The Problem of Sexual Assault on College Campuses

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“These are the best four years of your life.” These are the words that ring in the ears of every student in the year leading up to college and throughout the entirety of the experience. However, for many young adults, college can be a time of vulnerability and paranoia in regards to their safety rather than an exciting new stage of life that is filled with independence and learning. In recent years, the topic of sexual assault on college campuses has become a more relevant issue in the eyes of the public, especially as new statistics and research emerge on the subject. Due to historical implications and common societal responses, sexual assaults on college campuses frequently go unreported, which largely benefits the attacker while simultaneously punishing the victim, and reinforces stereotypes held against minority groups, creating a vicious cycle of oppression. Historically speaking, rape was viewed as an “offense against the woman’s father or husband” rather than “an injury to her” (McGregor 3).

Fathers were concerned about protecting their daughter’s chastity to ensure eligibility for marriage, and a woman’s husband needed to guarantee that any child his wife gave birth to was biologically his own (McGregor 3). The social and legal ramifications of this outlook gave the impression that raping a woman could be used as a weapon to wound the social standing of a man, rather than giving the impression that she was a person being physically and mentally harmed against her will. Due to this mindset, the well-being of a woman was not taken into consideration, causing a series of effects. Since the concern was keeping women pure and preventing the birth of an illegitimate child, other forms of sexual assault and violence were not seen as criminal acts. To this day, both society and the justice system have difficulty recognizing “non consensual sex without force” as a crime due to the fact that, legally, force is interpreted as “extreme physical force” (McGregor 4).

This historical and modern view of sexual violence typically excludes cases of date or acquaintance rape, along with other instances of sexual violence, making it difficult to prosecute the attacker for their crime. Most cases of sexual assault and misconduct are seen as illegitimate and are easily dismissed as “boys will be boys”, an “exaggeration by the woman”, or something the victim was “asking for” (Schwartz et al. 20). Many believe that charges of sexual violence including date or acquaintance rape happen when a victim feels “guilty after a sexual encounter” and “cries ‘rape’ in order to ease [their] conscience” (Bohmer et al. 32). This mindset held by the public and the legal system maliciously undermines the victim’s reliability and creates a more difficult process in pursuing justice. The societal and legal response around rape and sexual assault has maintained the agenda of protecting everyone but the victim, making the process of reporting an act of sexual violence a daunting task.

Many victims of rape or sexual assault do not report the crime due to the fear of damaging repercussions, leading to the misconception that the issue is not as common as it actually is, especially on college campuses. The reality of sexual assault on college campuses was never fully comprehended until the 1980s when social scientists collected data and realized that “sexual assault was far more prevalent than indicated in official government statistics” (Phillips 141,142). According to a study performed in 2015 at the University of Pennsylvania, 33.5% of female undergraduate students and 24.5% of male undergraduate students in the survey reported experiencing sexual harassment, stalking, sexual assault, or other misconduct (Cantor et al. 3, 4). In the same study, students who were victims of “penetrative acts involving force” were asked why the incident was not reported.

The evidence showed that 35.6% of the victims were afraid of the “negative social consequences”, 34.4% were afraid of the emotional repercussions of reporting the incident, and 31.7% “did not think anything would be done about it” (Cantor et al. 18). These reasons for not reporting sexual assaults are all legitimate concerns that stem from how similar cases have previously been handled by the justice system. In many cases of sexual assault on campus, victims who decide to report the crime to campus authorities are manipulated into not pursuing legal or judicial authorities (Bohmer et. al 18). Additionally, many college campuses focus on the frequency of rapes that occur, which widely “overlooks the extent to which” victims are subject to “other forms of sexual victimization” (Phillips 154). College campuses will present statistics showing how rape rarely happens on their campus, but do not include other forms of sexual violence, once again creating the facade that sexual victimization on campus is a rare occurrence.

One of the most challenging issues that victims face through the legal process is proving their reliability and presenting their case in a way that will be interpreted as an act of sexual violence committed against them. In cases of rape and sexual assault, definitions vary between each state, however the three main elements necessary for a “successful prosecution” are “identification of the rapist, the use of threat or force, and penetration against the victim’s will and without [their] consent” (Gordon et al. 57). Many victims who decide to pursue legal action come under fire during the case due to how difficult it can be to prove all three aspects, and in most cases, the question of whether or not the crime is considered an act of sexual violence comes into play. The definition widely used by the judicial system tends to exclude other unwanted sexual acts or advances, making it more difficult for the victim to prove that the incident was a crime. Most victims are subject to “take a polygraph test” in order to prove the validity of the alleged sexual assault, however the same standard is not upheld for the attacker (Gordon et al. 57). Cases that do end up going to court usually are supported differently based on gender. Studies found that women are “generally more favorable to the victim” while men “react less favorably”, and in many cases of sexual violence, the law protects the attacker against the prosecution and rarely takes into account the perspective of the victim (Allison et. al 182; McGregor 27). Legally, the process of reporting sexual violence is unfavorable towards victims and does not create a sense of trust for the justice system.

