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Overview: Sexual Assault on College Campuses

Sexual assault is pervasive across college campuses around the country. In fact, sexual violence is more prevalent on college campuses than any other crime.

For example, college-aged women (18 to 24 years old) are twice as likely to be assaulted than robbed, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN). 

College women are at a heightened risk of sexual violence due to many systemic issues in society. These issues include the following, but each of these items is nuanced, as well:

  • The hypersexualization and objectification of women
  • Victim-blaming and slut-shaming culture
  • Toxic masculinity
  • A lack of adequate sexual education
  • A lack of legal protection — Studies show that billions of women don’t have legal protection against sexual violence, for example.
  • A lack of bodily autonomy — Research suggests that many women don’t feel like they have rights to their own bodies.
  • Unequal political representation — Research shows that female politicians take more action to combat gender issues, but women are largely underrepresented in politics and leadership positions.

While women are at a higher risk, both college women and college men alike are victims of sexual assault.

Statistics: Alcohol-Related Sexual Assault in College

According to RAINN, 13 percent of all students are raped or experience some form of sexual assault through physical force, violence, or incapacitation in college.

Among undergraduate students, 26.4 percent of females and 6.8 percent of males experience rape or sexual assault. Among graduate and professional students, 10 percent of women and 2.5 percent of males are assaulted on campus.

Meanwhile, 23.1 percent of TGQN (transgender, genderqueer, and nonconforming) college students have also been sexually assaulted. Intimate partner violence is also common. About two-thirds of all victims know the perpetrator.

Students tend to be at a higher risk at certain times of the year. For example, more than half of college sexual assaults happen in August, September, October, or November. These times are consistent with the first few months of the first and second semesters in college.

These numbers are likely much higher, since not all rape or sexual assault cases are reported. Only 20 percent of female student victims, ages 18 to 24, report their cases to law enforcement professionals. This is because, too often, people do not believe the victims’ stories. Rape victims also fear social penalization.

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What Percentage of College Sexual Assaults Involve Alcohol?

About nine percent of full-time college students ages 18 to 22 meet the criteria for alcohol use disorder (AUD), according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). 

For most students, the first six weeks of freshman year are the most vulnerable. They tend to engage in heavy drinking and face more alcohol-related issues because of expectations and social pressures.

Alcohol also plays a significant role in college sexual assault. While not all sexual assaults at higher education institutions involve alcohol consumption, many do. According to the NIAAA, about 97,000 students ages 18 to 24 report experiencing alcohol-related sexual assault or date rape.

On average, at least half of all sexual assaults that happen to college students are associated with alcohol use, according to the study, “Alcohol-Related Sexual Assault: A Common Problem Among College Students,” published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.

The prevalence of alcohol consumption on college campuses is high. In fact, according to the NIAAA, about 696,000 students ages 18 to 24 are assaulted in some way (not just sexually) by another student who has been drinking.

Unfortunately, when alcohol is involved, victims are wrongfully blamed for “being too drunk.” But the reality is that rape and sexual assault are no one’s fault but the perpatrator.

It’s also important to note that a person who is incapacitated cannot legally give consent. Incapacitation refers to a state beyond drunkenness. If someone is incapacitated, they may have the following symptoms:

  • Slurred speech or inability to speak coherently
  • Confusion
  • Inability to walk without assistance
  • Vomiting
  • Passing out


If a person is intoxicated, but not incapacitated, they may be able to give consent — but not always. Consent depends on the person’s ability to make informed decisions. These decisions must be made without pressure or coercion — instead, they’re made with free will.

Alcohol-related sexual assault is a crime, just like non-alcohol-related sexual assault. Alcohol’s role in the assault does not change the fact that unwanted sexual acts are criminal offenses.

Why Does Alcohol-Related Sexual Assault Happen in College?

Alcohol-related sexual abuse and assault is problematic across all college campuses. 

“Rape Culture”

Rape culture refers to an environment in which rape and sexual assault is normalized and excused. It’s perpetuated through the objectification of women’s bodies, misogynistic language, the glamorization of sexual violence, and a systemic lack of accountability.

On college campuses, it’s partially a product of authority figures failing to punish perpetrators or implementing and enforcing preventative policies. Too many college rapes and assaults are swept under the rug to uphold college reputations.

