Sexual Assault on College Campuses: What Every Student Needs to Know
Sexual assault on college campuses is far too common. In fact, over 11 percent of students are raped or sexually assaulted while in college.1 And all students are at risk: Female, male, and LGBTQ students experience unacceptable rates of sexual violence on campus. But there is reason for optimism: Recent events in the news are changing the way society views sexual assault.
As a result, more students are aware of this important fact: Sexual assault is never the fault of the person who is assaulted. And people who have been assaulted now have better access to help than ever before. Plus, the stigma around talking about sexual assault is weakening, so more survivors know they are not alone.
This guide to dealing with sexual violence on college campuses provides more than just statistics. You'll learn how to protect yourself and others on campus. You'll also discover how to speak out against a rape culture that encourages sexual mistreatment. And you'll learn tips for ensuring that any sexual activity is consensual. Plus, you'll find out what to do if you've been sexually assaulted, no matter how long ago it happened or what the circumstances were.
- Talking about sexual assault on campus
- Sexual assault on college campuses: Facts and myths
- Understanding college rape culture and how we can change it
- Protecting yourself from sexual assault
- What to do after an assault
- Recovering from sexual assault
If you need to talk to someone about sexual assault, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673). An online chat option is also available.
Talking About Sexual Assault on Campus
For a long time, the prevalence of sexual assault on college campuses was a taboo subject. Conversations about sexual violence and rape made people uncomfortable. Survivors were often judged. As a result, many people didn't report their assaults to authorities, much less talk about them with friends.
But the tide is turning. Several high-profile events have involved the problem of sexual assault at colleges and universities. So more people are now willing to share their stories, which is a step in the right direction. After all, learning more about sexual assault and college campus rape is an important part of ending a pervasive rape culture that allows sexual assault to continue on many campuses.
For example, public awareness of what survivors of sexual assault often experience came into the spotlight after the Brock Turner case. Turner was a student athlete at Stanford University when he sexually assaulted an unconscious woman behind a dumpster. He was sentenced to six months in jail and served half of that time, a short sentence that led to a great deal of public outrage.
During Turner's sentencing, the survivor of the assault read a powerful victim impact statement, telling Turner, "You took away my worth, my privacy, my energy, my time, my safety, my intimacy, my confidence, my own voice, until today."2 The raw emotion and honesty of her statement, combined with the notoriety of the case, captured many people's attention. Four days after it was published online, the statement had been read 11 million times, including out loud on CNN.3
The Brock Turner story highlighted problems with how the criminal justice system sometimes treats sexual assault survivors and their assailants. And it prompted college administrators to take a hard look at college rape statistics. 2017 saw another shift when the #MeToo movement took off. Originally launched in 2006 by activist Tarana Burke, #MeToo reignited in October of 2017, after actress Alyssa Milano encouraged survivors to use the hashtag #MeToo in order to show solidarity with other survivors and demonstrate how common sexual assault actually is. The results were startling: Since Milano's first tweet, the hashtag has been used on Twitter over 19 million times.4
The #MeToo hashtag's rapid spread across social media drew attention to the prevalence of sexual assault, with many celebrities coming forward to share their own stories. Activists say this has forever changed the way society views sexual assault since it has helped remove the stigma that survivors often feel.
But despite these positive changes, it's still a confusing time for college students. Some students relive painful memories after reading these news stories, and others ask how they're supposed to deal with sex at all. Others wonder how to respond to speculations that false accusations will lead to a #MeToo backfire. And, most importantly, many students still experience sexual assault and harassment in college. Campuses throughout the nation continue to grapple with this problem, which has not gone away.
Sexual Assault on College Campuses: Facts and Myths
No matter what college sexual assault statistics show, one thing is clear: Any number of sexual assaults is too many. But although awareness of the problem is growing, the rate of assaults among college students continues to shock. Take a look at the percentage of undergraduate students who experience sexual assault in college:
- Female students—23.1 percent1
- Male students—5.4 percent1
- Students identifying as TGQN (transgender, genderqueer, or nonconforming)—21 percent1
- Female students with a disability—31.6 percent5
Given those statistics, it's somewhat surprising that almost 90 percent of colleges reported that they did not have a single incident of campus rape in 2015.6 This difference points to the difficulty in determining how common campus sexual assault really is: College rape statistics vary a lot depending on the particular source of information.
