduate students reported the highest rates of harassment (65.1%), intimate partner violence (21.5%), and stalking (15.2%) on their college campus.Note Reference [2]

And among all students, nearly 42% reported experiencing sexual harassment on campus since enrolling.Note Reference [2] This includes behaviors with sexual connotations that interfered with their academic performance or created an intimidating or hostile environment.

Transgender and nonbinary students seeking support on their campus can visit the BestColleges resource guide for more information.

Graduate Students and Sexual Harassment

Graduate and professional students in 2019 were notably less likely than undergraduate students to report experiencing nonconsensual sexual contact since enrolling.Note Reference [2]

  • On average, 18.5% of undergraduate students reported experiencing nonconsensual sexual contact.
  • By comparison, just 8.9% of graduate students reported the same.

However, they were most likely of all students to be subjected to sexual harassment by faculty members or instructors.Note Reference [2]

The AAU survey found that among graduate and professional students:

  • Nearly one-quarter of women (24%) who reported being harassed in 2019 were harassed by a faculty member or instructor.
  • About 1 in 5 men (18%) who reported harassment were harassed by a faculty member or instructor.

Substance Use and Sexual Assault

In 2019, the majority of students who reported experiencing rape and other types of nonconsensual sexual contact said that the perpetrator was drinking alcohol prior to the assault.Note Reference [2]

Additionally, about 3 in 4 students (74.6%) who were assaulted said that they were drinking alcohol prior to the incident.

Much fewer students reported that they or their perpetrator were voluntarily using drugs prior to their assault.

  • Among women, 9.4% said that the perpetrator was using drugs prior to their assault, and 7.8% said they voluntarily used drugs prior to being assaulted.
  • Among men, 10.8% said their perpetrator used drugs, and 15.7% said they used drugs prior to being assaulted.
  • Lastly, among TGQN students, 13.9% said their perpetrator used drugs prior to the assault, and 17.1% said they used drugs prior to being assaulted.

Overall, about 1 in 10 students (10.8%) who were assaulted said they suspected they had been given drugs or alcohol without their knowledge or consent prior to being assaulted, but they were not certain.

Preventing Sexual Violence on College Campuses

According to a report by the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, colleges can work to prevent sexual violence on their campuses in different ways, including:[4]

  • Using campus climate survey data to understand how students perceive their safety and available resources.
  • Having experts on campus — this includes employing staff who are well-trained in violence prevention and partnering with community organizations and rape crisis centers.
  • Developing standard training methods in violence prevention for students, faculty, and staff.
  • Fostering relationships with referral services.
  • Ensuring that prevention messaging is inclusive of historically excluded communities on campus.

Advocates and experts at the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) additionally say there are a few ways for students to reduce their risk of experiencing sexual violence on campus.

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    Familiarize yourself with local resources, like who to contact if you or a friend needs help.
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    Stay alert in social settings.
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    Avoid disclosing your current location on social media platforms.
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    Make a plan to stick by people you trust if you're going to a party or other social event.
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    Don't leave your drinks — alcoholic or non-alcoholic — unattended.
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    Understand that it is okay to lie in order to remove yourself from an uncomfortable situation.
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    Trust your instincts — if something feels off, it might be.

Reporting Sexual Violence

Reporting sexual violence is often difficult and confusing, especially when it occurs in intimate partner relationships. But there are safety resources students can turn to if they're in trouble. For more information, check out BestColleges' guide on sexual assault on campus and reporting these incidents to school officials.

Additionally, students in trouble can access the confidential National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 or chat online with advocates at the crisis support center.