Sexual assault on college campuses continues to make national headlines. We know the victims suffer short- and long-term health problems, such as sexually transmitted infections, depression, anxiety, eating disorders, chronic illness and post-traumatic stress disorder. We also know that college students who have been sexually assaulted are more likely to engage in risky behaviors, such as binge drinking and drug use, and have lowered academic achievement, and they may be at greater risk for revictimization.
A number of government and campus initiatives aim to address the problem. For instance, in September 2014, the White House partnered with stakeholders to launch "It's On Us" and "Not Alone," national public awareness campaigns focusing on preventing and responding to campus sexual assault.
But to truly tackle sexual assault on college campuses, we must understand how often it occurs. How many college students are sexually assaulted, and what factors are associated with higher or lower prevalence rates?
Official estimates vary widely. To date, no studies have systematically reviewed prevalence findings in the research on college-based sexual victimization, which would provide greater insight into the extent of the problem, the types of sexual victimization that students experience, and how study methodologies influence the prevalence rates found.
To help fill this knowledge gap, we systematically gathered prevalence estimates for campus sexual assault in the U.S. that were published between January 2000 and February 2015. We defined "prevalence" as the reported percentage of study participants who reported sexual victimization since entering college or during a study follow-up period or time frame while attending college.
We examined peer-reviewed studies, dissertations and reports on a wide range of topics, such as health outcomes, risk factors, and evaluations of campus intervention or prevention programs. We assessed and synthesized prevalence findings, research designs and methods, sampling techniques, and measures, including types of sexual victimization.
Our goal was to better understand the range of prevalence findings currently available and the factors behind the variation. We also wanted to present recommendations for campus prevention and response strategies and propose research questions for future studies on campus sexual assault.
An Incomplete Picture
We found that estimates of completed forcible rape, incapacitated rape, unwanted sexual contact and sexual coercion on college campuses in the U.S. vary widely. Unwanted sexual contact and sexual coercion appear to be most prevalent, followed by incapacitated rape and attempted or completed forcible rape.
The variability is due in large part to differences in measurement and definitions of sexual assault among studies. To date, the majority of research on campus sexual assault has been limited to white, heterosexual, female students attending four-year colleges. Few studies measure prevalence among racial and ethnic minority students or other students who may be particularly at risk for campus sexual assault, such as lesbian and bisexual women, sorority women, students with disabilities, and students who have suffered prior victimization. Some studies included in our review found higher rates of sexual assault among these students.
Only one study sampled students at vocational and trade schools, so it is unclear whether the prevalence of sexual assault among nontraditional college students differs from that among traditional full-time students attending four-year colleges.
Despite the discrepancies, the studies we reviewed — even those with lower estimates — all point to the same troubling truth: A substantial proportion of college students are sexually assaulted.
Students experience different forms of sexual victimization, and prevalence rates for each form often vary from campus to campus. Schools should start with a detailed understanding of the types of sexual victimization occurring on their campuses and appropriately tailor prevention and intervention strategies, treatment for victims, and campus response.
We found a high prevalence of unwanted sexual contact and sexual coercion; therefore, prevention efforts should include a focus on the dynamics of these two forms of victimization. Further, the disproportionate rates of victimization among LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning) students, students with disabilities, and racial and ethnic minority students highlight the need for responses that are inclusive and culturally specific.
When researching campus sexual assault, it is important to clearly define and separately measure the range of experiences that may fall under "unwanted sexual contact," "forcible rape," "incapacitated rape" and "drug- or alcohol-facilitated rape." Standardized definitions can help us better understand how prevalence rates vary and how to develop appropriate prevention and intervention strategies for various types of sexual victimization. Studies should continue to include behaviorally specific measures, such as providing students with examples of unwanted sexual experiences. Also, measuring victimization "since entering college" will help distinguish campus sexual assault from childhood, adolescent and lifetime sexual victimization.
Future studies should measure sexual victimization among students who may be at greater risk for sexual assault, such as LGBTQ students, students with past histories of sexual victimization and students with disabilities. Future research should also explore whether sexual assault among students at alternative college education programs is similar to or different from sexual assault among traditional college students; this will help nontraditional programs develop appropriate intervention and prevention responses for students. Additionally, researchers should consider contextual and cultural differences between public and private universities — for example, small liberal arts colleges versus large public state universities — as well as four-year colleges and vocational or trade schools when measuring the prevalence of sexual victimization on different types of campuses.
Defining Sexual Assault
We used the following definitions in our review of sexual assault on U.S. campuses:
- Prevalence: the reported percentage of study participants who reported sexual victimization since entering college or during a study follow-up period or time frame while attending college
- Unwanted sexual contact: attempted or completed unwanted kissing, fondling, petting or other sexual touching using physical force, threat of physical force, verbal coercion or a combination of these, but excluding vaginal, anal and oral intercourse
- Sexual coercion: completed unwanted sexual contact (kissing, fondling or other sexual touching) or completed vaginal, anal or oral intercourse through nonviolent means (such as intimidation, pressure, lies, threats to end a relationship or continual arguments)
- Incapacitated or alcohol-related sexual assault: completed vaginal, anal or oral intercourse while victim was intoxicated or on drugs
- Broadly defined sexual assault: involving multiple forms of sexual victimization, including rape, sexual coercion, incapacitated or alcohol-related sexual assault, and unwanted sexual contact
- Physically forced completed and attempted rape: vaginal, anal or oral intercourse using physical force or threat of force
For More Information
For a detailed discussion of our review and findings, see "Campus Sexual Assault: A Systematic Review of Prevalence Research from 2000 to 2015," in Trauma, Violence & Abuse.
About This Article
This artice appeared in NIJ Journal Issue 277, September 2016.