One of the biggest challenges in measuring the rate of college sexual assault is that many incidents remain a secret. In fact, up to 90 percent of campus sexual assaults aren't reported.7 As a result, numbers from police departments or college administrators may not be accurate.
To try gathering more precise sexual assault statistics, college administrators at some schools have conducted anonymous surveys of students. (With confidential, self-reported surveys, students who have been assaulted may be more likely to respond.)
Statistics also vary depending on the definition of sexual assault that's being used. For example, when you hear about sexual assault on campus, you might think it only refers to forced intercourse by a deranged stranger. But the typical sexual assault definition is much broader than that.
The U.S. Department of Justice defines sexual assault as "any nonconsensual sexual act proscribed by Federal, tribal, or State law, including when the victim lacks capacity to consent."
Under this definition, sexual assault includes any nonconsensual grabbing, fondling, or kissing. Also, you'll notice that the definition doesn't make any distinction regarding the relationship between the victim and the perpetrator. Nor does it place any limitations on gender: Sexual assault can happen to anyone. It all comes down to consent.
Consent is also the key to defining rape. Not all sexual assaults are rape. But all rape is a form of sexual assault. The FBI defines rape as "penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim."
The exact definitions of what legally constitutes different types of sexual assault and rape differ a bit from state to state. If you'd like to learn more, RAINN's website offers a database of state laws regarding sexual violence.
Understanding College Rape Culture and How We Can Change It
You've probably heard the term "rape culture" in discussions about sexual violence on college campuses. Rape culture is based on a set of faulty assumptions in which rape and other sex crimes are accepted as a normal, inevitable part of life in college. Rape culture encourages sexual aggression and fosters the mistaken view that sexual assault is a "compliment" given to the person being victimized. In a rape culture, myths about sexual assault continue to be spread. They include false beliefs like:
- Women are at fault for rape because of their clothing choices.
- One partner in a relationship can't sexually assault the other.
- Certain people should be grateful for any unwanted attention they receive.
- Sending uninvited pictures of your genitals to someone is OK.
- Unwanted touching is OK even if you're just joking around.
- Friends have automatic permission to grab, touch, kiss, or fondle each other.
- It's OK to keep giving unwanted attention to someone because he or she may eventually give in.
Rape culture can be changed. By taking a close look at your own assumptions and beliefs about sexuality, you can help do exactly that.
In order to understand how rape culture contributes to the high number of sexual assaults on college campuses, we all have to understand the concept of consent. As the Department of Justice's definition of sexual assault makes clear, consent is the key factor in determining what sexual assault is. And consent doesn't just mean that a person hasn't said "no." Consent requires a resounding "yes."
Consider this: Sex is often inherently awkward, and many people are unsure of what they're doing. That's normal. But any sexual experience that is the result of one person being pressured or threatened—no matter how subtly—is a form of sexual assault. Even if a person has consented to a sexual act in the past, that does not mean consent has been given going forward. A person can also consent to one type of sex act, but not to another.
What a person is wearing doesn't having any bearing on whether or not he or she consents. And consent can't be given if a person is incapacitated by drugs or alcohol, or if he or she is asleep. A person must be capable of making an informed decision in order to give consent.
So how can you know if a sexual activity is consensual? The solution is simple: Ask. Asking doesn't have to be dry or formal. In fact, it can be fun. Remember: Open communication is often the key to good sex. After all, who doesn't like knowing that their partner is totally into what's happening?
But does this focus on preventing sexual assault make you, or someone you know, more vulnerable to being falsely accused? Rest easy: Statistics tell us that false accusations are actually very rare. Only between two and 10 percent of sexual assault charges are ever found to be false.8 And sometimes those claims are labeled as "false" not because the accuser is lying, but because police don't have sufficient evidence to press charges.
