Preventing Sexual Assault in College: Student Support & Safety Advice

Stay safe on your college campus with actionable advice and crucial information for avoiding sexual assault, and find out what campuses are doing to prevent sexual violence.

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Written By

Kathleen Curtis

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Kathleen Curtis is an American writer currently living in Louisville, Kentucky. She has developed content around education for more than a decade for both domestic and international clients.

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Last Updated: 01/05/2022
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Sexual assault in college remains a preventable—yet all too frequent—occurrence on campuses. Data from Know Your IX shows that 19% of women and 6% of men experience sexual assault during their college years, with 90% of these occurrences perpetrated by someone they know.

Sexual assault can change the trajectory of a student’s life in an instant and create years of physical and mental health struggles. As colleges create more robust prevention strategies, students can educate themselves on keeping away from harm and defending themselves in dangerous situations. Learn how to keep yourself and others safe, find out about online sexual harassment and abuse, and gather prevention resources that can help stop sexual assault before it happens.

Understanding Sexual Assault

Sexual assault occurs when someone forces unwanted, involuntary, and/or offensive sexual contact with another person. Sexual assault is a form of sexual violence (along with rape and sexual abuse), and every state sets its own definitions and criminal repercussions.

Sexual assault is not the same as rape. Rape involves any penetration (no matter how slight) of the vagina or anus with any body part or object or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person without consent. Sexual assault is defined more broadly as any type of sexual contact or behavior that takes place without the explicit consent of the recipient. Rape is one type of sexual assault, as are fondling and sodomy.

Data provided by the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) shows that within undergraduate student populations, more than 26% of female students and about 7% of male students experience sexual assault via incapacitation, violent behavior, or physical force. Within graduate populations, the numbers are nearly 10% and 2.5%, respectively. Overall, 23% of transgender, genderqueer, and nonconforming students experience sexual assault in college.

Types of Sexual Assault & Violence

Sexual violence isn’t just one type of behavior; rather, it encompasses a wide spectrum of actions. All college students need to educate themselves on the different types of sexual violence and know their rights if they are harassed or assaulted.

Sexual assault

Sexual assault covers a wide variety of nonconsensual physical actions. This can include unwanted sexual touching, forcing someone to perform sexual acts, or penetrating their body against their wishes. It can also encompass attempts at any of these behaviors.

Sexual harassment

Whether verbal or physical, sexual harassment occurs when someone exhibits unwanted sexual behavior. This can happen at work, the gym, school, on public transportation, or any other environment where you feel unsafe due to how others behave toward you.

Stalking

If you are followed or surveilled without your consent, this behavior is known as stalking. Whether it takes place in person or online, stalking can make individuals feel unsafe due to the constant unwelcome presence of another person. Stalking can include incessant calling, texting, or emailing; following someone on foot or via transportation; or loitering outside their work or home.

Coercion

Coercion takes place when a stranger, partner, or other person tries to force or persuade you to engage in a sexual act that you do not feel comfortable with. They may try to shame you or guilt you as part of coercion tactics.

Rape

Rape occurs when sexual intercourse is forced on another person against their will and without their consent. Rape can occur in public or private environments with strangers, acquaintances, partners, or well-known people.

Diminished capacity rape

This type of rape occurs when the person being assaulted is impaired due to alcohol, drugs, or other substances that leave them in a vulnerable state. They may not be able to remember exactly what happened in the aftermath.

Acquaintance rape

This type of sexual violence occurs when nonconsensual sexual intercourse takes place between a perpetrator and a victim. In this case, both individuals know of each other, perhaps as acquaintances or in the same social circle. This is the most frequent type of rape.

Date rape

Date rape is a form of acquaintance rape that takes place between two people who are on a date or involved in a romantic situation that is not a relationship. Whether due to force or illegal drugs, the perpetrator forces themselves on the other person against their will.

Partner rape

This type of rape occurs between two individuals who are in a relationship and typically is preceded by abusive behavior. While perpetrators can be of any gender orientation, women, and LGBTQ+ individuals are most commonly victims of partner rape.

Defining Online Sexual Harassment & Abuse

We often think of sexual harassment as something that happens in physical spaces, but it can also occur in online settings. With more and more students spending extensive time online, it’s important to know the signs of sexual harassment online and be able to spot it quickly.

Common Types of Online Sexual Harassment & Abuse

  • Making inappropriate sexual remarks
  • Sending unwanted pornographic content
  • Making disparaging comments about another person’s gender or sexual orientation
  • Online stalking
  • Making sexual innuendos or jokes
  • Making online sexual advances

The Impact of Sexual Assault on College Students

Aside from the immediate and obvious consequences, college students who experience sexual assault and harassment can deal with many long-term and less obvious issues following such a traumatic experience. We consider a few different types in this section.

