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Sexual Assaults on Campus

On U.S. college campuses, the risk of sexual assault is alarmingly high – and college students seem to be particularly at risk because of the widespread use of drugs and alcohol in their demographic.

In recent years, alleged rape cases from Harvard, Stanford, and Baylor have dominated the news headlines. However, despite an increased awareness of sexual violence on campus, all too often these assaults go unreported.

While many colleges are mobilizing to address issues of sexual safety, victims nevertheless experience myriad challenges when it comes to reporting sexual violence, particularly when the crimes involve drug or alcohol use. Because victims are often impaired at the time of their attack, they may inaccurately believe they are at fault or doubt their accounts will be believed.

To better understand the current trends in sexual assault on college campuses, we looked at the U.S. Department of Education’s Campus Safety and Security data for on-campus rapes in 2015. We surveyed more than 600 college students currently enrolled in four-year universities to learn their thoughts on sexual assault and alcohol and drug consumption. We also surveyed 108 victims of sexual assault about their experiences.

A few caveats: The statistics here are indicative of which schools actually report sexual assaults as opposed to where assaults most frequently occur. It’s also worth noting that having larger numbers of reports can reflect positively, as it may be attributed to greater awareness and improved reporting procedures. Finally, one can reason that in some cases, campuses where assaults are reported may reflect a supportive environment in which assault survivors feel empowered and safe coming forward.

Continue reading for more insight into sexual assault and rape on college campuses.

University Sex Offenses

When the U.S. Department of Education studied forcible sexual offenses on college campuses from 2005 to 2015, the results were startling. Reported sexual assaults went from a low of 2,356 cases in 2009 to an astounding 7,464 in 2015. However, while these results seem to portray a dramatic upswing in sexual violence, victim advocates say the real cause of the jump is increased reporting, which reflects very positive changes for victims of sexual violence.

“When more [incidents of sexual assault] are reported, we have to see that as a good thing initially,” Sen. Claire McCaskill said in a recent Washington Post article. “Ideally, you want reports going up and incidents going down.”

Studies have shown as many as 23 percent of women are sexually assaulted in college, but most cases go unreported. Pressure from lawmakers and increased public awareness has led to better reporting – both the Campus Save Act and recent White House guidelines have encouraged greater training, awareness, and reporting regarding on-campus sexual violence – but there’s still a long way to go.

Reported Rapes on College Campuses

We looked at four-year universities with at least 2,000 enrolled students to see how many colleges were reporting rape. Of the 3,403 institutions surveyed, 2,578 (that’s over three-quarters of the schools) reported zero rape cases in 2015.

Assuming the lowest enrollment of each of these schools is 2,000 students, this suggests a student population of over 5 million students without a single sexual assault of this nature. Statistically, this is very unlikely. A 2015 Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation survey found 20 percent of young women attending college in a four-year span had been sexually assaulted. Given this statistic, the American Association of University Women (AAUW) notes reporting by colleges and universities “still do[es] not tell the full story of sexual violence on campus.”

While schools reporting zero instances of rape might appear on the surface to be safer, research shows these schools need to provide more resources, policies, and procedures that allow students to feel comfortable reporting sexual assaults.

We also looked at rape cases per 1,000 students, both by school size and private and public universities. Based on the data, smaller schools and private colleges tend to have higher reporting rates. However, this doesn’t mean these schools have higher instances of sexual assault than larger schools. Smaller schools have a greater ratio of administrators to students, perhaps making it easier for students to report crimes. Additionally, these colleges may be taking more steps to address sexual violence issues and comply with federal anti-discrimination laws.

Who Experiences Sexual Assault on Campus?

According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC), 1 in 5 women and 1 in 16 men are sexually assaulted while in college. In 2015, there were approximately 20.2 million enrolled college students in the U.S. Based on the NSVRC statistics, this means about 2.3 million women and 547,000 men – a total of more than 2.8 million students – will be sexually assaulted by the end of their college careers.

However, from 2012 to 2015, only 23,191 sexual assaults were reported across all post-secondary institutions – a mere 0.8 percent of the estimated total assaults. Clearly, underreporting is a serious issue at universities, but underreporting is not solely confined to college campuses. The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) estimates two out of three rapes go unreported, but the numbers from NSVRC suggest the rate could be much, much higher.

Sexual Assault, by Gender

We surveyed college students enrolled in four-year universities to find out more about their experiences with sexual assault. Of the 603 respondents, 18 percent said they had been sexually assaulted. Of these participants, 31 percent of women had experienced sexual assault, compared to 7 percent of men.

Our research shows rape disproportionately affects women. However, since the FBI revised its definition of rape in 2012, male rape statistics have been garnering attention, with studies suggesting a high rate of victimization among men as well.

Who to Tell?

We asked the 18 percent of college students who had been sexually assaulted (108 students total) to whom they had reported their assault. Fifty-six percent of students did not report the incident at all, while 12 percent chose to tell a friend, and 12 percent took their account to the police. Only 8 percent of students chose to report their assault to their university.