Once you understand the nature of consent, you can help others. When you see a situation that makes you uneasy, it's important to take a stand. Bystander intervention is one of the most effective ways to prevent campus sexual assault.
But many students aren't sure what to do if they think another student is in danger. Here are some tips:
1. Speak up.
When you see a student who seems to be at risk, ask how he or she feels. Simply checking in can create an exit for someone in a bad situation. It also lets a potential perpetrator know that you are aware of what's going on.
The importance of speaking up extends to your daily life: Consider some of the language you hear around you. Sexist jokes and derogatory comments can contribute to an atmosphere that makes sexual assault more acceptable. Ending rape culture means acknowledging that treating other people like sexual prey isn't going to be tolerated. That doesn't mean you have to turn into a humorless moralizer: It just means that joking about sexual assault and rape on college campus is never funny.
When your friends are being stupid, say something. For example, if a friend shows you an intimate photo that someone sent privately, ask if the person in the photo would consent to it being shared. Or if your dormmates gossip about someone who was sexually assaulted, call out any victim blaming.
2. Bring in support.
When you notice something that's worrying you, talk to someone in a position of authority: for example, a bartender, security guard, or resident advisor. Or call 911 in case of an immediate threat. Safety should be your first concern.
3. Stay close.
Stay close to anyone who might be in danger. If you think a person is too drunk to give consent or to make smart choices, try to remove him or her from the situation. (You probably wouldn't let an inebriated friend drive drunk. The same rules should apply to sex.)
These simple steps are a small part of combatting rape culture. If you'd like to learn more, check out some of these books:
- Asking for It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture—and What We Can Do About It by Kate Harding
- Yes Means Yes!: Visions of Female Sexual Power and A World Without Rape by Jaclyn Friedman and Jessica Valenti
- Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town by Jon Krakauer
Protecting Yourself From Sexual Assault
Taking some proactive steps can reduce your risk of sexual assault on campus. But although safety tips are good to know, they don't get to the root of the problem. When sexual assault prevention programs tell students how to avoid sexual assault, they're often putting the onus on the wrong person. In fact, one study looked at the sexual assault prevention tips put out by 15 colleges and found that over 80 percent of them were specifically directed at women.9
To truly stop sexual assault, we also need to teach offenders not to assault people.
Does that sound like a big task? Campaigns like It's On Us approach sexual assault prevention from many angles by working to create a consensus on campus that sexual assault is not acceptable.
One key factor is getting rid of the stereotype that rape on college campuses happens when a psychotic stranger jumps out of the bushes. While those kinds of crimes do occur, in about 85 to 90 percent of college campus rapes, the survivor knew the offender.10 Knowing this can help shift your awareness of what to watch for.
So, although you can't stop sexual assault (only offenders can do that), you can take steps to reduce your risk:
- Trust your instincts. If your inner warning signals go off, listen to them! In his book The Gift of Fear and Other Survival Signals that Protect Us From Violence, Gavin de Becker writes, "You have the gift of a brilliant internal guardian that stands ready to warn you of hazards and guide you through risky situations." Pay attention to your intuition.
- Be aware of the "red zone." That's the period between the start of school and Thanksgiving break. Over 50 percent of sexual assaults on campus happen during that time, mostly between midnight and 6 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.11 First-year students are especially vulnerable at the start of school. Many are away from home for the first time and possibly inexperienced with alcohol, and they may not have friends to watch over them yet.
- Be prepared. Sometimes a little preparation can make a big difference later. If you go to a party, make sure your phone is charged. Ask yourself how you're getting home before you go out. And plan ahead: Memorize at least one reliable friend's number in case you lose your phone. Also, add a taxi company's phone number to your contacts or download a ridesharing app. In addition, apps like Circle of 6 can keep your friends and other trusted people apprised of where you are and let them know if you need help.
- Meet dates in public places for the first meeting and until you feel comfortable with them.
- Be aware of your surroundings. Consider turning the volume of your headphones down if you're walking alone. Stick to well-lit paths. If you have to walk alone at night, find out if your campus has security officers who can accompany you. Many colleges offer this service.
