Sexual assault and interpersonal violence on campus
What is interpersonal violence?
Interpersonal violence is an umbrella term that refers to sexual assault, dating violence, and stalking, as well as other acts of aggression and violence motivated by prejudice and hate.
Sexual assault is any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit and affirmative consent of the participants. Consent is the clear, informed, and voluntary agreement between all participants to engage in sexual activity. Consent is active, not passive, and may be withdrawn at any time. Silence cannot be interpreted as consent. Consent can be given by words or actions, as long as those words or actions are mutually understood.
Dating violence occurs in intimate relationships and involves a pattern of behavior in which one person tries to exert power and control over another person. Dating violence can take many forms, including emotional, verbal, sexual, physical, and economic abuse.
Stalking is a pattern of behavior in which one person causes another to feel fear by following, monitoring, or surveilling them. Sexual assault, dating violence, and stalking may occur independently or in tandem with one another.
How common are sexual assault, dating violence, and stalking on campus?
The prevalence of sexual assault, dating violence, and stalking are difficult to measure for a multitude of reasons. One study estimated that 20% of women experience attempted or completed sexual assault during their college career. 12 It has been suggested that 1 in 16 men (or 6%) are victims of attempted or completed sexual assault at college, but that number is most likely an underestimate. 3 While not adequately studied, it is estimated that rates of assault are higher for marginalized populations, such as LGBTQ+ individuals, people of color, people with differing abilities, and people who are not citizens of the United States.
Who is perpetrating sexual assault?
Why don’t all survivors report?
Sexual assault, dating violence, and stalking are alarmingly underreported. The reasons for survivors’ non-reporting (whether to a school or to law enforcement) vary.
- They blame themselves for the assault 6
- They don’t consider the assault to be serious enough to report 7
- They consider the incident a personal matter
- They fear not being believed
- They fear reprisal by the perpetrator 8
- They fear retaliation from peers
- They fear insensitive or hostile treatment by authorities
- They belong to communities that are frequently targets of police violence and do not see law enforement as a supportive option
- They prefer community solutions to a punitive and/or carceral justice system
- They fear of punishment for activities preceding some assaults, such as underage drinking 9
- They are confused about how to report
- They don’t want others to find out what happened 10
- They don’t want to get the assailant into trouble (especially if the assailant is an acquaintance)
- They don’t want to go through the trauma of reliving the assault
- They don’t want to participate in a formal college adjudication process, or believe there is a lack of sufficient evidence
Why do schools even handle reports of sexual assault, dating violence, and stalking?
Title IX requires schools to ensure that students can pursue their education in an environment that is free from discrimination on the basis of sex and gender. Colleges serve an important role because they can provide survivors with support and accommodations that the criminal justice system cannot, such as academic accommodations, residential changes, counseling, and no-contact orders. Colleges have the power to suspend or expel assailants without waiting for the verdict of a lengthy criminal trial. Swift punishment of offenders enables survivors to more comfortably resume their studies (without the fear of coming into contact with their assailant) and protects other students from potential future victimization by the offender. Additionally, schools must use a lower standard of proof (a preponderance of the evidence) in judicial proceedings than criminal courts (beyond a reasonable doubt). Moreover, the criminal justice system frequently fails to protect survivors or punish assailants, particularly in acquaintance rape cases involving drugs or alcohol (a very common form of sexual assault on college campuses). The process of a criminal investigation and trial can be traumatic for the survivor. Reports rarely lead to arrests, and assailants are rarely prosecuted and even more rarely convicted. Additionally, some state laws do not recognize same-sex assaults, assaults perpetrated by women, or assaults of men. Finally, the university and criminal justice systems are not mutually exclusive, so filing a report to a university doesn’t prevent a survivor from also seeking justice through the criminal justice system.
How common are false accusations?
It is estimated that false accusations comprise somewhere in the range of 2-8%11 or 2-10%12 of police reports. An accusation is considered false if law enforcement officials decide that the reported crime did not occur. Law enforcement classifies a report as false when they don’t believe the survivor or when the survivor recants. However, a survivor may recant or give an inconsistent, confusing account to authorities for many legitimate reasons.
- Why might a survivor’s account have so many inconsistencies?
- Foggy or fragmented memory of the assault, which can be caused by the effects of trauma on the brain as well as drug or alcohol intoxication
- Discomfort sharing details of the assault
- Fear of not being believed, which may lead survivors to omit details that they feel may undermine their credibility (such as drinking, drug use, or illegal activity)
- Fear of being punished by incriminating oneself for illegal activity or insecure citizenship status
- Distrust of authorities, particularly for historically and currently marginalized populations who may have harassing or violent personal experiences with said authorities
- Attempt to protect the perpetrator, which is most relevant when the survivor and perpetrator have an ongoing relationship, or are both members of a certain group (e.g., an ethnic or religious group) and speaking out against a fellow member is seen as a betrayal
- Desire to create a case that seems more believable, for example by falsely claiming that there was a weapon used
What are the consequences of sexual assault for the survivor?
