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By Courtney Smith-Kimble

Published on July 27, 2020

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If you or someone you know has experienced sexual assault, please seek legal counsel. If you are experiencing a life-threatening situation, seek help or dial 911.

While sexual assault affects millions of people in America each year, youth remain at the highest risk of sexual assault. College students should understand their rights and familiarize themselves with the topic.

Source: The Association of American Universities (AAU)

The sexual assault definition involves crimes where offenders subject victims to any unwanted or offensive sexual contact. According to a 2019 survey, there is a 13% rate of non-consensual sexual contact in colleges.

group of four college students

While rates continued to rise between 2015 and 2019, participating schools also experienced an 11.5%-12.4% increase in knowledge about sexual assault and school procedures.

Nationwide, organizations are beginning to implement initiatives to reduce risk, including Sexual Assault Awareness Month.

Frequently Asked Questions

How common is sexual assault in college? A 2019 Association of American Universities survey on sexual assault and misconduct polled over 150,000 students at 27 universities. Data revealed a 13% nonconsensual sexual conduct rate. Statistics provided by the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network also indicate that female college students between 18-24 remain three times more likely to experience sexual violence.
What is rape culture? Rape culture exists when sexual violence becomes normalized and excused in society. Common traits of rape culture include objectification of women's bodies, encouraged male sexual aggression agianst women, and condonnation of physical or emotional abuse against women. Behaviors may include victim blaming or criticizing women's appearances.
How do I protect myself from sexual assault? Students can increase their safety on campus by locating the campus police station, storing the campus police phone number, and finding emergency phones around campus. Students should also avoid posting their location and consider traveling in groups in the evening. Many campus security patrols offer to escort groups to their destinations.
What do I do if I'm sexually assaulted? Victims should go to their campus health center for an exam and file a police report. Victims can also file a civil protection order, which serves as a temporary restraining order. Universities often provide support services to address the mental and emotional impact commonly associated with sexual assault.
How are schools addressing campus sexual assault? How are schools addressing campus sexual assault? While initiatives vary by university, the Clery Act requires postsecondary schools to disclose security procedures and campus-related crime statistics. The government also issued the Title IX law, which prohibits sexually-based discrimination for federally funded programs. Amendments to Title IX include regulations for campus sexual assault.

What Is Sexual Assault?

The term "sexual violence" encompasses sexual abuse, sexual assault, and rape. However, each of these terms differs by state.

For instance, states may define both first-degree rape and first-degree sexual assault as engaging in sexual intercourse by force with a victim incapable of consent or with a person under 14 years old. On average, sexual assault occurs every 73 seconds in America.

Young adults ages 18-34 are at the highest risk and represent 54% of sexual assault cases. One out of every six women falls victim to completed or attempted sexual assault within their lifetime. Furthermore, women ages 18-24 not attending college face a 20% higher risk of falling victim to sexual assault. While sexual violence remains a concern, the number of cases has fallen 63% since 1993.

Sexual Assault Prevention Issues

Sexual assault can never be fully prevented. However, the more accurate the data gathered about sexual assault occurances, the better the issue can be studied and addressed. The following circumstances are common reasons that we may not being seeing the full picture with regard to campus sexual assault in the U.S.


According to the Department of Justice, 80% of sexual violence cases go unreported. Women tend to avoid filing reports out of fear or embarrassment, coupled with the notion that police cannot do anything to help.

The top reasons that women ages 18-24 do not report sexual violence include the following:

  • Believing it was a personal matter
  • Fear of reprisal
  • Feeling it was not important enough to report
  • Not wanting to incriminate the perpetrator
  • Believing police could not do anything to help
  • Reported to individuals other than the police

Research and statistics tend to focus on female victims. However, male victims often suffer in silence. Similar to female victims, males do not report assault due to:

  • Shame
  • Humiliation
  • Self-blame

Other factors may include cultural stigmas, such as male invulnerability. Men may even feel that others would not believe their experience. Additionally, 80% of perpetrators know their victims personally, which may also deter men from coming forward.

