More than to 1 in 5 women will experience sexual assault or some form of sexual violence while attending college, along with 15% of male college students. Combined with the fact that 90% of survivors do not report their assaults in college, this side of the sexual assault epidemic has become impossible to ignore. These statistics by The National Sexual Assault Resource Center should prompt us all to take a hard look at colleges and universities and the environments students encounter.
The Reality of Campus Sexual Assault
On college campuses, the interpersonal dynamics between young people dramatically shift. Many students live in dorms and have less frequent contact with their parents or familiar adults. New social situations present themselves, which present new power dynamics to navigate. Especially if students have moved far from home, the push toward independence can result in unfamiliar and potentially dangerous situations. While independence empowers some, it makes others vulnerable.
In college, students are most likely to deal with some form of sexual violence near the beginning of their first or second years, according to RAINN. The newest students are at the highest risk, as many of them are put into unfamiliar situations, particularly with drugs and alcohol. For some, time in college can be extremely isolating, and if a sexual assault occurs, many don’t know to whom they can turn. LGBTQ and gender-nonconforming students are also at a higher risk of assault and the added discrimination they face can hinder reporting and justice.
The culture on college campuses often involves parties, alcohol, and drugs, and these factors influence the likelihood of assault. One study showed that 15% of female students were raped while incapacitated during their first year of college. Incapacitation in this case means that the victim was unable to give consent due to a lack of mental presence or understanding during the situation—the kind of incapacitation associated with drugs and alcohol. For abusers, these substances can be used as weapons to victimize the vulnerable. And though it is never the victim’s fault if they are assaulted while under the influence of drugs or alcohol, using them can affect one’s judgment and lead them into dangerous situations with perpetrators who seek to take advantage of them.
Fighting Sexual Violence on College Campuses
Reporting sexual assault is one of the most conspicuous ways to fight it, but not every survivor can do so safely and with support. Because the circumstances surrounding the assault may be unclear, it can be difficult for disciplinary measures to be taken at colleges. Students like Emma Sulkowicz, who found her report of sexual assault by a fellow student handled unjustly, are common. Sulkowicz used her voice afterward in a protest wherein she carried a 50-pound mattress, similar to the one she claimed to be assaulted on, across campus every day until she graduated. The display drew national attention and opened the door for more conversations on campus sexual assault.
The effects of sexual assault on students can be devastating, leading to depression, isolation, and difficulty keeping up with their studies. No student deserves to grapple with such an ordeal while working to build their future. College campuses must adopt more transparent practices when handling accusations of sexual assault, and incorporate comprehensive education on healthy sexual situations and consent into the curriculum.
Though students can take individual steps to be safe and stay in control of social situations, the real answers to the campus sexual assault epidemic are awareness, resources, and education. Everyone deserves to feel safe in school.
Join us in our fight to change the conversation and culture in America, to create an environment where survivors are believed, and to hold perpetrators of sexual assault accountable. We are a non-profit law firm with a mission is to help survivors heal by holding perpetrators accountable. We believe that money should not be a barrier to justice. You can help us develop resources and support survivors with a small donation here.