Research has shown that sexual assault on university and college campuses is alarmingly common. Estimates suggest that one in four women who attend a college or university will experience some form of sexual assault in their years of study. While women are most frequently the victims of sexual assault, men also experience various forms of sexual violation.
Sexual assault can be defined as a nonconsensual violation of an individual’s sexual integrity. It can take the form of sexual harassment, incest, or sexual abuse. Other terms used to refer to sexual violation include “sexual violence” and “rape.” Rape is considered to be a specific form of sexual assault and is defined as nonconsensual sexual intercourse. Sexual violence, a term that is used within the majority of academic literature, encompasses a broader range of experiences and levels of violence. The term “sexual assault,” in contrast, is used within the legal system to define all attacks that are of a sexual nature, ranging from inappropriate touching to aggravated assault.
Historically, acts of sexual assault were not seen as forms of aggression. Instead, they were considered to be types of seduction. From this perspective, rape was seen as a form of sex. The shift toward seeing nonconsensual sexual acts as a type of assault was pivotal in sexual assault becoming a recognized concern within the criminal justice system and for those engaging in academic research.
The vast majority of research on sexual assault focuses on women’s experiences as victims of sexual violation. As some academics have suggested, this emphasis is a result of the feminist literature from the 1970s, which sought to highlight the victimization of women at the hands of men. As a result, relatively little research has focused on male survivors of sexual assault. However, since the 1990s, some research on this topic has begun to appear.
Myths about sexual assault are often portrayed in popular media. Some of these include the contentions that sexual assault is a rare occurrence, sexual assaults are committed only by strangers, and perpetrators of sexual assault are always abnormal or insane. These myths have been shown to have little bearing on the actual occurrences of sexual assault.
As many studies on sexual assault have shown, forms of sexual violation are not rare occurrences, but rather happen frequently, particularly on university and college campuses. Sexual assault has been shown to occur most commonly between acquaintances, friends, spouses, and family members. Despite what the myth of stranger rape dictates, perpetrators of sexual assault are often intimately connected to victims. The term “date rape” has been coined to highlight rape that occurs between individuals who are dating.
Many myths specifically surround male-perpetrated sexual assault against women. Such claims include that women often lie about sexual assault and that women’s choices of clothing, manners of walking, and spaces of occupancy are reasons for their assault. These myths have been suggested by many scholars to be heavily rooted in sexism.
There are also many myths about males’ experiences of female-perpetrated sexual assault. It is often assumed that the perpetrators of sexual aggression against boys and men are male. However, this is not always the case. Females can and do rape males. Nevertheless, the vast majority of rapes are male perpetrated. Another common myth about male survivors of sexual assault is that they are homosexual. In reality, research suggests that straight men and boys are just as likely to experience sexualized violence as homosexual males.
Rates of sexual assault are problematic to calculate. This difficulty stems from the extremely low numbers of sexually violent acts that are reported to police. Many victims do not report crimes of sexual assault because of embarrassment, self-blame, and fear. On university and college campuses, victims of sexual assault are less likely to report their experience if they were under the influence of alcohol during the assault, they have limited understanding of the university’s policies and procedures surrounding sexual assault, and they have limited knowledge of other sexual assaults on their campus.
In addition to these issues of reporting, many researchers have suggested that rates of sexual assault on university and college campuses are often purposefully obscured. These scholars claim that universities and colleges often mask the prevalence of campus sexual assault in an effort to preserve the image of a safe campus community. This focus on public relations rather addressing the actual problem has been suggested to further the difficulties in understanding the true rates of sexual assaults on university and college campuses.
Despite these difficulties in calculating rates of sexual assault, it is generally accepted that sexual assault is one of the most common crimes committed in North America. It has also been recognized that university and college campuses are some of the most prevalent locations for all forms of sexual assault.
Several scholars have attempted to understand why sexual assaults occur so often on university and college campuses. Many have argued that age, alcohol use, and male norms are connected to the heightened rates of campus sexual assaults. As Frintner and Rubinson (1993) demonstrated in their research, women between the ages of 16 and 24–the age group to which most undergraduate students belong–are at the greatest risk of experiencing some form of sexual assault. Others researchers have shown that in places where alcohol use is prevalent–a descriptor that fits most university and college campuses–sexual assaults occur more frequently. In addition to these issues, many scholars have argued that norms surrounding increased sexual activity and male aggression on university and college campuses contribute to the frequency of campus sexual assaults. Research has shown only 5 percent of sexual offenses occurring on campus are reported to police.
Other scholars have examined possible cultural explanations for campus sexual assault. For instance, he predominance of sexual, and sometimes violent, imagery of women in the media has been suggested to play a role in heightening rates of sexual assault. Furthermore, the prevalence of representations of male aggression and female sexuality in the media has been seen as another potential cause of sexual assault. These cultural explanations have been suggested to contribute to the effects of the issues discussed earlier.
In the past 20 years, the awareness of the prevalence of sexual assault has grown. Research specifically directed toward sexual assault on university and college campuses has increased, and public awareness on the issue has expanded. As a result, greater pressure is being placed on universities and colleges to provide proper resources for victims who have experienced sexual assault. Many campuses have established sexual assault centers or women’s centers that focus on providing information and counseling services for survivors of violence. In addition, some campuses have begun to hold self-defense classes for students. While these efforts represent improvements to campus life, some scholars have argued that more work remains to be done.
Several groups on university and college campuses in North America have emerged as part of the effort to raise awareness about campus sexual assault. One in Four is an all-male student group that uses peer education to dispel the myths surrounding sexual assault on university and college campuses. SAFE (Sexual Assault Facts and Education) is another student organization that advocates for victims and educate campus communities about the prevalence and nature of sexual assault.
- Brownmiller, S. (1975). Against our will: Men, women, and rape. New York: Bantam Books.
- Day, K. (1994). Conceptualizing women’s fear of sexual assault on campus: A review of causes and recommendations for change. Environment and Behaviour, 26(6), 742-765.
- Gavey, N. (2005). Just sex? The cultural scaffolding ofrape.New York: Routledge.
- Tarrant, S. (2008). Men speak out: Views of gender, sex and power. New York: Routledge.