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Sexual assault and rape on U.S. college campuses: Research roundup

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U.C. Santa Barbara campus (Wikimedia)U.C. Santa Barbara campus (Wikimedia)U.C. Santa Barbara campus (Wikimedia)
U.C. Santa Barbara (Wikimedia)

Institutions of higher learning across the United States have been rocked by reports of rape and sexual assault. Federal, state and local officials have become involved, as schools work to revise their policies and procedures to prevent further incidents. A survey commissioned by the Association of American Universities, the results of which were released in September 2015, found that more than 27% of female college seniors reported having experienced some form of unwanted sexual contact since entering college. Meanwhile, two high-profile lawsuits have kept the topic of college sexual assault in the national spotlight. In 2015, a former Florida State University student filed a lawsuit against the school for its handling of her sexual assault report and another against former Florida State football star Jameis Winston, who she has accused of raping her in 2012.

The research on many facets of these problems is incomplete, but new reports and data-rich studies can help deepen perspective. In December 2014, the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics released a report focusing on nearly 20 years of data related to rape and sexual assault among women ages 18 to 24. In 2014, President Obama appointed the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assaults. During the research phase, the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) provided the White House with an extensive list of recommendations urging “the task force to remain focused on the true cause of the problem,” pointing out that rape is “not caused by cultural factors but by the conscious decisions of a small percentage of the community to commit a violent crime.” In fact, RAINN points out that research suggests 90% of rapes at colleges are perpetrated by 3% of college men — indicating a real issue of repeat offenders.

Part of RAINN’s recommendations includes a three-tiered approach to prevention: (1) Bystander intervention education: empowering community members to act in response to acts of sexual violence; (2) Risk-reduction messaging: empowering members of the community to take steps to increase their personal safety; and (3), General education to promote understanding of the law, particularly as it relates to the ability to consent.

Similarly, researchers with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Department of Justice prepared a report, “Preventing Sexual Violence on College Campuses: Lessons from Research and Practice,” for use by the White House Task Force. The report cites the proven effectiveness of high-school sexual violence prevention programs, which might be effectively translated into college campaigns. One of the report’s authors, Sarah DeGue, cites a 2013 study — a systematic qualitative review of risk and protective factors for sexual violence perpetration — that finds a high correlation between sexual assault and alcohol use. Therefore, college campuses that can curb the number of nearby liquor stores and instances of binge drinking could potentially reduce the number of assaults.

Although there are thousands of colleges and universities in the United States, the CDC reports that just “over 125 college and university campuses across the U.S. have affiliations with CDC’s Rape Prevention and Education program to facilitate the implementation of sexual violence prevention strategies and activities.” While much more research is needed in order to determine meaningful methodologies in preventing rape and sexual assault on campuses, the report suggests, some significant first steps would be for universities to work to build trust between administrators and the student body and to implement routine anonymous surveys for students to safely express their experiences with sexual (mis)conduct on campus.

After conducting thousands of interviews with various stakeholders, the White House released its final report in April 2014: “Not Alone: The First Report of the White House Task Force to Protect Students From Sexual Assault.” By increasing awareness and researching new methods for prevention, the project’s goal is to dramatically reduce the number of students — primarily female — who are sexually assaulted on campus, which stands at one in five, according to the federal Campus Sexual Assault (CSA) Study of 2006. A 2014 report from the National Crime Victimization Survey suggests a lower rate among college students, and journalists have noted that there is now a “dueling data” quality to these conflicting reports. (The 2006 CSA Study found that 6.1% of college males were victims of either attempted or completed sexual assault.)

The “Not Alone” report makes a series of key recommendations that begin with gauging the scope of the crisis through routine, anonymous, campus-wide surveys. From there, the Task Force encourages universities to engage their male students and encourage them to step in when someone is in trouble and become part of the solution. In addition the government has created a new website, NotAlone.gov, which provides more transparency on the issue by providing information and pathways for reporting problems.

The report also encourages universities to work to clarify what is — and what is not — consent. This is a major debate that both Time magazine and Philadelphia Magazine have covered recently. A 2013 study explores variables, such as violence, intoxication, and prior romantic relationships, that can impact acknowledged versus unacknowledged sexual assault among college women. Research has found that incoming first-year college students subscribe to a wide variety of “myths” about rape.

Below is a selection of further studies that explore the general issue of sexual assault and rape on campus, as well as prevention, risks and related cultural dynamics:

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“Sexual Assault on the College Campus: Fraternity Affiliation, Male Peer Support, and Low Self-Control”
Franklin, Courtney A.; Bouffard, Leana Allen; Pratt, Travis C. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 2012, Vol. 39, 1457, doi: 10.1177/0093854812456527.

