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A Voice for Victims

Campus Sexual Assault

Sexual assaults happening on college campuses is a more common occurrence than one might think. It’s not unique to any specific college campus; sexual assaults occur on college campuses across the country. College women aged 18-24 are at a greater risk of falling victim to sexual assault on university campuses. Alcohol consumption is sometimes a contributing factor, also putting people at higher risk of campus sexual assault. If you or a loved one experienced sexual violence on a college campus, contacting a sexual assault lawyer is imperative to learn about your legal rights.

What is sexual assault?

According to the United States Department of Justice, sexual assault refers to non-consensual sexual acts, including those in which the victim expressly does not consent and lacks the capacity to consent. Some forms of sexual assault include rape, unwanted sexual touching, sexual assault, sexual battery, sexual abuse, sexual coercion, and forcing someone to perform sexual acts or touching without their consent. Rape is a common form of sexual assault, but not all instances of sexual assault are considered rape since rape is explicitly defined to include sexual penetration without consent. In contrast, sexual assault also includes touching and other sexual acts.

How common is sexual assault on college campuses?

Researchers found that reports of sexual assault indicate that one in 5 women and one in 16 men experience sexual assault when in college. Nearly two-thirds of students on campus will experience some form of sexual harassment, with less than 10% of these students reporting it to the university or an employee. 

In 2019, the Association of American Universities conducted a survey on sexual assault and misconduct on college campuses. As part of the survey, 181,752 students surveyed participated from 33 different colleges and universities. Data from their responses showed that the rate of non-consensual sexual acts, either by force or an inability to consent, was 13%, with higher rates for female, transgender, genderqueer, and non-binary students. 

Despite these reports and studies, an estimated 20% of female student victims report their unwanted sexual encounters to law enforcement, meaning that the 13% rate is lower than the actual number of sexual assaults occurring on college campuses. 

Why is sexual violence more prevalent at college compared to other crimes? 

On college campuses, a college-aged woman is twice as likely to be sexually assaulted than robbed. When looking at risk factors for sexual assault and sexual misconduct on college campuses and multiple contributing factors that put students at an elevated risk, it’s also important to understand that college-aged students are on their own for the first time and have more freedom than before. This newfound freedom that comes with adulthood might cause them to engage in previously restricted (and riskier) activities. 

College life is notorious for its parties, especially when students are involved in sororities or fraternities, and many students feel pressure to fit in. This need for acceptance sometimes includes engaging in sexual activities, despite feeling uncomfortable or unsafe.

What puts students at a greater risk for sexual assault on college campuses?

Several factors increase the risk of sexual assault on college campuses, but substance abuse is most common. In a study conducted in 1998, 23% of male participants reported using alcohol or drugs to obtain sexual intercourse. 

Substance abuse not only increases the risk of falling victim to sexual assault but also encourages perpetrators and can heighten the severity of the attack. According to the same study, men who reported heavy drinking had a higher likelihood to report also having committed sexual assault than men who did not engage in heavy drinking. In a study in which 74% of perpetrators were drinking before the assault, the prior substance abuse directly impacted the severity of the sexual assault.

In addition to substance abuse, other factors that put students at a greater risk for sexual assault on college campuses include:

  • Age and year in school
  • Race and ethnicity
  • Residential status
  • Sorority membership
  • History of consensual sexual experiences
  • Alcohol use
  • Dating violence
  • Other prior victimizations

When looking at a student’s age and year of study, 84% of women who reported being victims of some form of campus sexual assault said the incident happened within the first four semesters (two years) in college.

Although time on campus is not always indicative of a student’s age, underage women on campus are more likely to report sexual assault than those over 21. Additionally, though a campus sexual assault victim’s race and ethnicity are not subject to many studies, Native American women reported the highest number of sexual assaults, with white women having higher rates than African American, Hispanic, and Asian women. Concerning residential status, students who live in on-campus or sorority housing (also considering sorority membership as a risk factor) were more likely to report a sexual assault incident than students who lived in off-campus housing.

Another factor that significantly elevates a student’s risk for sexual assault is prior victimization. In one study, 10% of women reported they were survivors of rape before the start of the academic year when the researchers conducted the study, and 11% reported a prior attempted rape. 

A 1995 study reported that women who experienced prior victimization by a romantic partner before college were much more likely to experience sexual assault during college. Childhood sexual violence, though, did not show any indication of increasing the student’s risk for sexual assault. The connection between prior victimization and the student’s increased risk lies in the student’s behaviors and responses, including:

  • Low self-esteem
  • Depression
  • Other mental health illnesses manifesting after the assault
  • Hindered psychological adjustment

All of these factors individually and together increase a college student’s vulnerability. Higher education institutions and the Department of Education must implement changes within college campuses to eliminate rape culture and existing risks.