Not only are acts of sexual violence damaging to the victim and society, but they also reveal underlying prejudices that exist in terms of race. The preexisting racial prejudice in America makes most legal encounters for people of color more difficult than for white people, including cases of sexual violence. Studies and court cases have shown that “sex offenders are more likely to be white (as are their victims)” (Meloy et al. 88). However, according to an article written by “The Atlantic”, the issue of race regarding sexual assaults on campuses is “almost completely unacknowledged by the government” because the Office for Civil Rights does not require colleges to report the race of the victim and the attacker in “sexual-assault complaints” (Yoffe 3). Therefore, when a victim reports an issue to campus officials, but does not pursue legal action, there is no official data recorded on race, leaving the interpretation up to popular news outlets and viewpoints of the public. America’s history of racism typically portrayed “scandals in which black men are accused of sexually assaulting white women” contributing to the “general social disadvantage” for black men, making it easy for the judicious system and the public to “put the blame on them” (Halley 11,12).

However, black men only represent “about 6 percent of college undergraduates” but are visibly “overrepresented” in cases that are consistently tracked (Yoffee 6). Minority groups on campus, especially men of color, deal with an overall “lack of resources” on college campuses that may “systematically disadvantage men of color in adjudication, whether or not the encounter was interracial” (Yoffe 8). However, this given information does not provide immunity to all men of color who are accused of committing an act of sexual violence. Sexual violence can happen within and between all different races, however, the evidence shows that there is a severe misconception of the number of colored men that allegedly commit sexual assault.

The issue of sexual assault and race is complicatedly intertwined with class. As it is with the majority of crimes, there is an overall advantage given to more affluent people because of their ability to hire competent legal counsel. On college campuses, the people that generally fall into a higher social class status are white men, the group that commits the largest amount of sexual violence on college campuses. Therefore, the people who are committing the majority of these crimes are able to use their money to hire skilled defense attorneys for assistance, while minority groups may be forced to accept whatever defense attorney is provided for them. Additionally, investigations through universities typically take action in a swift manner when the accused is a minority, and many minority suspects are subject to “abrupt expulsions” without a sufficient amount of evidence to do so (Yoffe 9). The issues of race and class persist through sexual violence, and can be used to incriminate those who are innocent, harming the popular opinion of minority groups, while simultaneously stalling progress towards effective policy changes.

Race and class are not the only political issues that complicate sexual violence cases. Gender plays a significant role in who is seen as a legitimate victim, along with who is likely to report incidents of sexual misconduct and violence committed against them. Most legal cases, studies, and sources focus on the victimization of women who have experienced sexual violence. Statistically speaking, women are the most targeted group for crimes of assault and rape, but they are not the only ones who are targeted. A significant number of gender and sexual minorities are subject to sexual assault, but are rarely seen as victims. In comparison to cisgender women, “cisgender men” are “less likely to report harassment” (Martin-Storey et al. 704). The tendency for cisgender men to avoid reporting harassment stems from societal misconceptions that any sexual acts performed on a man, no matter who it is performed by, were consensual.

Additionally, coming forward as a victim of sexual violence is not perceived as “masculine”, which can create a sense of shame for the victims of unwanted sexual advances, eventually causing the victim to internalize the societal attitude and falsely accept that, on some level, he did want the encounter to take place. The “differential treatment” between genders creates a system that adequately protects male victims (McGregor 13). Studies have also shown that people from the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer community, commonly referred to as the LGBTQ community, are more likely to report unwanted sexual behaviors compared to their heterosexual and cisgendered counterparts (Martin-Storey et al. 704). However, these cases are rarely acknowledged publicly because of how great of a minority the LGBTQ community is. Similar to cisgender male victims, reports against these people are not taken seriously due to the fact that their sexual orientation or preference is not heteronormative. Sexual assault is not an isolated feminine issue, however, due to historical implications and numerous forms of sexism and oppression, females are generally the only group that are classified as victims.

