Understanding Sexual Assault on College Campuses

Learn how sexual assault affects college students. Explore resources that can be used to help prevent and address sexual assault on campus.

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Published on September 10, 2021 · Updated on April 25, 2022

Reviewed by Shrilekha Deshaies, MSN, CCRN, RN, and Angelique Geehan

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Understanding Sexual Assault on College Campuses
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Sexual violence affects millions of people in the United States each year. And among college students, the risk of sexual assault on campus remains somewhat high.

The Association of American Universities' 2019 Campus Climate Survey reported an overall 13% rate of nonconsensual sexual contact at U.S. colleges. More than 1 in 4 undergraduate women reported experiencing nonconsensual sexual contact since enrolling in school.

Transgender, nonbinary, genderqueer, and gender-questioning students also reported high rates of nonconsensual sexual contact.

With safety risks on and around campus, college students should understand what sexual violence is, know their rights in the case of assault, and familiarize themselves with educational resources on the topic of campus sexual assault.

What Is Sexual Assault?

Sexual assault involves crimes in which offenders subject victims to unwanted or offensive sexual contact. It is considered a form of sexual violence — an umbrella term that encompasses sexual abuse, sexual assault, and rape. However, the legal definition of 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 younger than 14. On average, sexual assault occurs every 68 seconds in the U.S.

Adults ages 18-34 are at the highest risk of sexual assault and represent 54% of sexual assault cases. According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), 1 in 6 American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime.

Male college students ages 18-24 are approximately five times more likely than non-students of the same demographic to be victims of rape or sexual assault. Furthermore, 21% of transgender, genderqueer, and gender-nonconforming students have been sexually assaulted.

How Does Sexual Assault Affect College Students?

Sexual assault can have serious negative effects, both mental and physical, on the victim. Here are some of the ways sexual violence impacts college students.

Health Issues

Survivors may experience a variety of health conditions after being sexually assaulted. Common aftereffects include loss of appetite, depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and suicidal thoughts.

Signs of these conditions can negatively impact a student's self-esteem, their ability to maintain relationships with friends and family, and many other aspects of their life.

Survivors may be too anxious to attend social events or club activities. Likewise, depression or PTSD side effects may make keeping up with academics impossible or seem pointless.

Challenges Around Taking Legal Action

Victims of campus sexual assault can pursue disciplinary action through their college and the local authorities. That said, survivors who choose to seek justice for their assaults must navigate an emotionally taxing and often time-consuming process.

Completing this lengthy process while balancing academics can be challenging. Additionally, some survivors may have been enrolled in classes with their attackers. In this case, they may need to adjust their course schedule, unless their school provides support by requiring the assailant to do so.

Other students may share social circles with their assailants, which could force them to keep their distance from friends — especially if the assailant is, as is common, given the benefit of the doubt during proceedings.

Societal beliefs that stigmatize sexual assault victims are an unfortunately common part of campus culture at many schools.

Tendencies to Underreport the Crime

According to RAINN, most college-age victims do not report sexual violence on campus. This is especially the case for college-age women. Only about 20% of female college students report sexual assaults to authorities.

The reasons college women may decide not to report assaults include embarrassment and fear the crime will happen again.

Like women, male victims report sexual assault at low rates, potentially due to shame, humiliation, or the stigma surrounding men being vulnerable.

In a majority of sexual assault cases, the perpetrator is either a family member, an acquaintance, or someone the victim knows. Just 19.5% of rape cases are committed by a stranger.

If a survivor knows the person who assaulted them, they may decide not to report the act of violence for many reasons, such as fearing for their safety or worrying about reprisals from their social circle.

What About Sexual Assault in Relationships?

According to RAINN, 33% of rapes are committed by a current or former partner. Sexual violence in relationships includes intimate partner rape, intimate partner sexual violence, domestic violence, and marital rape.

Often, sexual violence in relationships transpires alongside other emotional and/or physical abuse. Understanding common warning signs can help survivors identify unhealthy behaviors in their relationships and seek help.

Sexual assault victims who know their perpetrators tend to struggle in their personal relationships. Data shows that 84% of people who experience intimate partner sexual violence report professional or emotional issues in the future.

What to Do After Experiencing Sexual Assault

Sexual violence can leave lasting effects on survivors, those who know them and come to know about the assault, and those who witness an assault. The following sections describe potential steps students in any of these positions can take.

If You've Been Sexually Assaulted

The list below details important steps to take immediately after experiencing a sexual assault.

If Someone You Know Has Been Sexually Assaulted

Safety is the most important thing at this time. Help the victim reach a safe location away from the assailant. Make the victim feel as safe as possible.

Many survivors blame themselves for the attack. Emphasize to the survivor that the sexual assault was not their fault.

You should also strive to be a supportive listener. Thank the victim for telling you it happened. Tell them you believe their story and that they don't have to deal with this alone.

If you saw the attacker or witnessed any part of the sexual assault, take detailed notes about what you saw. Accompany the survivor to a hospital and ensure they meet with medical professionals specializing in sexual assault trauma.

Don't forget to follow up with the victim. Encourage them to seek counseling and join support groups.

Steps to Move Forward After an Assault

After taking the initial steps following a sexual assault, consider the options below.

Recovering From Sexual Assault

Survivors often struggle with resuming 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 face the risk of chronic emotional distress and mental health conditions like depression and PTSD.