Examples of rape culture include the following:

  • Victim-blaming refers to blaming the victim for how they were dressed, how much alcohol they drank, walking home alone at night, etc., wrongfully implying that they were “asking for it.”
  • Minimizing sexual assault refers to chalking up sexual assault to being “not that bad” because it wasn’t as bad as it could have been. (Disclaimer: All sexual assault is bad). It also refers to trivializing sexual assault with phrases like, “Boys will be boys!” and “They didn’t mean it like that; they’re a nice person” and “But I’ve never known them to be like that!” and “But they were just drunk.”
  • Publicly scrutinizing a victim’s motives and sexual history.
  • Defining manhood as sexually aggressive and womanhood as sexually passive.
  • Societal pressure for men to “score.”
  • Slut-shaming refers to shaming women for their sexual preferences or experiences, both consensual and non-consensual.
  • Teaching women to avoid getting raped instead of teaching men not to rape (or not having a collaborative conversation about criminalizing perpetrators).
  • The use of sexually explicit and degrading jokes that carry real implications.
  • Enabling and excusing friends’ and loved ones’ sexual harassment, violence, and assault.
  • Being passive bystanders to sexual harassment, violence, and assault.

Date Rape Drugs

Date rape drugs are rampant on college campuses. They can be slipped into a drink without the victim knowing. They make the victim confused, unable to defend themselves against unwanted sexual contact, and sometimes unconscious. They can also wipe a victim’s memory.

Some common drugs like marijuana, cocaine, and prescription or over-the-counter drugs like antidepressants and antianxiety drugs can be used as date rape drugs. Tranquilizers and sleeping aids are the most common types of date rape drugs. These include ketamine, flunitrazepam (Rohypnol), gamma-butyrolactone (GBL), and gamma-hydroxybutyric acid (GHB).

A sexual offender may even offer a victim a drug like marijuana, which the victim accepts. But they can lace it with other drugs to which the victim did not consent.

Almost 11 million women across the country have been raped while drunk, drugged, or high.

Spiked Drinks

A predator can spike a victim’s drink with a date rape drug. These drugs can be anything. They may also use alcohol to spike a non-alcoholic drink.

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What Do Non-Alcohol-Involved and Alcohol-Involved Sexual Assaults Have in Common?

The only difference between non-alcohol-involved and alcohol-involved sexual assault is the alcohol. In no situation is sexual assault acceptable.

By definition, sexual assault refers to “sexual contact or behavior that occurs without explicit consent of the victim,” according to RAINN. If a victim is incapacitated from drinking alcohol, they cannot give consent.

Whether or not there’s alcohol involved, sexual assault involves:

  • Unwanted sexual touching
  • Unwanted fondling
  • Forcing a victim to perform sexual activities
  • Penetrating the victim’s body without consent

Often, with the effects of alcohol, victims of sexual assault become easier targets. Perpetrators may use sexual aggression and sexual coercion.

Other Risks of College Alcohol Abuse

Sexual assault is not the only problem that arises among young people with underage alcohol abuse. Other risks of college alcohol abuse include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Alcoholism
  • Death
  • Overdose
  • Accidents
  • Legal Trouble
  • Academic Problems
  • Physical Health Issues
  • Mental Health Issues

How to Protect Yourself 

While there are certainly precautions you can take to help protect yourself from campus sexual assault, victim-blaming is wrong. No incidence of rape or sexual assault is ever the victim’s fault. Rapists and sexual predators should be held accountable for their crimes.

You can take precautions like sticking in groups, keeping an eye on your drink, and learning self-defense. But rape and sexual assault can happen to anyone.

No matter what you wear or how much you have to drink, rape and sexual assault are never warranted. Never let anyone tell you otherwise. 

How to Report Sexual Assault on College Campuses

Reporting sexual assault on college campuses may feel scary, especially at a college with a rape culture. But it’s important to report sexual assault on college campuses to prevent sexual victimization and violence against women from continuing.

Of course, reporting sexual assault is not always safe for victims. In fact, many sexually victimized students drop out of college. The dropout rate for these students is 34.1 percent, which is higher than the overall university dropout rate or 29.8 percent.

