Research Watch: Are Rape and Sexual Assault Part of College Life?

Diana Zuckerman
July 1, 2001

We like to think of college campuses as safe havens, but this report funded by the U.S. Department of Justice provides clear evidence that they often are not – at least not for women students.

This study of “sexual victimization” was based on a telephone survey of 4,446 randomly selected women attending two- or four-year colleges and universities across the country during the 1996-97 school year. The goal was to measure sexual coercion and related problems since school began in fall 1996 – on average, a seven-month time period.

Two percent reported that they had been raped and 1 percent said they had experienced an attempted rape. They did not necessarily use the word rape to describe their experience, which was defined as unwanted completed penetration by force or the threat of force. In addition to sexual intercourse, this definition includes forced oral sex and forced penetration by objects. That translates to 35 rapes/attempted rapes for every 1,000 college women in an academic year.

Whether they were raped or harmed in other ways, most women knew the person who sexually victimized them.

Those numbers are just the tip of the iceberg, however. Ten percent of these women had been raped before the academic year started, and about 10 percent reported an attempted rape previously. Some of these previous experiences were in college and some were before college.

During the academic year studied, the researchers found much higher rates of other kinds of sexual victimization involving both physical force and nonphysical force. Sixteen percent reported that they were sexually victimized during the current academic year: 8 percent had experienced force or the threat of force, and 11 percent were victimized without force. (Some women reported both kinds of experiences, which is why the numbers do not add up to 16 percent).

Whether they were raped or harmed in other ways, most women knew the person who sexually victimized them. Approximately nine out of 10 offenders were boyfriends, ex-boyfriends, classmates, friends, acquaintances or co-workers. Most incidents took place in living quarters, usually in the victim’s residence. Ten percent took place at fraternity residences. Most incidents occurred off-campus, but often near campus. Threats also took place in bars, clubs and work settings.

The study also looked at the behavior of the women and found that certain behaviors put them at increased risk for victimization. These behaviors included frequently drinking enough to get drunk, being unmarried and previously being a victim of sexual assault.

Very few incidents were reported to the police. About two-thirds of the women told another person, usually a friend.

Stalking was common. The women were asked whether, since the current school year began, “has anyone – from a stranger to an ex-boyfriend – repeatedly followed you, watched you, phoned, written, e-mailed, or communicated with you in other ways that seemed obsessive and made you afraid or concerned for your safety?” Thirteen percent said yes.

The findings have important implications for youth workers, even those who work with youth who are not college-bound. First, it indicates widespread experience with sexual coercion that often takes place before college. Secondly, it suggests that many female youth workers will themselves have been victims of nonconsensual sex. (The data do not provide information about predators.)

Very few incidents were reported to the police. About two-thirds of the women told another person, usually a friend.

In 1990, Congress passed the Student Right-to-Know and Campus Security Act, which required colleges that participate in federal student aid programs to provide campus crime statistics upon request to applicants, students and employees.

Unfortunately, most campuses are reluctant to fully report crime, especially rapes, so the information available to guidance counselors and other youth workers, students and their families is not accurate, as this report clearly indicates.

Diana Zuckerman, Ph.D., is executive director of the National Center for Policy Research for Women and Families, based in Washington, D.C. Contact: dz@center4policy.org. Some previous Research Watch columns are available at www.center4policy.org.


Zuckerman, Diana. "Are Rape and Sexual Assault Part of College Life?" Research Watch review of "The Sexual Victimization of
College Women".Youth Today, July/August 2001, p. 11.

©2000 Youth Today. Reprinted with permission from Youth Today. All rights reserved.

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