Victim Perpetrator Relationship


Strangers commit only 19% of sexual violence. Thirty-nine percent of sexual violence transpires between acquaintances, while current or former intimate partners represent 33% of cases. Up to 6% of sexual violence involves more than one known perpetrator at a time. Rape statistics indicate that 2.5% of cases include relatives.

Sexual assault statistics reveal that victims who know their perpetrator struggle in their personal relationships. In fact, 84% of these victims struggle emotionally in future relationships, including non-intimate relationships. These relationships may include other forms of abuse, and victims often do not report the crime because they feel the justice system cannot protect them from future attacks.

Sexual violence can occur anywhere at any time. However, 55% of assaults occur near victims' homes. Nearly 50% of survivors reported performing activities at home or sleeping when the attack occurred. Nearly 30% report traveling to or from a common destination, including work and school.

School Policies and Procedures

While laws exist to prevent instances of sexual violence, colleges and universities struggle to meet the needs of students who fall victim to predators. In fact, the American Association of Women 2016 analysis of the Clery Act indicates that 89% of 11,000 colleges in the study did not disclose rape statistics.

By law, postsecondary institutions must file annual reports that provide statistics for sexually-based crimes. However, reports do not indicate how schools resolve these matters. Reports also reveal that cases do not always protect the victim or properly punish the perpetrator.

Attempts to improve safety include a 30-day turnaround time from when the victim reports the assault. However, stakeholders highlight the lack of school efforts nationwide and the low amount of reported cases that actually lead to disciplinary action.

Student Safety and Reducing Sexual Assault Risk

What Students Can Do

Sexual violence can happen to anyone regardless of gender or age. Victims are not responsible for assault. In fact, predators seek power and control over others, which fuels their actions.

While victims are never responsible for assault, individuals can take precautionary measures to reduce their risk of attack.

Basic Safety Guidelines

Provide information: Students should inform friends and family about their plans, which may include a taxi ride, parties, a late study session, or a date. Important information to provide includes dates and times, names, phone numbers, addresses, and license plate numbers. Share your location: Most smart phones offer the option to share your location with other people for a set amount of time or indefinitely. If individuals end up in a compromising situation, friends or family can provide local authorities with their location. Watch your drink: Predators often slip drugs into their victims' drinks. Students can reduce the risk of this happening by watching who pours their drink, keeping their drink close, and only accepting sealed drinks. Know your personal limits: Students must identify their sexual boundaries, which can help establish clear communication with partners and reduce compromising situations. No matter the circumstances, students always maintain the right to say no or change their mind. Have a backup plan: Having a backup plan can increase students' safety. A portable phone charger, emergency cash, jumper cables, and pepper spray can all come in handy. Avoid traveling alone: Students should consider walking to and from class with a buddy, especially at night. Commuters often travel alone. However, carpooling with other students can increase safety and reduce gas expenses. Universities often provide campus police escorts to ensure students' safety. Using the buddy system at parties and social gatherings is also a good precaution. Explore campus resources: Students can often request campus police escorts. Schools may also provide shuttle buses, emergency phones, and self-defense workshops. Students should also locate the campus police and health centers. Use social media with caution: Students often use social media to share their experiences with loved ones. Instead of immediately posting pictures, students should wait until they leave an event to prevent predators from following them. Social media privacy settings can also reduce risk of sexual assault. Stay secure in dorms and apartments: While dorms and apartments contain less entry points than houses, students need to make sure they lock their doors, especially at night. Dorms and apartment complexes also keep extra keys. Students may want to purchase inside door jammers, which prevent even unlocked doors from opening. Utilize multiple routes and well-lit areas: Campuses offer multiple routes to get to the same destination. Individuals who switch routes keep predators from predicting victims' locations at specific times. While dark shortcuts reduce travel time, students should also stay in well-lit areas at night.