How Can College Campuses Prevent Sexual Assault?

Who are the perpetrators of campus sexual abuse?

Perpetrators of sexual violence typically know their victims. Eight out of ten rapes in general (not just campus rapes) happen by a perpetrator known by the survivor, either as an acquaintance, current or former romantic partner, or a relative. 

Based on reports from college-aged students, approximately 31% of perpetrators were recognizable by the victim, 25% were friends of the victim, and almost 33% were previous romantic partners. About 35% of victims also identified perpetrators as classmates. Nearly 5% of undergraduate students identified their perpetrator as a teacher, compared to 16.5% of graduate or professional students. 

Sexual assault is not always what we see in movies, where the perpetrator is some random person hiding in dark corners or lurking in a secluded parking lot. You should always be on guard, but not just with strangers. You must know the warning signs and how to protect yourself, even when you’re with people familiar to you.

Who are the victims of campus sexual assault?

Anyone can be the victim of campus sexual assault, regardless of race, gender, or other demographic factors. Among undergraduate college students, 26.4% of women and 6.8% of men reported sexual assault through physical force or inability to consent. Female college students are three times more likely to be victims of sexual assault, while college-aged male students are 78% more likely to be victims of sexual assault than non-students of the same age. 

What are the risk factors for campus sexual assault?

Sexual assaults happen on college campuses due to the nature of the environment itself, putting college students in general at high risk. Factors contributing to campus sexual assaults include:

  • Threats and ultimatums, particularly in Greek life settings. Membership in a sorority or fraternity significantly increases the risk for sexual assaults, given the frequent interactions between the two in social scenes involving alcohol and other substances.
  • Misogynistic ideology. Misogyny, a term meaning hatred towards women, takes shape in many different forms, including sexual harassment or objectification. Many groups promote misogynistic tendencies, either knowingly or unknowingly, encouraging members to act on these tendencies, often in a sexual way against women.
  • Objectification of women. Misogyny and objectification of women are often closely linked, with the idea that women are only good for one thing: to make a man happy in whatever way necessary. When looking at college campuses today and considering the use of social media, it makes it easier for men to look at women as sexual objects rather than respecting them for the people they are.
  • Grooming behaviors. Grooming involves building trust with a person to gain access to and time alone with that person. These behaviors correspond to statistics showing that most perpetrators know their victims since they take the time to build a relationship with them.
  • Alcohol and drugs. Most victims report alcohol consumption before the incident and often report that the perpetrator also consumed alcohol. Substance abuse can impair the perpetrator’s judgment and take away the victim’s ability to consent.
  • Lack of empathy for others. Empathy is the ability to recognize and understand how another person is feeling. Without empathy, perpetrators of sexual assault cannot understand or relate to how their victims feel before, during, and after the incident.
  • Sensation-seeking behaviors. For many students, college is the first time they have true “freedom” and can make decisions independently. This independence can lead students to drink excessively or use other substances and have multiple sexual partners to fit in with the college or university campus culture. These actions increase the risk for both victims and perpetrators becoming involved in a sexual assault.

Why do college campus sexual assaults go unreported?

Only 20% of female college victims of campus sexual assault report the incident to law enforcement. Many victims of college sexual assault decide not to report the assault for reasons including:

  • Shame or embarrassment
  • Fear of blame
  • Feeling like it’s their fault
  • Fear of retaliation
  • The urge to suppress the memory
  • Fear that no one will believe them 
  • Concern that the authorities will not properly investigate the allegation
  • Feeling like it’s not severe enough to justify a report

Among these reasons, there might also be a close relationship between the victim and perpetrator, meaning they might share mutual friends, putting pressure on the victim to let it go to avoid losing friendships and keeping the friend group’s status quo. 

The victim might also make an effort to report the sexual assault only to find out that the school procedures necessary for filing a formal report are too complex or strenuous for the victim to comply with them. 

In many situations, it’s not just one reason that a campus sexual assault survivor decides not to report their assault or rape. Instead, it’s often a combination of several different reasons.

How can college campuses prevent sexual assault?