- Lock your doors and windows when you go to sleep. And if you live in a residence hall, don't prop the main entrance open.
- Never leave a drink out of your sight. "Date rape" drugs such as Rohypnol can be very difficult to detect if they're added to a drink. At parties, don't accept drinks from strangers, and avoid the punch bowl. Those tips apply to everyone: One-fifth of students who've had a drink spiked are male.12 But remember that alcohol, even if it isn't spiked, is a risk factor for assault.
- Think about your relationship with alcohol. Alcohol is a factor in over 50 percent of college sexual assaults, and 90 percent of acquaintance rapes involve alcohol.13 Simply put, you are more vulnerable to sexual assault if you've been drinking. So know your limits. If you're at a party, communicate with your friends when you feel you've had enough to drink. If you plan to get drunk, make sure you're with at least one sober person who has your back. Drinking to the point of passing out carries obvious risks, but even being slightly drunk can impact your judgment.
Even if you are drunk, being a victim of sexual assault is never your fault. If you were assaulted while drinking, don't accept it as a normal consequence. It's still a crime.
What to Do After an Assault
If you've experienced a sexual assault, you may be scared. You may feel numb. You may not know how you feel at all. And you might not be sure what to do next. The most important thing is to keep yourself safe. Below are some steps to take after a sexual assault. They are guidelines only.
If you don't feel that you can read through these steps and make an immediate plan, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673) to talk to someone.
1. Know that it's not your fault.
No matter how much you had to drink, what you were wearing, who you were with, or whatever else happened beforehand, you're not responsible. The person who assaulted you is.
2. Make sure you're safe.
If you are still in danger, call 911. Call even if you're worried about getting in trouble for where you were or what you were doing at the time of the assault. Your safety is paramount.
3. Find support.
You may want a close friend or trusted family member with you after the assault.
4. Call a sexual assault hotline.
Don't be embarrassed or ashamed. The people who answer these lines are trained to work with sexual assault survivors. They won't pressure you to do or say anything that you're not comfortable with. You will not be judged.
Call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673). You will be connected to someone in your area who knows the resources and support available to you.
5. Gather and protect the evidence.
This step may feel very difficult, but it will help your recovery in the long run. Even if you don't plan to report the assault, you should collect and retain evidence in case you decide to report the crime later.
If you do plan to go for a medical exam, try not to shower, wash yourself, comb your hair, brush your teeth, smoke, or go to the bathroom first. Try to go to the exam in the same clothing you were wearing during the assault. You may have an overwhelming urge to shower or change, but it's important to preserve all possible evidence. If you have to change clothes, put the clothing you were wearing at the time of the assault into a paper (not plastic) bag. If you think you've been drugged, pee into a jar or cup.
Also, if you're able to, write out exactly what happened. If authorities ask you questions later, it will be easier if you've gathered your thoughts beforehand.
6. Get medical help.
Even if you're not sure whether you want to report the crime, you should still seek medical help—not just to make sure you're physically OK. You may need to have a sexual assault forensic exam (sometimes called a rape kit) performed. Getting this type of medical attention increases the odds you'll have essential DNA evidence if you ever report the crime. Evidence is best collected within 72 hours of an assault, but if it's been longer, you can still have an exam.
What happens during the exam depends on the nature of the assault, but it may involve:
- Taking photos of your body and any injuries
- Taking samples of your hair
- Taking blood or urine samples
- Swabbing your mouth, genitals, or anus
Going through these procedures may feel incredibly difficult, but DNA evidence is often a vital part of criminal investigations. You can ask to have someone with you during the exam if you feel it will help you. And if you've called a sexual assault hotline, a trained volunteer may be available to support you in person (depending on your location).
The medical team may also talk to you about your risk of sexually transmitted infections or pregnancy and provide any necessary treatments. By law, you should not be charged for the exam (even if you choose not to work with law enforcement).
