The image of the college campus as an ivory tower, including as a safe haven from crimes that plague the real world, has been etched in the public mind. This image, however, does not accurately describe the past or current reality that college students — in particular women — face while pursuing higher education. Researchers and service providers (and some campus administrators) have long recognized that sexual violence is a disquieting reality that affects the quality of students’ lives at each and every postsecondary institution of higher education. No campus nor college student in the United States is immune from sexual violence, including sexual assault, sexual harassment, dating and intimate partner violence and stalking.

Regardless of the range of estimates, national studies completed in the 1980s, 1990s, early 2000s, and countless smaller scale surveys have well documented that an alarming number of college women and a smaller proportion of men have experienced some form of sexual violence, most likely committed by someone they know, during their college tenure. Fisher is co-author of The Dark Side of the Ivory Tower The Dark Side of the Ivory Tower FisherFor a considerable number of women, subsequent incidents of sexual violence will occur shortly after the initial one. Researchers and service providers alike have long recognized that sexual violence victimization takes a negative toll on its victims. It affects students’ physical wellbeing, mental health, daily lives and academic success. These devastating effects, coupled with the 117 higher education institutions (as of June 2015) that are under Title IX investigation by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights for violations, including complaints about how schools (mis)handled reports of sexual assault, tarnish the image of the ivory tower.TBR7: Victimization
Monday: Bostaph’s intro
Monday: King & Bostaph, et al. on Idaho victim services
Tuesday: Fisher on sexual violence on campus
Wednesday: Miller on theory of change
Thursday: Cares crime victims’ classroom needs
Friday: Franklin on the victim-offender connection
Friday: Campbell on police and victims of sexual violence

Four studies of sexual violence among college students

1987: Mary P. Koss, Christine A. Gidycz, and Nadine Wisniewski at Kent State University estimated that since age 14, 27.5 percent of college-age women in the U.S. had experienced rape or attempted rape.

2000: Bonnie S. Fisher (the author), Francis T. Cullen and Michael G. Turner reported for the U.S. Department of Justice that 2.8 percent of college women experienced rape or attempted rape in an academic year, according to the National College Women Sexual Victimization study.

2007: Dean G. Kilpatrick, Heidi S. Resnick, Kenneth J. Ruggiero, Lauren M. Conoscenti and Jenna McCauley reported that 18 percent of American women have been raped in their lifetimes, based on another national survey of college students.

2007: Christopher P. Krebs, Christine H. Lindquist, Tara D. Warner, Bonnie S. Fisher and Sandra L. Martin found that one in five undergraduate women experience an attempted or completed sexual assault during college, a statistic that a Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation survey earlier this year essentially confirmed.

The sustained efforts of researchers across many disciplines, national and local campus advocacy groups, as well as victims and their families, have led Congress, the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights and the White House to recognize the severity of campus sexual violence and the need for a national strategy to improve the safety of college women. In 1990, Congress passed what is now known as the Clery Act, after Jeanne Clery, who was raped and murdered by a fellow student at Lehigh University in 1986. It requires all Title IV schools to publicly and annually report their crime statistics, including forcible and non-forcible sexual offenses, with the hopes of informing current and prospective students and their parents of the extent of such crimes. “For the period 1995–2013, females ages 18 to 24 not enrolled in a post-secondary school were 1.2 times more likely to experience rape and sexual assault victimization (7.6 per 1,000), compared to students in the same age range (6.1 per 1,000)” via 2014 U.S. Department of Justice Special Report.

In 1994, Congress passed (and subsequently reauthorized twice) the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which includes funding to postsecondary institutions for grants to reduce sexual assault, domestic violence, and stalking on campus, to improve official responses to sexual violence.


In response to victims’ claims of discrimination in the handling of reported sexual assaults, the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights issued a “Dear Colleague Letter” in April 2011. This letter reemphasized the purpose of Title IX to ensure that students receive an education free from sexual harassment and sexual violence and recommended that postsecondary schools provide education programs on sexual violence. In 2013, as an amendment to the Clery Act and part of the VAWA reauthorization, President Barrack Obama signed the Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act (SaVE Act) requiring colleges to provide “primary prevention and awareness programs” for new students and employees, as well as ongoing prevention and awareness campaigns, including education on bystander intervention. The SaVE Act also requires that incidents of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking be disclosed in the Clery Act campus crime statistics.