To prevent sexual assaults on campus, colleges and universities need to ensure that the policies and procedures currently available to students are proper and easily understood. If supportive policies and procedures are not now in place, the school must take reasonable steps to implement standards and reporting practices that are helpful and efficient, including:

  • Emphasizing affirmative consent policies by ensuring that all students are aware of and understand the college or university’s current policies
  • Offering required courses for students to take on an annual or per semester basis to teach them about consent, sexual assault, prevention strategies, and warning signs
  • Creating better policies and procedures for reporting sexual assault, thereby ensuring that the complexity of the process is not a reason that a victim fails to report the incident
  • Having student and organizational activism groups that aid in educating the student body of the campus’s current policies that offer support to victims and raise awareness for campus sexual assault warning signs, safety tips, and other preventative or protective measures
  • Creating basic safety guidelines for students to follow to ensure their protection and wellbeing and that of those around them when on campus
  • Having a support line set up so that students who experience sexual assault and are going through the reporting process do not feel isolated, alone, judged, embarrassed, or blamed
  • Providing resources for students, such as “safe places,” for them to speak with someone about their experience in their own words with confidence that they can report the assault on their own time and in their own way

It’s essential that various departments of the college or university get involved and become aware of the policies and procedures necessary for students to report the sexual assault and related to the subsequent investigation. Campus administration, counseling services, and campus or local law enforcement should all work together to ensure student safety before, during, and after a sexual assault. Each department, individually and together, plays a vital role in addressing and responding to college sexual assault and providing support for the victim.

How can parents help protect their children before, during, or after a sexual assault?

As a parent, the most crucial thing to do for your child after a sexual assault is to let them know they have your full support and that you’re there for them however they need it. In addition to providing support to your child, it’s beneficial for parents to educate themselves on the reporting and judicial processes. Parents should consult with a law firm that has extensive experience with sexual assault lawsuits. A campus sexual assault attorney can help ensure your child receives the justice they deserve.

Can colleges and universities be held liable for campus sexual assault?

Colleges and universities may potentially be liable for campus sexual assault under federal law. Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 “prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in all education programs or activities that receive federal financial assistance.” Under this federal law, discrimination based on sex can include sexual harassment or violence.

Under Title IX, when addressing sexual harassment and violence, a school must respond promptly and effectively to all sexual assault reports. If the school knows or should have known about sexual violence happening on campus, the school must take immediate action to eliminate that violence, prevent future sexual assaults, and address its effects.

Another federal law addressing sexual violence at colleges and universities is the Clery Act, which requires these institutions to disclose crime statistics and security policies. Additionally, legislators signed into law the Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act to require all institutions of higher learning to educate students, faculty, and staff on the prevention of sexual assault, domestic violence, and stalking.

In addition to federal laws, many states are also taking specific legal actions to address campus sexual assault. For example, New York’s Campus Accountability and Safety Act, passed in 2015, provides strong protection for both the victim and the accused and adopts a sexual standard of “yes means yes.” New York state legislators passed this bill with the intention of its eventual implementation in every college campus across the nation.  

What should I do if I experienced a sexual assault on campus?

If you or someone you know was the victim of sexual assault on campus, the most vital thing you can do is find a safe space where you feel comfortable to discuss your experience. It’s equally important not to blame yourself or think about all the things you could have done differently. 

Talk with someone about your experience and seek help, whether via counseling, legal help, medical help, or a friend’s help with reporting the assault. If you choose to do so, calling the police to create a report and having a rape kit done (if you report soon after the incident) to aid in your allegations can ensure that the perpetrator is held responsible for the harm they willingly inflicted on you. 

Moving forward

After experiencing a sexual assault, all you can do is heal and seek help when needed to recover from the incident at your own pace. There are multiple things that a campus sexual assault survivor can do to move forward from the experience, including:

  • Utilize the school’s resources to help yourself feel safe again on campus. You can possibly change your class schedule or dorm and seek out support from the college or university by asking about counseling or tutoring services. 
  • Find ways to get involved on campus to share information about sexual violence and educate others about the risk factors of sexual assault.
  • Speak with a sexual assault attorney to seek justice. Your attorney can help you navigate the campus sexual assault reporting process and research the college sexual assault prevention program to evaluate its effectiveness. 
  • Educate friends and others about ways to protect themselves and inform them about steps to take to prevent campus sexual assault.

Should I contact a sexual abuse attorney?

Contacting a sexual assault attorney is a step in the right direction for sexual assault survivors. The attorneys at Herman Law can help survivors seek justice and navigate the obstacles they might encounter when overcoming campus sexual assault culture. Contacting a sexual assault attorney ensures that you have someone to help you pursue justice, oversee the investigation procedures, and tackle victim-blaming head-on. We also want to help get you the resources you need to aid in your healing and ongoing recovery. Do not suffer alone. Call us today for a free consultation.  

If you are a survivor of sexual abuse, we want to help. Contact us confidentially today.