Sexual assault can have immediate as well as long-term effects on the survivor. An immediate concern is the physical health and safety of the survivor. Injuries, pregnancy, and sexually transmitted infections are a risk. The longer-term effects can be equally serious. Often, survivors withdraw from social activities. Their academic performance frequently declines. They may not participate in class and submit lower quality work or they may miss classes, assignments, and tests. These difficulties can lead a survivor to drop courses, transfer, or leave school altogether. Survivors have an increased risk of depression, personality disorders, and suicide. They are also more likely to develop eating disorders and issues with substance abuse and self-harm. Post-traumatic stress is common. 13 The response a survivor receives after an assault can be as traumatic as the assault. Institutional betrayal is the term that refers to “wrongdoings perpetrated by an institution upon individuals dependent on that institution, including failure to prevent or respond supportively to wrongdoings by individuals (e.g. sexual assault) committed within the context of the institution.” 14 In one study, survivors who reported institutional betrayal experienced more severe post-traumatic stress and greater levels of anxiety, dissociation, and sexual problems. 15
What are the consequences of sexual assault for the perpetrator?
A recent review showed that, of students found responsible for sexual assault, 12-30% were expelled, 28-68% were suspended, 17% received educational sanctions, and 13% were placed on probation. 16 Some were ordered to attend counseling or perform community service. 17
What are the consequences of sexual assault for the community?
The occurrence of sexual assault can have a deep impact on the college community. It threatens the actual and perceived safety of the campus and can make people question administrators’ commitment to protecting students. Schools that are negligent in prevention or response procedures face fines by the federal government. Cases that receive widespread attention can tarnish schools’ reputations and damage relations with students, parents, and alumni. 18
What can I do to support survivors I know?
- Learn as much as you can about sexual assault and its effects. Not only will this knowledge enable you to better help the survivor, but your effort to understand will also show the survivor that they are not alone. It is crucial that you understand the devastation of the trauma.
- Listen carefully and give your full attention to the survivor. Allow silences. It can be very difficult for a survivor to talk about their assault, and it’s important not to rush them.
- Believe the survivor. Avoid asking probing questions. If it seems like you’re interrogating them, the survivor might feel that you don’t believe them.
- Validate the survivor’s feelings, even if you do not understand them. Do not make any assumptions about what happened or what they are feeling.
- Take a moment to consider your words before you speak. You may feel the urge to reassure the survivor, but statements like “it could have been worse” or “you will be fine” may imply that you don’t appreciate the gravity of the experience and are minimizing its importance.
- Remind the survivor that the assault was not their fault. No one ever deserves to be assaulted. Remind the survivor that you support them, care about them, and don’t see them any differently.
- Respect the survivor’s boundaries. They may want time alone and they may not want to be touched. Don’t touch them unless you are certain that they are comfortable with that.
- Ask the survivor if they want any resources or support. If they do, offer help in seeking counseling or medical help, or reporting to campus or local authorities. Offer to assist the survivor in resuming their day-to-day life, such as accompanying them on errands or anything else that helps the survivor feel safe.
- Respect the survivor’s autonomy, and support them regardless of whether you agree with what they choose to do. An assault violates a survivor’s sense of safety and strips them of control, so it is crucial that you allow them to exercise their own agency. Do not offer unsolicited advice.
- Know that survivors respond in many different ways to an assault, and that there is no “correct” way to respond. Recovery is a lengthy and non-linear process. The survivor may seem fine one day and terribly anxious the next day. This is normal. They need time to process and grieve.
- Respect the survivor’s privacy and keep all information confidential unless you have the survivor’s permission to do otherwise.
- Don’t forget to take care of yourself. Supporting someone who survived a trauma can be very difficult. Pay attention to your own feelings and needs.
Informational and advocacy resources
Take me to Clery Center
Take me to EROC
Take me to Faculty Against Rape
Take me to Know Your IX
Take me to ItsOnUs.org
Take me to NotAlone.gov
Take me to RAINN
Take me to SurvJustice
Take me to Ultraviolet
Take me to Victim Rights Law Center
If you have been assaulted or are in crisis, there are a variety of resources available to you. Please know that we send you all our love.
