Sexual assault, which is also known as sexual abuse or violence, is "any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient." (1)
WARNING: Below are graphic descriptions of sexual assault. (2)
What is sexual assault?
Rape, which occurs when someone, no matter how slightly, uses their finger, tongue, sexual organ, or other body part or object to penetrate your vagina or anus without your consent; or, when someone uses their sexual organ to penetrate your mouth without your consent.
Fondling or the unwanted touching of one of your intimate body parts, which include your sexual organ, anus, groin, breast, inner thigh, and buttocks, by another person, above or under your clothes, through use of their hand, lips, sexual organ, or other body part or object.
Someone making you perform a sexual act, like using a body part or object to penetrate or sexually touch their body.
Someone attempting a sexual act on you without your consent, such as attempted rape.
Someone making you watch or pose for sexual content, like videos or photos.
Revenge porn, which occurs when someone shares sexual videos or photos of you without your consent.
Voyeurism, which occurs when someone watches one of your private sexual acts without your consent.
Indecent exposure, which occurs when someone shows you their sexual organ in public, without your consent.
Sexual harassment, which includes unwanted sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature, directed towards you, by another person, at school or at work. Learn more at RAINN.
Threats of sexual harm, made against you by another person.
Sexual assault is not limited to the types above; and, neither category listed is more or less significant than another. Although not every type of sexual assault is currently considered a sex crime in every state, every sexual assault matters, whether committed physically, visually, or verbally. (2)
Because of this, it is important to understand what leads to all sexual assaults: no consent.
What is Consent?
Consent is someone's clear, informed, and positively-given "yes" to engage in sexual contact or behavior. For consent to be present, the person giving their consent must completely understand what they are consenting to, give their consent because they want to, and have the freedom to withdraw their consent at any time. (3)
Below are 3 situations where consent is not present: (2)
Someone makes you engage in sexual contact or behavior through physical assault, also known as physical abuse or violence.
Inability to Consent
During sexual contact or behavior, you are intoxicated, drugged, unconscious, underage, or have an illness or disability that impairs your ability to consent.
You agree to sexual contact or behavior because you reasonably believe that there will be negative consequences if you do not, such as:
Death or physical assault
Sexual assault by force
Emotional abuse, like being put down by your intimate partner for not consenting
Repeated pressuring to engage in sexual contact or behavior
Harm to others, such as your friends, family, or pets
Loss of a good grade or job
In addition to the situations above, being in a relationship, flirting, silence, and not saying "no" are not forms of consent. It is possible for someone to be unsure of whether or not they want to do something without that meaning that they do; and, a person can become frozen with fear, where they cannot say or do anything to try to stop a sexual assault. (3)
Also, if someone gives their consent to a few types of sexual contact or behavior one night, that does not mean that they consent to everything that the other person wants to do. Additionally, if a person gave their consent to a type of sexual contact or behavior in the past, that does not mean that they automatically give their consent to the same thing in the present. (3)
Consent is an ongoing process of communication. Before engaging in any type of sexual contact or behavior, the person initiating it should always make sure that they have the other person's clear, informed, and positively given "yes" to do so, maintaining that person's "yes" throughout the interaction and stopping if and when the other person wants to. (3)
If they do not, they will be committing sexual assault.
Who are the survivors?
Sexual assault can happen to anyone, regardless of gender, sexuality, ethnicity, religion, or socio-economic background.
Below are links to information about sexual assault in different groups of people, provided by RAINN.
However, women between the ages of 16 and 24 are at the greatest risk for sexual assault. College students are particularly at-risk due to high levels of substance abuse and other types of violence on college campuses. (4)
Among college students, 1 in 5 women and 1 in 16 men become survivors of sexual assault. (3) Out of these survivors, 84% are sexually assaulted during their freshman or sophomore year, when they are most vulnerable due to inexperience with alcohol, undeveloped support systems, and other factors associated with transitioning from high school to college. (5)
Although there are ways to reduce your risk, it is important to understand that no one can make themselves immune to sexual assault. Regardless of what someone wears, how much they drink, what their reputation is, or anything else, sexual assault is always caused by the perpetrator, never the survivor.
Because of this, we need to support survivors and bring perpetrators to justice, instead of supporting perpetrators and treating survivors like criminals.