Noel Busch-Armendariz, who directs the Institute on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault at the University of Texas at Austin, says many victims “fear the veracity of their story being questioned” and believe authorities won’t take their claims in earnest. Since 2003, she says, sexual assault rates have gone up, but the number of those reporting the incidents to police has gone down.

While the Justice Department estimates only 20 percent of student victims report their assaults to the authorities, Busch-Armendariz puts that number much lower – at around 9 percent.

Keeping Silent

We asked victims who did not report their assault why they remained silent. For most victims, fear was the main reason. Embarrassment, lack of proof, and fear of being dismissed also played larger roles. The stigma surrounding sexual assault featured primarily in students’ underreporting – 11 percent blamed themselves for the attack, while 7 percent were too embarrassed to disclose what had happened.

These barriers to disclosure illuminate the reasons why more than 90 percent of university sexual assault victims do not report these crimes. The emotional toll on individuals who choose to report can be intense, as they face pointed interrogations, bureaucratic hurdles, and a loss of privacy during an investigation.

Colleges Most Often Reporting Rape

Next, we looked at the universities with the highest number of reported rapes per 1,000 students. For small colleges, Reed University led in reporting rates, while Brandeis led in reporting rates for medium-sized colleges. When it came to large colleges, the University of New Hampshire took the lead in reporting rates.

When it comes to these statistics, it’s important not to equate “reported rapes” with the actual number of rapes on a campus. The reason these colleges are leading in this arena is most likely because they provide a supportive environment and encourage victims to come forward.

Because these colleges’ reporting rates are closest to the estimated incidence of rape among this age group, one could assume they are keeping accurate and realistic statistics when it comes to sexual assault.

Looking at the rate of drug and alcohol disciplinary actions on these campuses, we can gain a better understanding of the relationship between drug and alcohol use and sexual assault. Campuses that had higher reported incidences of rape also had far more disciplinary actions for drug and alcohol use than average. This suggests schools that are more vigilant about drug and alcohol infractions provide a more supportive environment for students to report instances of sexual assault. For example, Reed College reported over 228 drug and alcohol infractions – far higher than the average 15.1 infractions for small college campuses – and it also reported much higher incidences of rape (11.7, compared to the average of 0.36 for small college campuses).

The Role of Alcohol in Sexual Assault

We surveyed college students to get their opinions on how alcohol relates to sexual assault, and the results were eye-opening.

Seventy-seven percent of women felt sexual assaults occurred more often at schools that had more alcohol and drug disciplinary infractions, and 67 percent of men agreed. However, men were more likely than women to feel their campus had effective policies regarding alcohol awareness.

While around 30 percent of men said they drank less because of an increased awareness of sexual assault on campus, 42 percent of women said the same. Women were more likely to feel victims of sexual assault would be blamed if they were under the influence at the time.

The women’s responses revealed a heightened awareness of the link between substance use and sexual assault. That makes sense given heavy drinking is a significant predictor of sexual assault during college. Statistics show 1 in 4 sexual assault victims were under the influence of alcohol at the time of their attack, and nearly 1 in 4 victims said their attacker was under the influence during the assault.

A study by the Brown University School of Public Health found 83 percent of rapes occurred when victims were incapacitated – most frequently because of alcohol use. Because of the strong link between campus party culture and sexual assault, the study noted the most significant factor in keeping students safe was reducing risky drinking behavior. That said, the presence of alcohol or drugs or someone’s inability to provide valid consent does not shift the onus of blame to the victim in a sexual assault. Individuals are not only morally, but also legally responsible for any incidents of sexual assault they commit.

Drug and Alcohol Use on Campus

When we surveyed students about their perceptions of drug and alcohol use on campus, we found, although drugs were present, they were ranked as “low prevalence.” The most heavily used substance students identified was alcohol.

This ranking is significant because of the prominent role alcohol plays in sexual activity on campus. In a Washington Post-Kaiser Foundation poll, two-thirds of students who reported experiencing unwanted sexual contact said they had been drinking before the assault occurred.

Given the strong correlation between substance use and sexual assault, it may be worthwhile to examine how changes in attitudes toward alcohol and drug use might affect rates of sexual violence on college campuses.

Arm Yourself With Knowledge

In our look at sexual assault on college campuses, we found that while reporting rates are rising, a large number of sexual assaults still go unreported, and substance use continues to play a major role – for both victims and perpetrators – in these crimes.

To learn more about the connection between sexual assault and substance abuse, visit At, you can find resources that provide education and support for addiction and other substance use issues that affect college students.


We surveyed 600 undergraduate college students at four-year universities about their thoughts about sexual assault on campus and compared this with national data on campus safety from 2015. We asked participants basic demographic questions as well as questions about school policies and the culture of drinking and drug use on campus.