Sexual Assault in Relationships

Terms referring to sexual violence in relationships include intimate partner rape, intimate partner sexual violence, domestic violence, or marital rape. Sexual violence in relationships often transpires alongside emotional or physical abuse. Understanding common warning signs can help victims identify unhealthy behavior and seek help.

For instance, aggressors often attempt to create distance between their partner and their partner's family. Other abusive partner behaviors include extreme jealousy, insults, destroying property, and preventing a partner from going to work or school. Aggressors may also threaten to harm their partner and take their children away.

Victims of intimate partner sexual violence may find it challenging to press charges for multiple reasons. Victims may feel concerned about the well-being of their children if they come forward. Furthermore, partners financially dependent on the abuser may feel trapped. Victims should not feel responsible for a predator's actions.

Several organizations exist to help survivors, including the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

If you're unsure how to get away from an abusive partner, contact a support hotline for assistance. Loveisrespect and the National Domestic Abuse Hotline both provide 24/7 phone assistance.

Self-blame is extremely common in abusive relationships. It can be easy to feel trapped in your situation. However, your partner's abusive actions are absolutely not your fault or a result of weakness on your part. Keep this in mind when you seek help.

Know where you can go in case you need to get away from an abusive partner. This might include a campus counseling center, a trusted friend's dorm room, a survivors' shelter, or a residence hall staff office.

It can be emotionally painful to save threatening messages that your partner sends. However, voice messages, emails, IMs, and other hostile communications can be immensely useful in demonstrating a history of abuse when you speak with counselors or authorities.

Virtually all college campuses have on-site counselors who are trained to help with domestic violence and other forms of sexual assault. If you can't find a way to contact a campus counselor directly, ask a residence advisor, professor, or academic advisor to help you explore these resources.

If you are being threatened with assault, find a safe place and call the police immediately.

What Colleges and Universities Can Do

Colleges and universities continue to search for the best ways to combat sexual violence on campus. Some schools hire security guards to patrol campus property and provide transportation services to eliminate students traveling alone. Colleges also offer educational programs that explain sexual violence and how to reduce risk exposure.

Green Dot program teaches people how to become active bystanders. Students may also want to consider the Enhanced Assess, Acknowledge, Act program, which relies on social psychology theory and provides techniques for handling a situation without bystanders present.

The federal government also addresses sexual violence in postsecondary institutions. The Clery Act demands that schools provide crime statistics and safety policies to the public. Title IX addresses equal treatment for sexual harassment, gender-based discrimination, and sexual violence. While all efforts to reduce sexual violence have an impact, schools must understand the need for additional measures to reduce risk.

What Parents Can Do

Parents often experience anxiety when sending their children off to college, including the fear of sexual assailants. However, nearly half of sexual violence cases affect victims under 18 years old. Parents can help their children reduce exposure to sexual violence through age-appropriate education, including defining inappropriate touching or using proper terms to identify body parts.

Before students leave for college, parents should review unsafe situations, methods for reducing risk, and how to effectively communicate whereabouts with friends and family. Parents and incoming college students should also ask schools about their policies, including questions about amnesty clauses for non-violent violations, Title IX training, resources, and student training.

Exploring online resources can also help parents educate their children. For instance, End Rape on Campus (EROC) provides methods for reducing risk and direct support for survivors. EROC also provides articles and videos to assist parents in supporting their children.

After an Assault

Sexual violence can leave lasting affects on victims, including depression, suicidal thoughts, and drug use. Ninety-four percent of women experience PTSD immediately after rape, and 30% continue to experience PTSD nine months after being assaulted. Victims can access multiple online resources for support.

After an Assault: Immediate Steps

Get to a safe place: Victims of sexual violence often experience fear and disorientation after sexual violence. However, victims need to immediately leave the location where the attack occurred and find a safe place.

Document what happened: Predators often know their victims. Therefore, survivors should compile proof of communication if applicable. While difficult to consider, victims should not change their clothing or shower because authorities can use kits to confirm the predator's DNA.