Who are the perpetrators?
Just like sexual assault can happen to anyone, it can also be committed by anyone. However, 98% of female survivors and 93% of male survivors report their perpetrator to be male. (4)
Below are descriptions of 3 types of perpetrators:
Someone the survivor knows, like a professor, classmate, friend, or intimate partner. 80-90% of all sexual assaults committed against college students are committed by an acquaintance. (5)
Someone the survivor romantically knows, like a spouse or dating partner. Over 1/2 of the acquaintance sexual assaults on college campuses are committed by an intimate partner. (6)
Someone the survivor does not know, committing sexual assault in one of the following ways: (7)
Blitz - Quickly, and oftentimes brutally, committing sexual assault; usually in an isolated area at night.
Home Invasion - Entering the survivor's home, without their consent, to commit the crime.
Contact - Luring someone into a vulnerable situation to commit sexual assault.
Although most sexual assaults are not committed by strangers, they do happen. (4)
When confronted, most perpetrators either deny that anything happened or blame their actions on other things, such as intoxication, misunderstanding, or temptation.
However, if they committed sexual assault because they were intoxicated, they are just as responsible as they would be if they injured or killed someone in a drunk driving incident; and, if they had received and maintained consent, misunderstanding would not have occurred because it would not have been possible. Also, sexual assault is a crime of power and control, not sexual desire; so, any excuse blaming the survivor's looks, outfit, or actions is ridiculous. (5)
No matter what their excuse is, perpetrators are always responsible for their actions.
With nearly 1/3 of college men admitting that they might commit sexual assault if ‘‘nobody would ever know and there wouldn’t be any consequences,’’ everyone should understand that anyone can be a perpetrator, from a creepy stranger to a sweet boy in class. (8) Also, with many perpetrators committing other acts of violence against their survivors, including domestic violence and stalking, it is important for us to understand the different types of violence related to sexual assault so we can best work to prevent its occurrence and support its survivors. (9)
What is domestic violence?
Domestic violence is "a pattern of abusive behavior in any relationship that is used by one partner to gain or maintain power and control over another intimate partner." (10) When such behavior occurs in a dating relationship, whether that relationship is casual, serious, or other, it is also referred to as dating violence. (11)
At colleges and universities, nearly 1/2 of dating college women experience abuse, with 1 in 6 of all college women experiencing sexual abuse in a dating relationship. (12)
Below are links to information about the different types of abuse, provided by Loveisrespect.
Domestic violence can happen to anyone, just like sexual assault. However, regardless of what type of romantic relationship someone is in, whether they are dating, married, or other, abuse tends to follow a certain pattern. Typically, the abuser will use subtle, continuous behavior to control their partner, such as isolating them from friends and family, putting them down, or dictating what they can do. Then, to reinforce this behavior, they will often use physical or sexual abuse, though physical and sexual abuse are not present in every abusive relationship. (13)
To learn more about the cycle of abuse, visit Loveisrespect.
However, with several perpetrators of sexual assault sexually abusing their intimate partners, and those who do often abusing them in other ways, (14) or using the threat of abuse to commit sexual assault, (15) we need to address domestic violence if we are going to address sexual assault on college campuses.
Domestic violence and stalking are the 2 types of violence most closely related to sexual assault.
What is stalking?
Stalking is "a course of conduct directed at a specific person that would cause a reasonable person to fear for his or her safety or the safety of others or suffer substantial emotional distress." (16) Just like sexual assault, it can happen to anyone; and, every year, "3.4 million people are stalked," (15) with most of those people being stalked by someone they know, such as a professor, classmate, friend, intimate partner, or other acquaintance. (17)
For more information about stalking, please watch the video below and refer to the link in our previous section, What Is Domestic Violence?
In relation to sexual assault, most perpetrators watch, follow, contact, or gather information about their targets beforehand, preparing to assault them. Then, after committing sexual assault, many perpetrators threaten, retaliate, or try to maintain contact with survivors: all behaviors of stalking. (17)
Therefore, with 13% of college women being stalked, and 10% of those incidents resulting in sexual assault, we need to address stalking, in addition to domestic violence, if we are going to address the problem of sexual assault on college campuses. (18)
Perhaps, by addressing all three types of violence, we will prevent several sexual assaults and better support the survivors of each.
