Sexual Assault on Campus

by Beth Rich

Updated September 16, 2022

Sexual assault on campus is a difficult topic to discuss. However, if we as students, educators, and society hope to prevent its occurrence and support those who have been impacted, it is critical that we engage in an open and honest discussion about sexual assault, sexual abuse, and sexual violence. The American College Health Association (ACHA) identifies sexual and relationship vio- lence "as a serious public health issue affecting college and university campuses."

Campus sexual assault is pervasive. According to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN), 11.2% of all undergraduate and graduate students experience rape or sexual assault through physical force, violence, or incapacitation. It’s important to realize the severity of this issue, and to recognize that sexual assault is not limited to one particular type of person or group.

Tarana Burke, creator of the #MeToo movement, makes the important point that “there is no expected narrative, standard perpetrator and victim, or archetypical story of abuse.” Anyone can be a victim or perpetrator of sexual assault or abuse regardless of gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, mental and physical ability, or other identity markers. The stories, experiences, and narratives of sexual assault and abuse, on and off campus, are endlessly diverse. Though women are more likely than men to be victimized by sexual assault, it is essential to disregard the harmful assumption that women are the only victims of sexual assault. This assumption creates a massive roadblock, one that stands in the way of groups and individuals who can offer support and resources to victims of sexual assault, as well as provide preventative guidance to campus groups, schools, and communities.

Note on Terminology: We use the word “victim” in this article to describe individuals who have been sexually assaulted because that is the language used by RAINN and other organizations dedicated to awareness, support and prevention. However, some people who have experienced sexual assault object to being labeled a “victim,” and prefer the term “survivor,” which is also referenced in this article. We respect and advise deference to individual preferences regarding terminology especially in instances where you are providing support to an individual who has experienced sexual assault.

What is Sexual Assault?

Both general and legal understandings of sexual assault are important. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, “Sexual assault is any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient. Falling under the definition of sexual assault are sexual activities such as forced sexual intercourse, forcible sodomy, child molestation, incest, fondling, and attempted rape.”

RAINN uses the term “sexual violence” as an all-encompassing, non-legal term to describe crimes including sexual assault, rape, and sexual abuse. Their page describing types of sexual violence is a helpful resource that includes information on sexual assault, child sexual abuse, sexual assault of boys and men, intimate partner sexual violence, incest, drug-facilitated sexual assault, sexual harassment, stalking, sexual abuse by medical professionals, sexual exploitation by helping professionals, multiple-perpetrator sexual assault, elder abuse, sexual assault of people with disabilities, prisoner rape, military sexual trauma, and more.

RAINN includes the following statements in their discussion of types of sexual violence:

  • Sexual assault can take many different forms and be defined in different ways, but one thing remains the same: sexual assault is never the victim’s fault.
  • A perpetrator can have any relationship to a victim, and that includes the role of an intimate partner.
  • Men and boys who have been sexually assaulted or abused may also face some additional challenges because of social attitudes and stereotypes about men and masculinity.
  • You should be able to feel comfortable in your place of work or learning. If you are being sexually harassed, you can report it to the authorities at your job, school, or to local law enforcement.
  • Some perpetrators use technology, such as digital photos, videos, apps, and social media, to engage in harassing, unsolicited, or non-consensual sexual interactions.
  • Consent is crucial when any person engages in sexual activity. The legal definitions for terms like rape, sexual assault, and sexual abuse vary from state to state. Consent often plays an important role in determining whether an act is legally considered a crime.

RAINN offers the following statistics that illustrate the scope of this issue:

  • Every 98 seconds, another American is sexually assaulted.
  • One out of every six American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime (14.8% completed, 2.8% attempted).
  • About 3% of American men — or one in 33 — have experienced an attempted or completed rape in their lifetime.

RAINN provides these statistics on campus sexual violence:

  • 11.2% of all undergraduate and graduate students experience rape or sexual assault through physical force, violence, or incapacitation.
  • Among undergraduate students, 23.1% of females and 5.4% of males experience rape or sexual assault through physical force, violence, or incapacitation.
  • Among graduate and professional students, 8.8% of females and 2.2% of males experience rape or sexual assault through physical force, violence, or incapacitation.
  • 4.2% of students have experienced stalking since entering college.
  • College women are twice as likely to be sexually assaulted than robbed; for all women there are five robberies for every four sexual assaults, whereas for college women there are two sexual assaults for every one robbery.
  • More than 50% of college sexual assaults occur in either August, September, October, or November. Students are at an increased risk during the first few months of their first and second semesters in college.

