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Addressing Sexual Assault in Higher Education is Important for Equity

Sexual assault in higher education is still an understudied field, yet existing research is enough to highlight why it is essential that colleges and universities address sexual assault in their pursuit of equity.

Written by: Thea Louise Thomaseth Bugge

As students head back to campus this fall, spirits are high with many in-person classes available again after a two-year hiatus. But that return also presents an opportunity to remain aware of a more nefarious season - the critical time period in fall semester called “The Red Zone,” which is characterized by a dramatic spike in sexual assaults on campus. At highest risk are women, people of color, those who identify as members of the LGBTIA+ community, and people with disabilities. While no victim responds the same way, the consequences of sexual assault can be detrimental for students' wellbeing and academic success. As they look toward priorities for the year and creating more equity for students, college and university leaders should do more to address sexual assault at their institutions in a person-centered and equity-oriented way.

Sexual assault in higher education negatively impacts equity in many ways, including in terms of gender, race, sexual orientation, and disability. In terms of gender, studies show that 25% of women and transgender-identifying students experience sexual assault by the time they graduate. Considering that in 2018 and 2019 sexual assault was the most reported crime at colleges, it’s easy to see that sexual assault harms schools' gender-equity at a high rate, especially for women and trans individuals. However, the harm sexual assault causes men should not be ignored either. In fact, men attending college are 78% more likely to be sexually assaulted than non-students their age, showing a dire need for colleges to address this crisis for students of all genders.

Sexual assault can also seriously hinder racial equity in higher education since people of color tend to be at higher risk of sexual assault. Unfortunately, the negative effects of sexual assault on racial equity in college in particular remain understudied - but a 2017 study of more than 70,000 students found that Black transgender-identifying college students experience a higher rate of sexual assault than their white counterparts. The study also found that Black women and people with 'other' as their ethnicity were more likely to be victimized than white, Latina, and Asian women. Additionally, students that are Native American, First Nation, and of Alaska Native heritage are more likely to experience sexual assault – a 2016 National Institute of Justice survey found that more than 56% of the Indigenous female population in the U.S. were victims of sexual crimes.

Finally, sexual assault also disproportionally impacts sexual orientation and disability equity and harms students that identify as LGBTQIA+ and/ or have disabilities. Around 14% of LGBTQIA+-identifying students had been sexually assaulted in college, and out of those, bisexual women were the most likely to have been victimized. People with disabilities are at increased risk for sexual assault, too. In 2016 an estimated 39% of all women who were sexually assaulted had a physical or mental disability. Sexual assault is an intersectional issue - key to understand in developing solutions.

The consequences of experiencing sexual violence and assault are severe for many students and can impact their wellbeing and ability to succeed in higher education. First and foremost, victims may experience a wide range of mental health-related consequences such as depression, PTSD, suicidal ideations, and drug use. A 2017 study found that student sexual assault victims were more likely to experience high levels of stress and low academic commitment. These are all factors that contribute to research that shows rape victimization can be a predictor for both lower final semester GPA and students leaving college. Sexual assault can negatively impact historically marginalized students even more severely. For example, victim blaming—which is a known problem in higher ed—is particularly likely to harm Black women. Considering the fact that students are less likely than the general population to report their rapist to the police, those students may experience further societal marginalization. Sexual assault in higher education is still an understudied field, yet existing research is enough to highlight why it is essential that colleges and universities address sexual assault in their pursuit of equity.

There are many ways that higher education can work to address sexual assault. Many schools have taken steps in the right direction by providing bystander effect training and implementing anonymous sexual assault reporting options. Some universities are providing targeted support, like the University of California Merced’s "Sexual Violence Resources for students who identify as Women of Color" resource as part of their CARE program. Yet these efforts are still not enough. For example, many students don't file official reports due to factors including fear of retaliation. Many students don't feel that universities are focusing enough on prevention efforts, and some schools are still sweeping cases under the rug. Higher education institutions should consider taking a holistic, intersectional, and prevention-oriented approach to sexual violence and assault to improve equity on their campuses and beyond.

For more information and guidance, see:

Current benefits and pitfalls of bystander effect training:

The American College Health Association's Addressing Sexual and Relationship Violence: A Trauma-Informed Approach Toolkit

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