The Health Impact

College students who survive sexual assault must deal with the immediate concerns of such an encounter first, including the potential for sexually transmitted infections, bruising skin abrasions, and pregnancy. Beyond these, however, survivors often contend with long-term mental health challenges. Many deal with serious bouts of depression and anxiety or even post-traumatic stress disorder. Some even face suicidal thoughts.

Some survivors lose their appetite or face long-term eating disorders or digestive issues after sexual assault, while others withdraw from friendships and social groups for fear of sexual assault happening again. They may struggle to keep and form relationships with others and find it difficult to maintain their self-esteem. Some survivors lose interest in romantic encounters, fearing they will be taken advantage of against their will.

The Academic Impact

College students who experience sexual assault drop out of school at higher rates than those who do not face such traumatic events. One study found that 34.1% of students who were sexually assaulted dropped out of their university. Even students who manage to stay enrolled face severe challenges when trying to keep up with their academics.

Many victims feel that the sexual assault was somehow their fault or that they didn’t do enough to stop it. In these cases, they may feel crippling shame and want to withdraw from their peers.

Student survivors of sexual assault may also struggle to stay focused on schoolwork in the midst of mental health challenges, resulting in poor attendance and lower grades. They are likely to feel unsafe on campus, leading them to skip classes and miss crucial coursework and materials.

The Social Impact

After experiencing such a traumatic encounter, many students distance themselves from friends and family due to mental health issues, stigma, embarrassment, and other factors. In some cases, their attacker may even be a member of a friend group or family circle, and the survivor may feel that in a she said/he said situation others will not believe the victim’s account of the events. Some may even worry that their friends will take the perpetrator’s side.

Sexual assault impacts introverts and extroverts alike. After a sexual assault, even the most outgoing students who participate in various clubs and activities, hold leadership positions, and enjoy large circles of friends and acquaintances can find themselves isolating from others and avoiding activities they once enjoyed.

The Legal Impact

Whether a student decides to pursue disciplinary measures through their college and/or local law enforcement agencies, justice does not come without its challenges. Even if the survivor “wins” the case, the emotional toll of going through the legal process can be exhausting and traumatic.

In these situations, students often need to consent to testing, sharing their timeline of events, and potentially even testifying against their perpetrator. Aside from the mental strain these processes cause, students may also feel overwhelmed by keeping up with academics while pursuing legal recourse. Victims are all too aware that, even after going through the entire process, school and law enforcement authorities still may not punish the perpetrator.

How to Report Sexual Violence on Campus

According to data collected by the National Sexual Assault Hotline, only 20% of college women aged 18-24 report incidents of sexual violence. Reasons for underreporting are varied, with survivors often not wanting to rehash a traumatic experience, fearing embarrassment or ridicule, or not trusting that they will be believed or that justice will be served.

That said, there are steps that you can take if you want to report sexual violence you have experienced or witnessed. These include:

  • Get somewhere safeRemove yourself from the situation and go somewhere, alone or to a friend, where you know you are safe from the perpetrator.
  • Call NSAHThe National Sexual Assault Hotline (1-800-656-4673) provides immediate help from trained staff. They can help you find a qualified health facility to provide medical care and conduct testing.
  • Reach out to campus authoritiesWhether you contact your school’s health center or police force, try to report what happened as soon as possible and provide details. Creating a paper trail about the incident will be helpful if you decide to pursue recourse.
  • Understand Title IXSchools that receive federal funding are required to create learning spaces where students can receive an education without being harassed or facing sexual violence.
  • Prioritize yourselfWhether asking for a single-occupancy room, requesting security escorts, or changing class schedules to avoid a perpetrator, don’t be afraid to ask for what you need to feel safe.

Campus Sexual Assault Prevention Strategies

Recognizing the pressing need to protect students from sexual assaults, colleges have been looking for ways to prevent these events from taking place and build strong systems that dissuade would-be perpetrators. In this section, learn more about the steps proactive colleges are taking.

Create defined sexual assault policies

One reason many students choose not to disclose sexual assault is because they don’t believe the university will handle it in a proper and timely manner. By creating clear-cut policies and guidelines for handling accusations of misconduct, students understand what the process will look like and how the university will respond.

Prioritize student-led initiatives

RAINN provides student activism materials that students can use to bring awareness to the issue of sexual assault on college campuses and educate individuals on how to stay safer. Universities should promote these campaigns and show students that they are fully behind initiatives to educate community members and thoroughly address sexual assault reports.

Initiate sexual assault prevention training

Colleges can implement sexual assault prevention training programs for all first-year students and transfer students that underscore where the university stands on sexual assault, educates students on the prevalence of this issue, and provides practical tools that students can use if they feel unsafe or they need to report harassment or misconduct. Universities should plan to address their students frequently about consent, harassment, online assault, and other educational topics as a means of prevention.