Reach out for help and support: Victims who go straight to the hospital can access help from local authorities to file a report. However, victims can also contact the National Sexual Assault Hotline, where a trained representative can provide assistance and direction. Students who feel uncomfortable calling the police can use their smartphone to report assault through apps, such as JDoe and Callisto.

Seek medical attention: Receiving medical attention provides multiple benefits to victims. For instance, health practitioners can collect samples to confirm the identity of predators. In fact, many facilities only allow 72-96 hours for collecting forensic evidence. Healthcare facilities also offer screening for STIs or medicine that can prevent HIV. Medical practitioners can also help drugged victims.

Students who experience sexual violence outside of rape should still seek medical assistance. Responses to sexual violence include suicide and severe anxiety.

If Someone You Know Is Assaulted

Safety is more important than anything else. Help the victim reach a safe location away from the assailant. Make the victim feel as safe as possible.

Many victims blame themselves for an attack. Tell the victim that the sexual assault was not their fault.

Be a supportive listener. Thank the victim for telling you it happened. Tell them you believe their story, and that they won't have to deal with this alone.

If you saw the attacker or witnessed any part of the assault, take detailed notes about what you saw.

Accompany the victim to the hospital and ensure that they meet with medical professionals who specialize in sexual assault trauma.

Follow up with the victim. Encourage them to seek counseling and support groups.

After an Assault: Moving Forward

After you've taken the initial steps following a sexual assault, consider the following options.

Make safe arrangements: If you live with an abusive partner or you feel unsafe in your current living situation, make arrangements with your dorm staff, a safe home, or friends to relocate to a new residence. To prevent future incidents, do not let your assailant know where you will be living.

Seek counseling: Contact your campus health service office and inform them you need a crisis counselor who specializes in sexual assault. You can also contact the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE to speak with a counselor over the phone immediately.

Consider your legal options: By law, colleges and universities that receive Title IX funding must respond to reports of sexual violence immediately. If schools do not follow through, students can take legal action. While taking legal action requires the victim to come forward and expose their experience to other stakeholders, it also creates awareness for other students and holds the predator accountable.

After an Assault: Recovery

Survivors often struggle with resuming their normal daily activities in the aftermath of a sexual assault. Victims should work with their physicians, counselors, and instructors to take the appropriate time off from classes and other academic responsibilities to recover from their trauma. Even after physical wounds heal, physical and emotional scars can serve as painful reminders of the incident; survivors suffer the risk of chronic emotional distress.

RAINN lists the following as some of the most common aftereffects of sexual violence:

  • Depression
  • Disassociation
  • Eating disorders
  • Flashbacks
  • Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
  • Pregnancy
  • Self-harm
  • Sexually transmitted infections
  • Sleep disorders
  • Substance abuse
  • Suicidal thoughts

With the right help, there are ways to cope with these aftereffects. Due to the often serious degree of trauma that comes with an attack, it is extremely important for victims of sexual assault to seek professional help. Victims might not feel like they need counseling; however, the emotional and mental fallout can manifest suddenly, especially during periods of high stress.

Additional Information and Resources

National Sexual Assault Online Hotline and Chat

RAINN runs this extremely secure and anonymous crisis support phone line and chat system dedicated to assisting sexual assault survivors, along with their spouses, family members, and friends.

Enlisting Smartphones in the Campaign for Campus Safety

App developers are creating innovative ways for students to reach safety in risky situations. Load some of these tools onto your smartphone so you can quickly communicate with emergency contacts if you feel threatened or unsafe.

Campus Sexual Assault Tool Kit

The American Association of University Women has created this resource to help faculty and campus staff lead student discussions on sexual violence prevention.

Support for Rape and Sexual Assault Victims

Safe Horizon is a national violence prevention network with hotlines dedicated to crisis support.

Know Your Rights: Sexual Harassment and Sexual Assault under Title IX

The American Association of University Women provides a comprehensive resource for students to educate themselves on how they are protected on campus and how to seek legal action when facing sexual violence.

Student Activism

RAINN provides resources for students to get involved who want to make a change on their campuses.

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