The most notable policy change that has been made is the Title IX civil right law. The law states that “no person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subject to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance” (US Department of Education). The Title IX Resource Guide provided by the US Department of Education clearly states that all “gender-based harassment” committed against students belonging to the LGBTQ community needs to be handled using the “same procedures and standards” that are used in “all complaints involving sex-based harassment” (16). While it is difficult to fully maintain and uphold the rules enforced by Title IX due to the interpretations of sexual harassment and previously mentioned historical and social implications, the law creates a sense of morale for people who have been battling the issues of sexual violence on college campuses for a long time. Title IX began to address sexual violence and harassment that occurred on campuses, but the use of the law has been “more powerful as a rhetorical tool than a legal remedy” in combating sexual violence (Phillips 148). Changes in political policy can be slow and difficult to enforce, but the social effects can be just as, or even more powerful, than the policy itself. In order to create reasonable change in a timely manner, revisions must be made in areas besides political policy.

One possible change that can be made is by establishing universal terminology and definitions surround sexual violence. In many codes written by colleges, terms regarding sexual violence such as “sexual abuse, sexual assault, [and] acquaintance rape” are used without being defined (Bohmer et al. 185). By clearly defining the differences between different unwanted sexual behaviors, a more standardized process can be created, and victims may begin to have more confidence in the legal system. Another term that must be clearly defined is “consent”. In many legal cases, the question of whether or not the victim consented comes into play, but personal definitions may vary. For example, if a sexual harassment guideline states that sexual assault is forcing sexual acts on a person without their consent, a reader might believe that having sexual intercourse with someone passed out from intoxication is not sexual assault because the victim was unable to verbally reject (Bohmer et al. 186). The issue of consent is essential for standardizing legal cases and should be integrated into campus judicial systems during the process of determining guilt.

Although there has been no statistical research done on the program due to how new the program is, implementing programs that begin in high school to create peer support could potentially bring down the number of sexual assault campuses on college campuses. Many men find it “uncomfortable” to talk to their male peers about “giving up power” and confronting them on their sexually inappropriate behavior (Schwartz et al. 165). However, programs such as Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP) have dedicated resources to “facilitate discussions” about “relationships, drinking, sexual assault, and rape” as early as freshman year of high school (Starecheski 20). Students who have gone through the program and who have been surveyed reported that their attitude towards “sexual assault, and intervening in dangerous situations” has shifted, and the program has even helped guide students in real life scenarios of intervening in potential sexual violence attempts (Starcheski 26, 34). Creating similar programs and encouraging discussion on the difficult subject are simple ways that can help prevent painful and expensive ramifications down the road.

Historical implications and common societal responses have frequently caused sexual assaults on college campuses to go unreported, and continues to reinforces stereotypes held against minority groups. However, successful efforts have been made to combat the daunting reality of sexual violence, and if these efforts continue to grow and influence more change, the number of people affected potentially could be reduced. College should be a time filled with fun memories, growth, and independence. In order to ensure an equal opportunity for each student, society and legal systems must continuously work together to protect each student from sexual violence, and give them the confidence that their voice will be heard.

Works Cited

Allison, Julie A., and Lawrence S. Wrightsman. Rape, the Misunderstood Crime. Sage Publications, 1993.

Bohmer, Carol, and Andrea Parrot. Sexual Assault on Campus: the Problem and the Solution. Lexington Books, 1993.

Cantor, David, et al. Report on the AAU Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct . Westat , 21 Sept. 2015.

Gordon, Margaret T., and Stephanie Riger. The Female Fear. The Free Press, 1989.

Halley, Janet. “Trading the Megaphone for the Gavel in Title IX Enforcement.” Harvard Law Review, 2015,

Martin-Storey, Alexa, et al. “Sexual Violence on Campus: Differences Across Gender and Sexual Minority Status.” Journal of Adolescent Health, vol. 62, no. 6, 2018, pp. 701–707., doi:10.1016/j.jadohealth.2017.12.013.

Meloy, Michelle L., and Susan L. Miller. The Victimization of Women: Law, Policies, and Politics. Oxford University Press, 2011.

McGregor, Joan. Is It Rape?: on Acquaintance Rape and Taking Women's Consent Seriously. Ashgate, 2005.

Phillips, Nickie D. Beyond Blurred Lines: Rape Culture in Popular Media. Rowman & Littlefield, 2017.

Schwartz, Martin D., and Walter S. Dekeseredy. Sexual Assault on the College Campus: the Role of Male Peer Support. SAGE Publications, 1997.

Starecheski, Laura. “The Power Of The Peer Group In Preventing Campus Rape.” NPR, NPR, 18 Aug. 2014,

“Title IX and Sex Discrimination.” Home, US Department of Education (ED), 25 Sept. 2018.

US Department of Education “Title IX Resource Guide.” Title IX Resource Guide, Distributed by ERIC Clearinghouse, 2015.

Yoffe, Emily. “The Question of Race in Campus Sexual-Assault Cases.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 30 Oct. 2017,

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The Problem of Sexual Assault on College Campuses. (2019, Feb 20). Retrieved May 20, 2024 , from

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