How do we deal with Sexual Assault?

Understanding the definitions surrounding sexual assault, as well as some key statistics, is an important first step in acknowledging the severity of the problem. It can also be the basis for more open and honest conversations around this topic. But it is also only a first step. Learning how to deal with sexual assault in a real-world situation is critical. Different actions are appropriate for different people and scenarios. In this section, we’ll outline actionable steps that we can take as communities, campuses, and individuals to help prevent sexual assault, as well as steps that should be taken when sexual assault has occurred.

Advice for Sexual Assault Survivors

There’s no “right” or “wrong” way to feel after sexual assault. RAINN offers this advice: “After sexual assault . . . you may be physically hurt, emotionally drained, or unsure what to do next. You may be considering working with the criminal justice system, but are unsure of where to start. Learning more about what steps you can take following sexual violence can help ground you in a difficult time.”

If you are in immediate danger or are seriously injured after sexual assault, call 911. If you are safe from immediate danger, it may be helpful to do the following after a sexual assault:

  • Find safety:
    Your safety is important. Seek physical and emotional safety, and if you’re unsure of your safety, reach out to someone you trust to help you find a place you can be safe, both in the short- and long-term.
  • Don’t blame yourself:
    What happened is not your fault. Something happened to you that you did not want to happen. You’ve been violated and you deserve respect, support, and belief. If someone is blaming you, pull away from them if possible and find non-judgmental support from people who see and believe you.
  • Connect with care:
    If you’re not sure who to reach out to, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at (800) 656-HOPE (4673). A trained staff member at a local sexual assault service provider can connect you to a local health care facility and may be able to send a trained advocate to accompany you to your appointment.

Advice for Supporting a Survivor of Sexual Assault

If you are supporting someone who has experienced sexual assault, it can be difficult to know what to do or say. RAINN offers tips for talking with survivors and ways to help someone you care about. This advice can help you support your friend, loved one, or acquaintance to the best of your ability. Supporting other people can be emotional draining, so it’s also important to take care of yourself as you take care of others.

  • Listen:
    Being there for a person is the most essential way to offer support. Listen to whatever this person has to tell you, and offer a non-judgmental ear as they discuss and process their experience.
  • Affirm:
    Be supportive and affirming. RAINN suggests using the following phrases:
      ~ I believe you.
      ~ It took a lot of courage to tell me about this.
      ~ It’s not your fault.
      ~ You didn’t do anything to deserve this.
      ~ You are not alone.
      ~ I care about you and am here to listen or help in any way I can.
      ~ I’m sorry this happened.
      ~ This shouldn’t have happened to you.
  • Offer resources:
    You can share resources that might be helpful to the person who’s experienced sexual assault, such as this article, or the many valuable resources available through RAINN. You may also encourage this individual to call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at (800) 656-HOPE (4673) to be connected with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area.
  • Be patient:
    Remember that only the person you’re supporting can decide to get help. Know that there is no timetable for recovering from trauma, and avoid putting pressure on the person you’re supporting.

Preventative Steps We Can All Take

Even if you’ve not experienced sexual assault personally, all of us have reason and interest to work together in the prevention of sexual assault. There are a number of things that everyone can do to prevent sexual assault. From actions you can take in your personal life, to institutional and governmental policies you can support, each of us can make a difference in preventing sexual assault, both on campus and in the world at large.

As college students, you have a unique opportunity to work together to create safety networks and prevent sexual assault at your schools. Since college students are often the victims, perpetrators, and peers of sexual assault, it is incumbent upon you to support and look out for your friends and peers, discuss sexual assault and violence openly and honestly, and work to increase safety on your campus and in your community.

RAINN offers a hub of Safety for Students resources. Below we’ve highlighted some of the action steps that students can take to increase safety and prevent sexual assault on campus.