7. Decide whether you want to report the assault.
Nobody can force you to report the crime to authorities. Your experience is yours and yours alone. But consider this: Most students who have decided to report a sexual assault say that the decision has helped their recovery.14 It's also important to remember that reporting a sexual assault helps ensure that the assailant doesn't hurt anyone else. One study of men who admitted to an act of rape found that over 63 percent of those men raped more than one woman.15
Still, many assault survivors have concerns about reporting incidents, including fears that:
- They won't be taken seriously
- Nobody will believe them
- The reports won't be confidential
- The assaults weren't serious enough
- Filing the reports will be difficult
- They are at least partly responsible
- There could be reprisals
- They didn't do enough to stop the attacks
It can be especially hard for male or LGBTQ students to say that they have been assaulted. All of those worries are understandable. But heightened awareness of sexual assault on campus has led to huge improvements in the experiences of people who report assaults. So, chances are, lots of people will have your back. Help is available.
You have a few options to report a sexual assault:
- If you're in danger, call 911.
- Call the police department in your area.
- Go to the hospital and tell the medical staff you wish to report an assault.
- If you were assaulted on campus, tell your school's safety department. The school website should have information on how to do this.
Here are some things you should know about reporting an assault:
- You can report a sexual assault long after it happened. But most states have a statute of limitations that restricts the length of time you can wait. Read the statutes of limitations for your state.
- You can report a sexual assault even if you know the person who assaulted you, you've had consensual sexual contact with him or her in the past, or you were drinking at the time of the assault. It's still sexual assault, and it's still a crime.
- Many law enforcement agencies have officers who are specially trained in working with sexual assault survivors.
- You will be asked a lot of questions; some of them may be awkward and embarrassing. Just be honest. Remember that you're not at fault.
- It may feel as if the people asking questions don't believe you. But that's generally because they're trying to be precise in the information they collect. If you're asked the same questions repeatedly, don't panic. This is normal. Law enforcement officers want to help you.
- You're entitled to privacy and the right to take a break if you feel overwhelmed. You can also have someone with you for support.
- As a victim, if you report a crime, you have legal rights, including the right to financial compensation.
- Undocumented students may worry about being deported when they talk to authorities. But victims of certain kinds of crimes who cooperate with the police to solve those crimes may be eligible for U visas, which allow them to remain in the U.S.
Recovering From Sexual Assault
The aftereffects of sexual violence can be serious and complex. So you may feel as if life will never be normal again. But help is available for your recovery. With time and support, you can achieve a new normal based on your inner strength. After all, you're not broken or ruined. And you're not to blame.
Be patient with yourself. There is no "correct" way to react to an assault. Always remember that you're not alone.
Because many sexual assault stories have been in the news lately, a lot of survivors are recalling their own past experiences. Hearing about other people's traumatic events can trigger painful memories. That's a big reason why, for example, calls to the National Sexual Assault Hotline rose 338 percent during Dr. Christine Blasey Ford's testimony against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.16 (She testified that he had sexually assaulted her when they were both teenagers.)
If you're bothered by news coverage about sexual assault, RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) offers some tips for consuming media as a sexual assault survivor.
Whether you experienced sexual assault recently or long ago, here are some ways to find support in your recovery:
1. Talk to a professional.
Therapy is a safe, confidential, and nonjudgmental way to work through what's happened to you. You can commit to regular visits over a long period of time or have a short talk on the phone whenever you need to get through a rough patch. It's up to you how you approach counseling. Check out these options for finding counseling that works for you:
- The American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists (AASECT) offers a searchable database of sexuality counselors.
- RAINN offers a database of sexual assault service providers to help you find support in your area.
- The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available any time. Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
- The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) offers a Behavioral Health Treatment Services Locator that can help you find a mental health professional near you.
- Crisis Text Line can be reached by texting "home" to 741741 from anywhere in the U.S.
- The National Sexual Assault Hotline can be reached at 800-656-HOPE (4673). You can also use the online chat option.
- MaleSurvivor offers a resource directory for male survivors of sexual assault.
- FORGE provides support for transgender and gender-nonconforming survivors of assault.