Abstract: “Research on college sexual assault has focused on offender behavior to understand why men perpetrate sexual violence. Dominant theories have incorporated forms of male peer support paying particular attention to the impact of rape-supportive social relationships on woman abuse. In contrast, Gottfredson and Hirschi’s general theory of crime proposes that low self-control predicts crime and other related life outcomes – including the kinds of antisocial peer relationships that the male peer support model contends causes sexual violence. The exclusion of measures of self-control on sexual assault may result in a misspecified peer support model. Accordingly, the current research empirically tests Schwartz and DeKeseredy’s male peer support model and examines the role of self-control in the larger male peer support model of sexual assault. Implications for theory and research are discussed.”

 

“A Randomized Controlled Trial Targeting Alcohol Use and Sexual Assault Risk among College Women at High Risk for Victimization”
Gilmore, Amanda K.; Lewis, Melissa A.; George, William. Behaviour Research and Therapy, August 2015. doi: 10.1016/j.brat.2015.08.007.

Abstract: “Current sexual assault risk reduction programs do not target alcohol use despite the widespread knowledge that alcohol use is a risk factor for being victimized. The current study assessed the effectiveness of a web-based combined sexual assault risk and alcohol use reduction program using a randomized control trial. A total of 207 college women between the ages of 18 and 20 who engaged in heavy episodic drinking were randomized to one of five conditions: full assessment only control condition, sexual assault risk reduction condition, alcohol use reduction condition, combined sexual assault risk and alcohol use reduction condition, and a minimal assessment only condition. Participants completed a 3-month follow-up survey on alcohol-related sexual assault outcomes, sexual assault outcomes, and alcohol use outcomes. Significant interactions revealed that women with higher incidence and severity of sexual assault at baseline experienced less incapacitated attempted or completed rapes, less incidence/severity of sexual assaults, and engaged in less heavy episodic drinking compared to the control condition at the 3-month follow-up. Web-based risk reduction programs targeting both sexual assault and alcohol use may be the most effective way to target the highest risk sample of college students for sexual assault: those with a sexual assault history and those who engage in heavy episodic drinking.”

 

“Correlates of Rape while Intoxicated in a National Sample of College Women”
Mohler, Meichun; Dowdall, George W.; Koss, Mary P.; Wechsler, Henry. Journal of Studies on Alcohol, January 2004, Vol. 65, 37-45.

Abstract:Objective: Heavy alcohol use is widespread among college students, particularly in those social situations where the risk of rape rises. Few studies have provided information on rapes of college women that occur when they are intoxicated. The purpose of the present study was to present prevalence data for rape under the condition of intoxication when the victim is unable to consent and to identify college and individual-level risk factors associated with that condition. Method: The study utilizes data from 119 schools participating in three Harvard School of Public Health College Alcohol Study surveys. The analytic sample of randomly selected students includes 8,567 women in the 1997 survey, 8,425 in the 1999 survey, and 6,988 in the 2001 survey. Results: Roughly one in 20 (4.7%) women reported being raped. Nearly three quarters (72%) of the victims experienced rape while intoxicated. Women who were under 21, were white, resided in a sorority house, used illicit drugs, drank heavily in high school and attended colleges with high rates of heavy episodic drinking were at higher risk of rape while intoxicated. Conclusions: The high proportion of rapes found to occur when women were intoxicated indicates the need for alcohol prevention programs on campuses that address sexual assault, both to educate men about what constitutes rape and to advise women of risky situations. The findings that some campus environments are associated with higher levels of both drinking and rape will help target rape prevention programs at colleges.”

 

Women’s Risk Perception and Sexual Victimization: A Review of the Literature
Gidycz, Christine A.; McNamara, John R.; Edwards, Katie M. Aggression and Violent Behavior, September-October 2012, Vol. 11, Issue 5, 441-456, doi: 10.1016/j.avb.2006.01.004.

Abstract: “This article reviews empirical and theoretical studies that examined the relationship between risk perception and sexual victimization in women. Studies examining women’s general perceptions of risk for sexual assault as well as their ability to identify and respond to threat in specific situations are reviewed. Theoretical discussions of the optimistic bias and cognitive–ecological models of risk recognition are discussed in order to account for findings in the literature. Implications for interventions with women as well as recommendations for future research are provided.”

 

“Bystander Education Training for Campus Sexual Assault Prevention: An Initial Meta-analysis”
Katz, J.; Moore, J. Violence and Victims, 2013, Vol. 28, Issue 6, 1054-1067.

Abstract: “The present meta-analysis evaluated the effectiveness of bystander education programs for preventing sexual assault in college communities. Undergraduates trained in bystander education for sexual assault were expected to report more favorable attitudes, behavioral proclivities, and actual behaviors relative to untrained controls. Data from 12 studies of college students (N = 2,926) were used to calculate 32 effect sizes. Results suggested moderate effects of bystander education on both bystander efficacy and intentions to help others at risk. Smaller but significant effects were observed regarding self-reported bystander helping behaviors, (lower) rape-supportive attitudes, and (lower) rape proclivity, but not perpetration. These results provide initial support for the effectiveness of in-person bystander education training. Nonetheless, future longitudinal research evaluating behavioral outcomes and sexual assault incidence is needed.”