  • Be prepared:
    This is a key way to practice and create safety. Identify campus resources, like the campus health center, campus police station, and a local sexual assault service provider before you need them. Memorize a few phone numbers in case your phone dies or is lost and you need to call someone for help. Memorize the address to your dorm room or apartment. Keep sets of spare keys, and take other measures to ensure that you have a means of contacting others for help and transportation should an emergency arise.
  • Be alert and secure:
    This doesn’t mean stay fearful. Ideally you can move throughout your campus and the world without feeling fear or a sense that you are unsafe. It is a good idea, however, to stay alert and aware of your surroundings as well as to take safety measures when possible. Consider walking with a friend or classmate; avoid getting fully submerged in a message, app, or music as you walk or sit; and lock your doors, windows, and car when you’re away or asleep.
  • Consider social safety:
    It’s possible to have a good time and prioritize safety. That being said, it is never a victim’s fault when assault happens in a social setting, like a party or bar. What you wear, what you drink, or your sexual behavior are never the cause of sexual assault nor do they warrant sexual engagement without consent. However, there are some precautions that you can take that may help improve safety for you, your friends, and your peers. The following tips can help you stay safe in social settings:
  • Make a plan:
    Know who you’ll come and go with, and if your plans change, let someone you trust know.
  • Protect your drink:
    Don’t leave your drink unattended, and help your friends watch their drinks if possible. If you go somewhere, take your drink with you or toss it out. Limit yourself to drinks from unopened containers or those that you saw being made and poured. If in doubt, don’t drink the beverage in question.
  • Know your limits:
    Keep track of substances you’ve consumed and encourage your friends to do the same. If you or a friend feels more tired or intoxicated than you feel comfortable with, find a safe place to recover, even if that means leaving a party or venue.
  • Trust yourself:
    RAINN states, and we want to reiterate:
    “You are never obligated to remain in a situation that makes you feel uncomfortable, pressured, or threatened.”

    Trust yourself, and if you feel that you or a friend are unsafe, give yourself permission to say or do whatever you need to get out of the situation. Lie if you need to. You might say that you need to take care of another friend or family member, that you’ve received an urgent phone call, are not feeling well, or have to be somewhere else by a certain time.

In addition to creating safety in your personal life, there are political actions that each of us can take to prevent sexual assault and provide justice and support for victims and survivors. An ever-thorough resource, RAINN also has information about political issues involving sexual assault, on their Policy Action Center page. Here you can sign up for a newsletter on public policy, read about current bills and issues, and take action by calling, emailing, and tweeting your government representatives.


Below are some resources that you might find helpful as you learn more about, deal with, or work to prevent sexual assault, particularly on the college campus. As the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization, RAINN has been the main source for much of this article, but there are a number of organizations with helpful information, resources, and services to help you get support, find safety, and prevent sexual assault.

  • RAINN, or the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network, is the United States’ largest anti-sexual violence organization. RAINN also operates the National Sexual Assault Hotline, available online and at (800) 656-HOPE (4673). Additionally the organization runs programs to prevent sexual violence, help survivors, and ensure that perpetrators are brought to justice.
  • The National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC) is a non-profit organization that provides information, tools, and research to prevent and respond to sexual violence. NSVRC also works with the media to promote informed reporting. Every year in April, NSVRC leads Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM), a campaign to educate and engage the public in addressing sexual assault.
  • The #MeToo movement, founded in 2006 by Tarana Burke, was created to help survivors of sexual violence, particularly Black women and girls, and other young women of color from low wealth communities, find pathways to healing. In 2017, the #MeToo movement went viral on Twitter and elsewhere, and today the organization continues to focus on offering “entry points for individual healing” as well as “galvanizing a broad base of survivors to disrupt the systems that allow for the global proliferation of sexual violence.”
  • End Rape on Campus (EROC) is a non-profit organization working to end campus sexual violence through direct support for survivors and their communities, prevent sexual violence through education, and reform policy at the campus, local, state, and federal levels.

Campus sexual assault is a serious social, public health and safety issue, one that affects all of us. The aim of this article is to provide access to information, support, and resources that can help guide you as you heal from your own traumas and experiences, as you strive to provide meaningful support to others, and as we work together to create safe campuses and communities.

If you are experiencing an emergency, call 911 or your local emergency number. If you need to speak with someone immediately about sexual assault, reach out to the National Sexual Assault Hotline, available online and at (800) 656-HOPE (4673).

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