National sexual assault hotline (RAINN) - 800.656.HOPE (4673)
National domestic violence hotline - 1-800-799-7233 OR 1-800-787-3224 (TTY)
National teen dating abuse hotline - Call: 866-331-9474 OR Text: loveis to 22522
Trevor project - 866-488-7386
Stalking resource center - 202-467-8700
1 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2012). Sexual violence: Facts at a glance. Retrieved from: http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/sv-datasheet-a.pdf
Krebs, C.P., Lindquist, C.H., Warner, T.D., Fisher, B.S., & Martin, S.L. (2007). The Campus Sexual Assault (CSA) Study. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice.
Krebs, C.P., Lindquist, C.H., Warner, T.D., Fisher, B.S., & Martin, S.L. (2009). College women’s experiences with physically forced, alcohol- or other drug-enabled, and drug-facilitated sexual assault before and since entering college. Journal of American College Health, 57(6).
2 Fisher, B.S., Daigle, L.E., & Cullen F.T. (2010). Unsafe in the ivory tower: the sexual victimization of college women. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.
3 Krebs, C.P., Lindquist, C.H., Warner, T.D., Fisher, B.S., & Martin, S.L. (2007). The Campus Sexual Assault (CSA) Study. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice.
(5) Edwards, K.M., Sylaska, K.M., Barry, J.E., Moynihan, M.M., Banyard, V.L., Cohn, E.S., Walsh, W.A., & Ward, S.K. (2015). Physical dating violence, sexual violence, and unwanted pursuit victimization: A comparison of incidence rates among sexual-minority and heterosexual college students. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 30(4), 580-600.
(6) Porter, J., & McQuiller Williams, L. (2011). Intimate violence among underrepresented groups on a college campus. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 26(16), 3210-3224.
4 Lisak, D., & Miller, P.M. (2002). Repeat rape and multiple offending among undetected rapists. Violence and Victims, 17(1).
5 Krebs, C.P., Lindquist, C.H., Warner, T.D., Fisher, B.S., & Martin, S.L. (2007). The Campus Sexual Assault (CSA) Study. Washington, DC: National Institute of Justice, U.S. Department of Justice.
6 Kilpatrick, D.G.; Resnick, H.S.; Ruggiero, K.J.; Conoscenti, L.; & McCauley, J. (2007). Drug-facilitated, incapacitated, and forcible rape: A national study. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice.
7 Thompson, M.P.; Sitterle, D.J.; Clay, G.; & Kingree, J.B. (2007). Reasons for not reporting victimizations to the police: Do they vary for physical and sexual incidents? Journal of American College Health, 55.
8 Sampson, R. (2002). Acquaintance Rape of College Students. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice.
9 Fisher, B.S.; Cullen, F.T.; & Turner, M.G. (2000). The Sexual Victimization of College Women. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice. Retrieved from: https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/182369.pdf
10 Krebs, C.P.; Lindquist, C.H.; Warner, T.D.; Fisher, B.S.; & Martin, S.L. (2007). The Campus Sexual Assault (CSA) Study. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice.
11 Lonsway, K.A.; Archambault, J.; & Lisak, D. (2009). False reports: Moving beyond the issue to successfully investigate and prosecute non-stranger sexual assault. The Voice, 3(1).
12 Lisak, D.; Gardinier, L.; Nicksa, S.C.; & Cote, A.M. (2010). False allegations of sexual assault: An analysis of ten years of reported cases, Violence Against Women, 16(12).
13 Kirkland, C.J. (1994). Academic Impact of Sexual Assault. Fairfax, VA: George Mason University.
14 Platt, M., Barton, J., & Freyd, J.J. (2009). A betrayal trauma perspective on domestic violence. In E. Stark & E. S. Buzawa (Eds.) Violence against Women in Families and Relationships, Vol. 1. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
15 Smith, C.P. & Freyd, J.J. (2013). Dangerous safe havens: Institutional betrayal exacerbates sexual trauma, Journal of Traumatic Stress, 26. Eugene, Oregon: University of Oregon
16 Kingkade, T. (September 29, 2014). Fewer than one-third of campus sexual assault cases result in expulsion. Huffington Post. Retrieved from: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/09/29/campus-sexual-assault_n_5888742.html
17 Anderson, N. (December 15, 2014). Colleges often reluctant to expel for sexual violence — with U-Va. a prime example. The Washington Post. Retrieved from: http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/colleges-often-reluctant-to-expel-for-sexual-violence--with-u-va-a-prime-example/2014/12/15/307c5648-7b4e-11e4-b821-503cc7efed9e_story.html
18 Campus Sexual Assault: Suggested Policies and Procedures. (Oct 2012). American Association of University Teachers. Retrieved from: http://www.aaup.org/report/campus-sexual-assault-suggested-policies-and-procedures