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Sexual Assault on College Campuses Is a Pervasive Problem

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM) and legislative action is needed.

Sexual assault is a serious, pervasive problem on many college campuses in the United States (US). Sexual assault is defined as any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient, including touching, oral sex, penetration, or attempted rape, whether by physical force or threat of force or because an individual was incapacitated and unable to provide consent.

According to the US Department of Justice, female college students ages 18-24 years are three times more likely than women in the general population to experience sexual violence. A study done by the American Association of University Women found that a shocking 16.9 percent of females reported sexual assault during their first year of college. And the true scope of the problem is most certainly underestimated because sexual assault is difficult to measure and severely underreported. In fact, studies show that only 5-28 percent of sexual assaults of college students are ever reported. Most of these assaults are perpetrated by someone known to the victim—usually a fellow student, current or ex dating partner, or friends. The first year of college is the most dangerous in terms of risk of sexual assault. In fact, one study found that more than 50 percent of college sexual assaults occur in the first few months of the semester—either August, September, October, or November. This heightened vulnerability among new students may be related to the freedom of leaving home for the first time, and engagement in high-risk behaviors, such as underage drinking in off-campus locations.

Sexual assault survivors and advocacy groups have called for a more concerted effort to prevent sexual assault on college campuses. They have also called for better investigation of such crimes, including more accountability of colleges, and for adequate punishment of perpetrators, who often receive few or no consequences for their actions. One example is the shocking 2016 case of Stanford University student Brock Turner who was convicted of sexually assaulting a woman who was unconscious on campus. He ultimately spent only three months in a county jail for the crime, which led to widespread outrage. But, the good news is that these cases have also sparked activism. Survivor groups have heightened public awareness of the problem and have demonstrated that the problem is not isolated to select colleges, but is ubiquitous.

Although progress has clearly been made in increasing reporting and investigating campus sexual assaults in the past decade, momentum may stall with President Trump’s administration. Just a few months after he assumed office, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos announced new, more lenient guidelines for investigating campus sexual misconduct, which she said were devised to better protect the rights of those accused of sexual assault. This implied that a high level of false allegations occurs when in fact only a small minority of college sexual assault allegations are shown to be untrue. For example, a 2015 White House report on rape (which was removed from the White House website shortly after President Trump took office) found that only 2-10 percent of sexual assault reports are false). President Trump himself has been accused of sexual assault by at least 19 women.

Violence against women is still pervasive. More efforts are needed to protect women from violence, and to ensure that the perpetrators face harsh consequences. And more funding and resources are required so that women who have experienced violence can receive the support that they need. Just last week, the House approved the renewal of the landmark, 25-year old Violence Against Women Act. However, there was opposition by some Republicans (and the NRA) over a provision of the bill that would ban gun sales and ownership by a person convicted of stalking. The bill passed 263-158, with all but 33 Republicans voting no. It is unclear whether it will be approved in the Senate. I would encourage everyone to ask Congress to reauthorize and strengthen the Violence Against Women Act.

Mellissa Withers is an associate professor of global health at the University of Southern California's Online Master of Public Health program.

This post is adapted from a chapter in the book Global Health Leadership.


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