Underscore the meaning of consent

One of the most important components of any university-led prevention program is ensuring students know what it means to provide and receive consent. Personnel can employ the “Yes Means Yes” campaign as well as other materials that define consent and teach students how to ask for it and provide it. It’s also important that this is not a one-time message: learners regularly need to hear about the meaning of consent.

Create an escort service

While some campuses provide blue light boxes throughout campus where students can call for help if they feel unsafe, sometimes this help doesn’t come quickly enough. More and more campuses are providing safety escort services where students can be walked around campus by college police, or they can call and ask for help to get out of a situation that makes them uncomfortable. This service should be adequately staffed and available 24/7.

Train would-be bystanders on how to respond

In many cases, the initial stages of sexual assault occur in public places in view of others. While the assault may end in a private setting, bystanders who know the signs to look for can often intervene before it’s too late. Colleges can provide training sessions, videos, and interactive programs that help fellow students know how to defuse the situation, distract the perpetrator, and get the individual to safety before the situation escalates.

Work with local sexual assault centers

Despite training and safety protocol, sometimes sexual assault still occurs. Universities should build and maintain relationships with sexual assault centers and rape crisis organizations that help students in cases of sexual assault. These initiatives often provide specialized counseling services, medical assistance, and information on legal services available to help students navigate the reporting process.

Avoiding Sexual Assault: What Precautions Can College Students Take?

Every college student has the right to learn and socialize on a campus that prioritizes their safety and protects them from harm. That said, sometimes systems fail. Students can take steps to improve their self-defense capabilities and potentially keep would-be perpetrators away.

Self-Defense Classes

Self-defense classes help you know how to attack a perpetrator if they try to restrain you against your will or harass you. These classes vary in length but teach common methods for keeping your wits in intense situations and harming someone who would try to cause harm to you. If your college doesn’t offer these classes, check with local community groups or gyms.

Employ the Buddy System

If you need to go out at night or to a part of campus or your city that is unfamiliar, take someone with you. Ask a friend or roommate to accompany you and offer to do the same for them whenever they need a buddy. There truly is safety in numbers, and the buddy system reduces the chance of going missing or being taken advantage of by a perpetrator.

Let Others Track Your Location

Smartphones come equipped with tracking apps that allow others to see where you are. While this should only be used with trusted friends and family, it’s a good idea to let these people track you. If you go missing or one of your friends/family members notices you in a location that seems unusual, they can check on you and alert the authorities if necessary.

Keep Social Media Accounts Private

Because many social media platforms use geolocation services that let others know your location, disable these services or make your social media accounts private so that only friends can see your posts. Also, consider not posting when you’re out. Instead of posting in real-time, save your stories and posts for after you’ve left the premises and returned to a safe location.

Always Carry a Whistle and/or Pepper Spray

If you must walk or travel alone, make sure you have items that can help dissuade would-be perpetrators. Using a whistle can alert others in the vicinity that you need help, and pepper spray can render the perpetrator injured and give you enough time to escape to a safer location.

Use Campus Escort Services

If your college provides a safety escort program, take advantage of it. When walking back to your dorm at night or visiting other on-campus friends, ask for an escort to either walk you to and from or provide transportation. It’s better to be overly safe than to find yourself in an unsafe situation.

Don’t Let Strangers Buy/Give You Drinks

Perpetrators who plan to drug their victims typically do this by slipping the drug into the victim’s drink when they aren’t looking. In addition to not letting someone you just met or don’t know well buy you a drink out of your sight, don’t leave your drink unattended. If you want to go dance or need to use the restroom, ask someone you trust to observe your beverage or take it with you. If that’s not possible, finish your drink before leaving it or throw it away and order another one when you return.

Know Your Drinking Limits

In the moment, keeping a tally of your drinks over a long night can be difficult. That said, it’s vitally important. You should know how different levels of drinking affect your judgment and awareness, and stick to a lower number if you are with people you do not know well. If you find yourself feeling unusually inebriated or out of sorts after drinking fewer than your limit, someone could have slipped something into your beverage. Leave immediately and go somewhere safe or call a trusted friend to come and get you.

Resources

This nonprofit group works with colleges and students to provide services for rape survivors and education for the entire college community.

Students and university administrators alike use this resource to find actionable tools and concrete steps for reducing sexual violence.

NCADV works to support survivors of sexual violence and provide support to get out of abusive relationships.

NSVRC provides resources for survivors, friends, family, advocates, and educators. It also organizes in-person and virtual events.

The largest nonprofit fighting sexual violence, RAINN provides innumerable resources, programs, and services. It also runs the National Sexual Assault Hotline.

The University of Washington provides an example of what your university should offer in terms of advocacy, knowing your rights, and finding physical and mental health care providers.

As part of its services, RAINN provides a comprehensive section on its website devoted to student activism resources, materials, and campaigns.

The Centers for Disease Control put together this comprehensive guide to help colleges create robust systems for prevention and education.