With the right help, survivors can learn to cope with these aftereffects.

Due to the trauma that accompanies an attack, it's important for victims of sexual assault to seek professional help. Survivors might not feel like they need counseling; however, the emotional and mental fallout can manifest suddenly, especially during periods of high stress.

How Can We Address Sexual Assault on Campus?

Here are some ways students, institutions, and parents and guardians of students can help to address — and ultimately end — sexual assault on college campuses.

What Students Can Do

Survivors are not responsible for having been assaulted. Sexual violence can happen to anyone, regardless of gender or age. Often, those who assault other people seek power and control over others.

Students can help prevent sexual assault by ensuring they understand what constitutes this type of abuse and ensuring they do not assault others. They can also interrupt sexual assault if they witness it happening and take precautionary steps to protect others and themselves from being assaulted.

Female college students may consider enrolling in the Enhanced Access, Acknowledge, Act program, which provides techniques for reducing the risk of being sexually assaulted by an acquaintance when bystanders are not present.

Some colleges also provide educational workshops for students and departments staffed with professionals trained to handle and address reports of sexual assault on campus.

Boston University's Sexual Assault Response & Prevention Center, for example, offers a wealth of resources for students, including individual counseling, confidential group sessions, and a crisis response hotline.

What Schools Can Do

Colleges and universities continue to search for better ways to combat sexual assault on campus.

Some schools hire security guards to patrol the campus and offer transportation services to eliminate instances of students traveling alone. Campus safety apps are also available at some schools and include resources with emergency information.

Colleges may offer educational programs that explain sexual violence and teach students to reduce risk exposure. For example, the Green Dot program teaches people how to actively intervene to reduce violence as bystanders.

Some institutions promote Sexual Assault Awareness Month and host programs and events to teach students how to protect themselves and prevent sexual assault.

The federal government also addresses sexual assault on college campuses. The Clery Act demands that schools make crime statistics and safety policies available to the public. Title IX, meanwhile, details how schools must respond to reports of sexual harassment, gender-based discrimination, and sexual violence.

By law, U.S. colleges and universities must file annual reports that include statistics for sexually based crimes — but not all do. The American Association of University Women's (AAUW) 2016 analysis of the Clery Act found that 89% of 11,000 colleges failed to disclose rape statistics.

What Parents and Guardians Can Do

Parents and guardians often experience anxiety when sending their children off to college, including the fear of their children being sexually assaulted.

Parents can help their children reduce exposure to sexual violence through age-appropriate education, including defining inappropriate touching and using proper terms to identify body parts.

They can also create a strong culture of consent and respect for the child's own body and the bodies of others — both within the family and within their extended circles.

Before students leave for college, parents and guardians should review unsafe situations, methods for reducing the risk of committing or being vulnerable to assault, and ways 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 nonviolent violations, Title IX training, resources, and student training.

In addition, exploring online resources can help parents and guardians educate their children. For instance, End Rape on Campus goes over methods for reducing risks and describes ways parents can support and take action.

Similarly, the National Sexual Violence Resource Center shares a detailed guide for parents and guardians looking for resources to support their students.

Resources for Sexual Assault Prevention and Education

Frequently Asked Questions About Sexual Assault on Campus

How many sexual assaults go unreported? true

The majority of sexual assaults go unreported in the United States. According to RAINN, only 310 out of every 1,000 sexual assaults are reported to the police. And just 25 out of every 1,000 sexual assaults lead to incarceration.

What is the most common type of sexual assault on college campuses? true

The majority of sexual assaults on college campuses are committed through threats of harm or acts of violence, physical force, or incapacitation. Incapacitation can include being drugged with substances like Rohypnol (commonly referred to as the "date rape drug") or being assaulted when one is too intoxicated to give consent.

What is the federal Campus Sexual Assault Victims' Bill of Rights? true

The Campus Sexual Assault Victims' Bill of Rights requires all private and public colleges that use federal student aid programs to provide specific basic rights to sexual assault victims on campus. One of the most prominent stipulations is that sexual assault survivors will be informed of their options to speak with law enforcement outside campus security.

Other notable rights include having access to third parties during questioning and keeping both parties informed of any disciplinary action. Victims should also receive counseling information and be presented with options for changing their residential and academic situations.

What is sexual consent? What does it include? false

The definition of legal sexual consent varies by state, but consent simply means that the people engaging in sexual acts have given clear, verbal communication that they're enthusiastically willing to participate in the activity.

Consent is recurring and ongoing. A person can consent to an act on one occasion and choose not to consent to that same act on a different occasion. Likewise, someone can consent to one sexual act, such as kissing, and not another, such as penetration.

Consent requires participants to be of legal age and not incapacitated at the time of the act.

What is perpetrator behavior? false

Because there are several types of sexual assault and different categories of sexual perpetrators, those who commit sexual assault do not all demonstrate the same behaviors. Around 8 in 10 sexual assaults are committed by someone the victim knows.

Some sexual perpetrators are opportunists who may take advantage of a situation, such as assaulting someone who has drunk too much alcohol and is unable to consent. Others may intentionally seek out people to sexually assault or engage in "stealthing."

DISCLAIMER: 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.

The information provided on this website is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment; instead, all information, content, and materials available on this site are for general informational purposes only. Readers of this website should consult with their physician to obtain advice with respect to any medical condition or treatment.