2. Work with your college's administration.
Under Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972, colleges and universities that receive federal money are required to help students continue their education following any incidence of sexual assault. A school's obligations include doing any of the following to prevent a student from having contact with his or her assailant:
- Helping a student change classes
- Helping a student switch scheduled exam times
- Finding new living arrangements for a student
- Assisting with a no-contact order
- Helping a student find counseling
Talk to the Title IX coordinator on your campus to learn more about making arrangements that will help you feel safe at school.
In addition, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires colleges to accommodate the needs of students who experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or depression following a crime. Talk to the disability coordinator at your school if this is a concern for you.
You can learn more about your rights under Title IX with regards to sexual assault at Know Your IX. In addition, the 2015 documentary The Hunting Ground chronicles the use of Title IX in sexual assault cases.
3. Talk to your friends and family.
Talking about sexual assault is a very personal decision. But you should not be embarrassed to do so. Some survivors of sexual assault find that it's helpful to remember that rape and other forms of sexual violence are crimes, and they wouldn't be ashamed of experiencing any other type of crime.
Still, as you probably know from other experiences in your life, some people can be amazing sources of support whereas others may not offer much help or might even make things worse. So choose the people you talk to wisely. And remember that you get to decide how much you tell them. Although you should not be ashamed of anything that's happened to you, it's normal to feel like not talking about it sometimes. You're in control of the story.
Take a look at some of the excellent books on sexual assault. They aren't necessarily a substitute for mental health counseling, but the following books have helped many people:
- Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence—From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror by Judith L. Herman
- The Sexual Healing Journey: A Guide for Survivors of Sexual Abuse by Wendy Maltz
- Joining Forces: Empowering Male Survivors to Thrive by Dr. Howard Fradkin
- Queering Sexual Violence: Radical Voices from Within the Anti-Violence Movement by Jennifer Patterson (editor)
We Can All Work Together to Stop College Sexual Assault
As more people become aware of sexual assault's impacts on the lives of students, momentum is growing to take action. By taking steps to speak out against rape culture and learning how to protect yourself and the people around you, you can play a role in making college campuses safe for everyone.
1 RAINN, "Campus Sexual Violence: Statistics," website last visited on November 7, 2018.
2 The Washington Post, "'You took away my worth': A sexual assault victim's powerful message to her Stanford attacker," website last visited on November 8, 2018.
3 Adweek, "How BuzzFeed Became the Outlet That Made the Stanford Rape Victim's Letter Go Viral," website last visited on November 7, 2018.
4 Pew Research Center, "How social media users have discussed sexual harassment since #MeToo went viral," website last visited on November 7, 2018.
5 National Council on Disability, Not on the Radar: Sexual Assault of College Students with Disabilities," website last visited on November 7, 2018.
6 AAUW, "89 Percent of Colleges Reported Zero Incidents of Rape in 2015," website last visited on November 7, 2018.
7 National Sexual Violence Resource Center, Statistics About Sexual Violence, website last visited on November 7, 2018.
8 National Sexual Violence Resource Center, False Reporting," website last visited on November 7, 2018.
9 The Daily Beast, "Rape Prevention Is Still a Woman's Job, Campuses Say," website last visited on November 7, 2018.
10 National Institute of Justice, "Most Victims Know Their Attacker," website last visited on November 7, 2018.
11 Psychology Today, "Talking to College Students About 'The Red Zone'," website last visited on November 7, 2018.
12 The Inquisitr, "Date Rape Drugs Are A Major Problem On U.S. College Campuses; 80% Of Victims Are Women," website last visited on November 7, 2018.
13 Alcohol.org, "Sexual Assaults on College Campuses Involving Alcohol," website last visited on November 7, 2018.
14 Chicago Tribune "Is there a 'rape culture' on college campuses?," website last visited on November 7, 2018.
15 National Sexual Violence Resource Center, "Get Statistics," website last visited on June 3, 2019.
16 RAINN, "RAINN Hotline Helps Record Number of Survivors," website last visited on November 7, 2018.