 

“Fear of Rape among College Women: A Social Psychological Analysis”
Pryor, D.W.; Hughes, M.R. Violence Vict., 2013, Vol. 28, Issue 3, 443-465.

Abstract: “This article examines social psychological underpinnings of fear of rape among college women. We analyze data from a survey of 1,905 female undergraduates to test the influence of 5 subjective perceptions about vulnerability and harm: unique invulnerability, gender risk, defensibility, anticipatory shame, and attribution of injury. We include 3 sources of crime exposure in our models: past sexual victimization, past noncontact violent victimization, and structural risk measured by age, parent’s income, and race. Separate measures of fear of stranger and acquaintance rape are modeled, including variables tapping current versus anticipatory fear, fear on campus versus everywhere, and fear anytime versus at night. The data show that fear of rape among college women appears more grounded in constructed perceptions of harm and danger than in past violent experiences.”

 

“Necessary But Not Sufficient: Sexual Assault Information on College and University Websites”
Lund, Emily M.; Thomas, Katie B. Psychology of Women Quarterly, August 2015. doi: 10.1177/0361684315598286.

Abstract: “The objective of our study was to investigate the availability, location, and content of sexual assault information presented on college and university websites. A random sample of 102 accredited, non-profit, bachelors-granting U.S. colleges and universities was selected for webcoding. Websites were coded for the availability and location of sexual assault information, including what resources and information were provided and whether topics such as date rape, consent, and victim blaming were addressed. Ninety (88.2%) of the 102 colleges and universities in our sample had sexual assault information available in their domains. University policy (83.3%) and contact information for law enforcement (72.2%) and other resources (56.7–82.2%) were often included, but most websites failed to provide information on issues related to sexual assault, such as discouraging victim blaming (35.6%) and encouraging affirmative consent (30.0%). Colleges and universities should consider updating the sexual assault information on their websites with the assistance of local, expert practitioners in order to provide more comprehensive, organized, useful, and user-friendly information on sexual assault prevention and intervention.”

 

“The Role of University Health Centers in Intervention and Prevention of Campus Sexual Assault”
Buchholz, Laura. Journal of the American Medical Association, August 2015, Vol. 314. doi: 10.1001/jama.2015.8213.

Summary: This article offers insight into the role that university health centers play in preventing campus sexual assault and providing support to assault victims through programs in areas such as counseling, medical care and survivor advocacy.

 

“To Whom Do College Women Confide Following Sexual Assault? A Prospective Study of Predictors of Sexual Assault Disclosure and Social Reactions”
Orchowski, Lindsay M., Gidycz, Christine A. Violence Against Women, March 2012, Vol. 18, No. 3, 264-288, doi: 10.1177/1077801212442917.

Abstract: “A prospective methodology was used to explore predictors of sexual assault disclosure among college women, identify who women tell about sexual victimization, and examine the responses of informal support providers (N = 374). Women most often confided in a female peer. Increased coping via seeking emotional support, strong attachments, and high tendency to disclose stressful information predicted adolescent sexual assault disclosure and disclosure over the 7-month interim. Less acquaintance with the perpetrator predicted disclosure over the follow-up, including experiences of revictimization. Victim and perpetrator alcohol use at the time of the assault also predicted disclosure over the follow-up. Implications are presented.”

 

“Community Responsibility for Preventing Sexual Violence: A Pilot Study with Campus Greeks and Intercollegiate Athletes”
Moynihan, Mary M., Banyard, Victoria L. Journal of Prevention & Intervention in the Community, October 2008, Vol. 36, Issue 1-2, 23-38, doi:10.1080/10852350802022274.

Summary: “Previous research has noted higher incidences of sexual violence on campus among members of campus Greeks and athletes and the need to do prevention programs with them. This article presents the results of an exploratory pilot study of a sexual violence prevention program with members of one fraternity, sorority, men’s and women’s intercollegiate athletic team. The program, experimentally evaluated and found to be effective with a general sample of undergraduates, was used to determine its efficacy specifically with Greeks and athletes. The model on which the program is based calls for prevention efforts that take a wider community approach rather than simply targeting individuals as potential perpetrators or victims. Results from repeated-measures analysis of variance indicate that the program worked overall. Future directions are discussed.”

Keywords: crime, higher education, sex crimes


    Writer: | Last updated: September 22, 2015

    1 comment

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    Daniel T. Smith Sep 30, 2015 21:55

    The AAU survey had a targer universe of 800,000 students. A total of 19% of the students responded. of the 19% who responded, 23% said they had experienced unwanted sexual conduct. Respondants are respondants, not the target universe students. If you compare the number of students reporting unwanted sexual conduct with the entire universe, that number represents about 4% of the target universe. We don’t know why 81% chose not to respond, but the respondants do not represent all students. Period.

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