To help victims feel safer and heard, there are resources available.

  1. Call for emergency help if you’re in immediate danger. If you need immediate emergency attention, call 911.
  2. Go somewhere safe. Go somewhere as safe as possible, if you can. When you get there, do not change your clothes, bathe, douche, urinate, defecate, brush your teeth, eat, or drink. While you may understandably want to cleanse yourself, you do not want to wash away the evidence.
  3. Confide in someone you trust. Having someone with you who has your best interest in mind can help you heal. They can also help you navigate the reporting process, which can feel invasive and triggering.
  4. Report the case. Make sure that you report the case to both campus security and the police.
  5. Seek medical attention. Make sure that you tell the doctor that you are receiving medical attention for a crime. You can choose to have a sexual assault forensic exam.
  6. Know your rights. You do not have to do anything you don’t want to do. If you feel uncomfortable, you can quit the process at any time. Also, note that there is no limitation on when you can report a crime to the police. It’s never too late.
  7. Reach out for support. Support groups are available for victims of rape and sexual assault. 

Here are some Resources to learn more or report a case:

The United States Department of Justice

RAINN Hotline

If you or someone you know has been raped or sexually assaulted, reach out for help as soon as safely possible. You do not have to endure the next steps alone.

Resources

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Abbey, Antonia. “Alcohol-Related Sexual Assault: a Common Problem among College Students.” Journal of Studies on Alcohol. Supplement, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Mar. 2002, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4484270/

Advocacy. “The Effects of Sexual Assault.” Advocacy, 11 Oct. 2018, www.wcsap.org/help/about-sexual-assault/effects-sexual-assault

“Alcohol and Consent.” The University of Tulsa, 2 Aug. 2019, utulsa.edu/sexual-violence-prevention-education/alcohol-consent/.

“Campus Sexual Violence: Statistics.” RAINN, www.rainn.org/statistics/campus-sexual-violence

Cecilia Mengo, Beverly M. Black. “Violence Victimization on a College Campus: Impact on GPA and School Dropout - Cecilia Mengo, Beverly M. Black, 2016.” SAGE Journals, journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1521025115584750

“College Drinking.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/college-drinking

“Date Rape Drugs.” Womenshealth.gov, 26 Apr. 2019, www.womenshealth.gov/a-z-topics/date-rape-drugs

Elselot Hasselaar and Andrea Saldarriaga Jiménez, et al. “Closing the Gender Gap.” World Economic Forum, www.weforum.org/projects/closing-the-gender-gap-accelerators

Horowitz, Juliana Menasce, and Ruth Igielnik. “A Century After Women Gained the Right To Vote, Majority of Americans See Work To Do on Gender Equality.” Pew Research Center's Social & Demographic Trends Project, Pew Research Center, 20 Aug. 2020, www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2020/07/07/a-century-after-women-gained-the-right-to-vote-majority-of-americans-see-work-to-do-on-gender-equality/

“My Body My Rights.” Amnesty International, www.amnesty.org/en/get-involved/my-body-my-rights/

“Rape Culture, Victim Blaming, And The Facts.” Rape Culture, Victim Blaming, And The Facts | Southern Connecticut State University, inside.southernct.edu/sexual-misconduct/facts

“Rape Culture.” Womens Center, www.marshall.edu/wcenter/sexual-assault/rape-culture/

“Reporting to Law Enforcement.” RAINN, www.rainn.org/articles/reporting-law-enforcement

Sex, Drugs & Alcohol, www.dartmouth.edu/consent/sex_drugs_alcohol/index.html

Sharon Lamb, Julie Koven. “Sexualization of Girls: Addressing Criticism of the APA Report, Presenting New Evidence - Sharon Lamb, Julie Koven, 2019.” SAGE Journals, journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/2158244019881024.

“Supporting Student Survivors.” Sexual Harassment & Rape Prevention Program (SHARPP), 28 May 2019, www.unh.edu/sharpp/supporting-student-survivors

“What To Do After Sexual Misconduct Occurs.” What To Do After Sexual Misconduct Occurs - Cornell College, www.cornellcollege.edu/counseling/sexual-assault/misconduct-policy.shtml.

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