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Most episodes of college sexual assault occur during “the red zone,” which is the time from the start of the fall semester to Thanksgiving. As the fall semester begins, students are returning to campus, and many are learning to live on their own. First year students are navigating new academic challenges and adjusting to new social pressures, including those around alcohol and drugs. Just as parents are preparing their students for these challenges, there needs to be a frank conversation about college sexual assault.
What defines college sexual assault?
Sexual violence involves crimes where the offender subjects the victim to “unwanted or offensive contact,” (Best Colleges) including sexual assault and rape.
Sexual assault: Sexual acts and touching performed on a non-consenting or coerced person
Rape: Forced or coerced vaginal, anal, or oral penetration
Drug facilitation: Perpetrators can use alcohol or other mind-altering substances to subdue potential victims
There’s a good chance the victim may already know the perpetrators of sexual assault. In fact, 33% of all rapes are committed by a former or current partner. Most sexual assaults are never reported. College sexual assault often involves drugs or alcohol. “One study found that 15% of young women experienced incapacitated rape during their first year of college” (OASH).
Who are the victims of campus sexual assault?
According to the Campus Climate Survey conducted by the Association of American Universities, “20 percent of female undergraduates are victims of sexual assault or sexual misconduct at some point during their college life” (Nussbaum). College women aged 18-24 are 3 times more likely than average to experience a sexual assault through physical force or incapacitation (RAINN). College aged men, ages 18-24, are “approximately five-times more likely than non-students of the same demographic to be victims of rape or sexual assault” (Best Colleges).
The same survey showed a rise in sexual assaults on college campuses especially for “women, [transgender, non-binary], and undergraduate students” (AAU) during 2019. The COVID-19 Pandemic has only exacerbated this. Many more students are now back to in-person learning. They may be tempted “to go overboard socializing as they embrace a return of pre-pandemic campus life,” according to researcher Erin Bonar, PhD (Huff).
Raising awareness of college sexual assault
Protests about college sexual assault, such as at Virginia Tech, are bringing to light a toxic culture around this violence. This culture often silences victims of college sexual assault and allows sexual violence to persist on college campuses. Critics say that more needs to be done to prevent sexual violence at the federal level by reforming Title IX. Title IX is the 1972 federal civil rights law that prohibits sexual discrimination in education. Title IX is now 50 years old, and many believe that the laws need updating.
Changes to Title IX made by former President Trump “narrowed the definition of sexual harassment and allowed colleges to ignore most cases arising off campus” (NPR). Now, many students are calling on President Biden to address these issues and help to update Title IX so that it protects students. Title IX is supposed to hold colleges accountable to protect their students. Unfortunately, “fewer students are filing fewer sexual misconduct cases and the bulk of them — upward of 90% — are now being handled informally, said Brett Sokolow, president of the Association of Title IX Administrators” (NPR).
With the advent of the #MeToo movement, more students are aware of the types of behavior that constitute sexual assault and may be better equipped to report assaults than in the past. However, “many women [who] experience harassment and assault on campus, are often reluctant to notify officials because they worry they won’t be believed or might face retaliation” (AAUW).
How to protect yourself from college sexual assault
While sexual assault is certainly not the fault of the victims, students can take steps to be safer around others. According to the Office on Women’s Health, the following steps are a good place to start
- Get to know someone well before spending time alone with him or her.
- Go to parties or hangouts with friends.
- Meet first dates or new people in a public place.
- Listen to your instincts or gut feelings.
- Be aware of your alcohol or drug intake.
- Keep control of your own drink.
- Be aware of your surroundings.
- Know your resources.
- Have a plan to get home.
What to do immediately after campus sexual assault
If you or someone you know is assaulted, get the person to a safe location and call 911.
If the sexual assault happened on campus, notify the campus police or the college’s public safety officers. When the abuser is also a student, “the university is required to help the victim continue their education” (OASH) by allowing dorm or class schedule changes. Additionally, counseling is often available on campus.
The National Sexual Assault Helpline can connect victims with resources.
Call 800-656-4673 or live chat at online.rainn.org.
These helplines will connect the victim to a local RAINN affiliate organization. They will help you find the nearest sexual assault healthcare provider.
Coping with the fallout from campus sexual assault
Survivors of campus sexual assault often develop health issues because of the assault. Depression, anxiety, and PTSD are common responses. “Among rape survivors who stayed on campus, nearly 1 in 3 had academic problems and more than 1 in 5 considered leaving school” (OASH). It is crucial that survivors receive help for these issues as soon as they can. Additionally, many campuses have peer support groups where survivors can help one another navigate a difficult and scary time.
Sexual assault is not your fault!
“Psychologists, researchers, and campus activists have long strived to reduce students’ vulnerability to unwanted sexual contact, including assaults, at U.S. colleges and universities” (Huff). Unfortunately, research shows that campus sexual assault is still prevalent today and we need more proactive steps to protect students. Revising Title IX and changing campus climates through protest and awareness are a starting point. Colleges need to normalize conversations about campus sexual assault and encourage people to seek help for mental health consequences.