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Factors That Increase Sexual Assault Risk

Date Published
September 30, 2008

While identifying risk factors for sexual assault may assist in the development of prevention efforts, it should be noted that in no way do these risk factors imply that an "at-risk" victim is responsible for the assault.

Alcohol use is most commonly associated with sexual assault on campus, according to a number of studies, including NIJ’s Campus Sexual Assault (CSA) Study (pdf, 111 pages). See alcohol use below.

Other risk factors include:

  • Sorority membership. Almost a quarter of sexual assault victims were sorority members, whereas only 14 percent of nonvictims were sorority members.
  • Numerous sexual partners. Women who reported having more sexual partners since entering college were more likely to have reported forced sexual assault.
  • Freshman or sophomore status. The first two years of college are the highest risk years, and the first few months of the school year are the highest risk time of the year.
  • Day of the week. More than half of the sexual assaults took place on weekends. More than half occurred between midnight and 6 a.m.
  • Off-campus parties. More than half of sexual assaults against college women took place in off-campus settings. More than half of the women who reported incapacitated sexual assault said they were at a party when the incident took place.

Risk Groups for Forced and Incapacitated Assault

Physically forced sexual assault (no drugs or alcohol involved). Women on college campuses are more likely to be victims if they:

  • Experienced physically forced sexual assault before entering college.
  • Have experienced dating violence since entering college.
  • Are Hispanic (compared to white non-Hispanics).
  • Have had more dating partners since entering college.

Incapacitated sexual assault. For the survey, the researchers used a broad definition of “incapacitated” that included being drunk, under the influence of drugs, passed out, asleep or otherwise incapacitated. Women on campuses are more likely to be victims of incapacitated sexual assault if they:

  • Experienced incapacitated sexual assault before entering college.
  • Have experienced dating violence since entering college.
  • Have ever been given a drug without their consent since entering college.
  • Got drunk more often since entering college.
  • Reported being often drunk or high during sex since entering college.
  • Often attended fraternity parties.

Drug-Facilitated Rape on Campus

To get more information about the use of “date-rape drugs” and related topics, NIJ sponsored a Campus Sexual Assault (CSA) Study, which surveyed more than 5,000 female undergraduate students from two public universities.

Researchers asked the students to distinguish between forced sexual assaults and incapacitated sexual assaults related to drug or alcohol intake. They also asked if the incapacitation was a result of the victim being given alcohol or drugs without her knowledge.

Number of Survey Respondents Reporting Sexual Assault*
Type of Assault Lifetime Before College Since Entering College
Any sexual assault 1,164 590 782
Forced sexual assault na 322 256
Incapacitated sexual assault na 377 651
Alcohol/drug use (voluntary consumption) na na 566
Drug-facilitated without victim's knowledge na na 31

*Out of 5,446 survey respondents. For the survey, the researchers used a broad definition of “incapacitated” that included being drunk, under the influence of drugs, passed out, asleep or otherwise incapacitated. The figures are not likely to be representative of most American campuses: The surveys were conducted at two public universities with large enrollments. Department of Education statistics show that such campuses have the highest crime rates.

Read the full report of the Campus Sexual Assault Study (pdf, 111 pages).

More women experienced forced sexual assault before college than during college. Once in college, however, their risk of becoming a victim because of incapacitation — broadly defined — increases.

The survey results show that the use of date-rape drugs does occur, but less than 1 percent of women indicated this happened, making it far less common than sexual assault following voluntary intoxication. Alcohol is more frequently associated with sexual assault on campuses than drugs.

Alcohol Use Increases the Risk of Sexual Assault

At least half of sexual assaults among college students occur after the person who committed the crime, the victim, or both consume alcohol Alcohol use can increase the risk of sexual assault in several ways. Alcohol use by a potential assailant can lead to increased aggressive behavior and an inability to interpret another person’s sexual interest accurately. Research also shows that college students — both men and women — believe that dates are more likely to include sexual intercourse when both participants drink alcohol. A study of sexual assault victims — half of whom were college students — found that women who were drinking when an assault took place reported that their intoxication made them take risks that they would normally avoid. Alcohol consumption can also undermine a person’s ability to resist an assault or sexual advance.

One study surveyed 238 female undergraduate students about their experiences with alcohol, sexual activity and sexual assault. Severely victimized women had more consensual sex partners, less assertive behavior toward unwanted sexual advances, greater alcohol consumption and more positive views of alcohol than other women did.[1]

Social settings have an influence as well. People drink more than usual when participating in drinking games, which have become common on some campuses. Peer group norms in many sororities and fraternities accept getting drunk as part of college life. The norm for most fraternity parties is to drink heavily. In focus groups, female students talked about warning signs such as getting too drunk or getting attention from men who have a reputation for forcing sex. However, most of these women said they believed that they were protected by the social setting because other people were nearby.

Date Published: September 30, 2008