What is substance abuse?
Substance abuse is the excessive use of drugs, including alcohol. With 1 in 5 college students using illegal drugs, (19) 4 in 5 consuming alcohol, and 1/2 of those consuming alcohol also binge drinking, substance abuse is absolutely a widespread problem at colleges and universities; and, it is the most contributing factor to campus sexual assault. (20)
Every year, 97,000 college students experience alcohol-related sexual assault. (20) While several perpetrators take advantage of their target's intoxication, others drug their targets instead. (21)
Below are descriptions of the different types of drugs perpetrators use: (21)
The most commonly-used drug.
Drugs that are illegal and/or specifically known as date rape drugs, such as rophynol, ketamine, GHB, or ecstasy.
Drugs that are purchased through the authorization of a healthcare professional or bought over-the-counter, including:
Over-the-counter sleep aids
To commit drug-facilitated sexual assault, which is any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs when someone is drugged or intoxicated, a perpetrator will either drug their target without their knowledge, pressure them to get intoxicated, or wait for them to get drunk or high on their own so they will not be able to fight back. (5)
Also, drug-facilitated sexual assault is not the only type of sexual assault that involves substance abuse. In fact, an intoxicated perpetrator may choose to force or threaten someone into sexual contact or behavior instead, influenced by the effects of alcohol or other drugs. To illustrate this, over 1/4 of forced rapes are committed at parties, where substance abuse regularly occurs. This is in addition to over 1/2 of drug-facilitated rapes, which also occur at parties. (4)
However, it does not matter if a survivor was sober, drugged, pressured to get intoxicated, or got drunk or high on their own: survivors are never responsible for their sexual assaults. As mentioned before, sexual assault is always caused by the perpetrator, never the survivor; and, it is what the perpetrators do, not the survivors, that makes substance abuse any sort of contributing factor to campus sexual assault, let alone the greatest.
This is why we need to stop blaming survivors for what happens to them, stop accepting substance abuse as a normal part of the college experience, and start protecting college students.
What happens to the survivors?
Sexual assault traumatizes many survivors, regardless of what type of sexual assault they experienced. In fact, "survivors often suffer from a wide range of physical and mental health problems that can follow them for life – including depression, chronic pain, diabetes, anxiety, eating disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder. They are also more likely than [non-survivors] to attempt or consider suicide." (4)
Below are links to more information about some of these side effects and others, provided by RAINN:
A survivor may experience all, some, or none of the side effects listed above; and, they may feel shock, anger, fear, sadness, pain, humiliation, guilt or self-doubt, blaming themselves for what happened or questioning their experience. Additionally, a survivor may respond to their sexual assault in ways that others find strange, like talking about it with no emotion, telling different versions of it (5), engaging in high-risk HIV behavior (4), or voluntarily interacting with their perpetrator: contacting them, consenting to sexual acts with them, or remaining in an intimate relationship or friendship with them. (5)
Although considered strange, responses like the ones above do not mean that a survivor's sexual assault wasn't traumatic or didn't happen. In fact, only 2-10% of reported rapes are false, which is the same rate as most other crimes. Instead, responses like these should be viewed as the result of trauma and a survivor trying to cope. Each survivor is different, and not all survivors respond to sexual assault in the ways that society expects them to. (4)
However, after surviving a sexual assault, many college students do experience high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and substance abuse, which can be harmful to their academic performance. (4) Also, with several schools not providing sufficient mental health services and support, (22) as well as depression, anxiety, and substance abuse being linked to "higher college dropout rates," (4) many survivors struggle to complete their educations. This often leads them to medically withdraw from classes, earn poor grades, lose scholarships or financial aid, graduate late, fail out of school, transfer, or not be able to finish school at all. (22)
In short, many survivors suffer.
What happens to the perpetrators?
For several reasons, such as humiliation, concern for their perpetrator, denial that a sexual assault occurred, or how long and difficult the reporting, disciplinary, and legal processes can be, only 12% of campus survivors report their sexual assault. (4) When a sexual assault is reported, however, little is often done to punish the perpetrator for their actions; and, 1 in 5 perpetrators repeat their crime. (23)
Below are descriptions of what law enforcement and colleges and universities are doing to bring perpetrators of sexual assault to justice:
"Out of every 1,000 rapes, 344 are reported to the police, 63 reports lead to an arrest, 13 cases get referred to prosecutors, 7 cases will lead to a felony conviction, [and] 6 rapists will be incarcerated." Regardless of what type of sexual assault they commit, many perpetrators escape criminal punishment for their actions. (24)
Colleges & Universities
In 2014, nearly 1/2 of all colleges and universities reported not investigating any sexual assaults for 5 years. (3) Of the sexual assaults reported and investigated by colleges and universities, perpetrators were only expelled less than a 1/3 of the time. So, unlike their survivors, many perpetrators suffer little or no problem finishing college. (25)
There are many reasons for these low rates of justice. To begin with, survivors of sexual assault often experience trauma, which damages the brain and causes "impaired verbal skills, short term memory loss, memory fragmentation, and delayed recall of events." Because of these effects, as well as other factors typically associated with this crime, it can be hard for law enforcement to gather enough evidence to make an arrest; and, in many cases, survivors are not believed or treated fairly. (4) In fact, some officers even arrest or threaten to arrest survivors for 'falsely reporting a crime.' (26)
Then, if law enforcement does arrest the perpetrator, prosecutors may drop the case for several reasons, such as a lack of physical evidence, the perpetrator's clean record, or questions a judge or jury may have about the survivor's character or behavior. (4) Additionally, if a college or university has disciplinary proceedings for the perpetrator, they may not lead to disciplinary action, either. This is because colleges and universities try to help students learn from their 'mistakes' rather than punish them. (25)
However, sexual assault is not a 'mistake' to learn from. Similar to murder, it is a serious crime that physically, mentally, emotionally, academically, and financially injures people, changing their lives forever. As Wagatwe Wanjuki, a campus survivor, stated, "If someone can be kicked out of school for copying a paper, a person should be kicked out of school for raping another human being." (27)
Survivors of sexual assault should not have to walk around campus seeing their perpetrator every day.
This is why, instead of pitying and protecting perpetrators, we need to hold them accountable for their actions, both in the United States justice system and on college campuses across the country. By doing so, we will support their survivors, protect others, and progress in our goal to stop sexual assault!
The numbers below correspond with the numbers throughout this page. If you want more information about anything, just click on its listed source.
(1) The United States Department of Justice. (April 2018). Introduction to Sexual Assault Awareness Month special issue.
(2) Office of Women's Health. (2015). Sexual assault.
(3) National Sexual Violence Resource Center. (2015). What is campus sexual violence?
(4) The White House. (2014). Rape and sexual assault: a renewed call to action.
(5) Filipovic, Jill. (2014, August 28). 17 beliefs about sexual assault that are totally wrong. Cosmopolitan.
(6) New, Jack. (2014, December 2). Deadly dating violence. Inside Higher Ed.
(7) Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network. (2016). Sexual assault.
(8) Bekiempis, Victoria. (2015, January 9). When campus rapists don't think they're rapists. Newsweek.
(9) Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network. (2016). Types of sexual violence.
(10) Women & Children First. (2020). Cycle of domestic violence.
(11) Loveisrespect. (2020). Dating definitions & FAQs.
(12) Loveisrespect. (2016). Dating abuse statistics.
(13) The National Domestic Violence Hotline (2020). Power and control.
(14) Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network. (2016). Intimate partner sexual violence.
(15) Loveisrespect. (2016). Types of abuse.
(16) The United States Department of Justice. (2016). Stalking.
(17) Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault. (2017). The intersection of stalking and sexual assault.
(18) The United States Department of Justice. (2000). The sexual victimization of college women.
(19) Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2012). Results from the 2012 national survey on drug use and health: summary of national findings.
(20) National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2015). College drinking.
(21) Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network. (2016). Drug-facilitated sexual assault.
(22) National Alliance on Mental Illness. (2012). College students speak: a survey report on mental health.
(23) Kingkade, Tyler. (2015, July 15). New study challenges assumptions about serial rapists on campus. The Huffington Post.
(24) Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network. (2016). Reporting rates.
(25) Kingkade, Tyler. (2014, September 29). Fewer than one-third of campus sexual assault cases result in expulsion. The Huffington Post.
(26) Baker, Katie J.M. (2015, September 27). "They told me it never happened." BuzzFeed News.