The federal strategy to address campus sexual violence was further strengthened in 2014, when President Obama created the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault with the “mandate to strengthen federal enforcement efforts and provide schools with additional tools to help combat sexual assault on their campus” and to combat the campus culture that supports sexual violence. Initial steps for addressing and acknowledging the extent of sexual violence recommended by the Task Force include voluntary campus climate surveys and involving the entire campus community through bystander intervention training. Last year, Missouri Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill introduced an update to the Clery Act, the Campus Accountability and Safety Act, in Congress.


One purpose of the recommended campus climate surveys is to obtain valid and reliable estimates of the extent of different types of sexual violence among college students. Measuring the extent of sexual violence has been rife with methodological and ideological debate since Koss and colleagues [pdf] published their estimates from the Sexual Experiences Survey in 1987. However, the Task Force’s recommendation is a positive step forward in recognizing the well-known limitation of official sexual violence crime statistics, such as those required by the Clery Act.

Jeanne Clery

via Wikimedia
Jeanne Clery’s murder in 1986 in a Lehigh University dorm led to nationwide reform of campus crime response and reporting.

Researchers and advocates alike agree that official crime statistics grossly understate the actual extent of sexual violence due to reasons ranging from narrow definitions to non-reporting. For example, research consistently has shown that only about 5 percent of rapes are reported to law enforcement, with drug-facilitated or incapacitated sexual assault victims being less likely to report their victimizations than victims of forced sexual assault.

Campus climate surveys provide administrators an opportunity to develop methodologically rigorous measures of sexual violence and its characteristics (e.g., location, help-seeking behavior) from their entire student body. Administrators have many choices to make about the content and administration of these surveys, including using behaviorally-specific sexual assault questions to ask about student experiences with different types of nonconsensual behaviors (e.g., different forms of penetration, sexual touching) and tactics (e.g., force/threat of physical harm, incapacitated by substances either voluntarily or unknowingly, continual verbal pressure, threats to end relationship), stalking, online/offline sexual harassment, and dating and intimate partner violence.

These approaches involve not only integrating both criminal justice and public health perspectives into question development, but also extending the scope of sexual violence beyond those types mandated by the Clery Act or recommended by the Task Force. For example, administrators might consider developing novel questions, which are drawn from behaviors found in the respective school’s student code of conduct, such as penetration or sexual touching without affirmative consent, victimization or perpetration of sexual violence. Campus climate surveys provide an opportunity for campuses to stop relying on official crime statistics to guide prevention policies and strategies and to start using an evidence-based strategy that can better inform the development of sexual violence policies and prevention.

These surveys are a first time opportunity to measure different aspects of the campus culture, which can include students’ attitudes toward and knowledge of campus sexual violence policies and procedures, perceptions of the campus communities’ responses and bystanders’ readiness and behaviors. This data can be used to assess the campus culture and its influences on sexual violence. If campus climate surveys are administered annually, this also is an opportunity to identify trends in student attitudes and experiences as well as to measure the effectiveness of prevention strategies over time.


The White House Task Force described bystander intervention training as “among the most promising prevention strategies.” Such programs aim to change students’ attitudes about acceptance of sexual assault and to “teach both men and women to speak out against rape myths and to intervene if someone is at risk of being assaulted.” Unlike most sexual assault prevention programs, which focus solely on would-be victims and perpetrators, the bystander intervention approach shifts the focus by assuming that everyone in the campus community plays a role in ending sexual violence. Therefore, bystander training programs teach participants how to effectively intervene in all types of sexual violence incidents. Bystander-focused prevention activities aim to change students’ attitudes about sexual violence and to assist in their development of bystander skills.

Bystander prevention efforts on campuses are relatively new strategies, but they hold the promise of changing students’ attitudes and behaviors, and thereby reducing opportunities for sexual violence among college students. There is a growing body of evidence that such programs can change students’ attitudes, including debunking rape myths and challenging tacit acceptance of dating violence. Published evidence from programs such as the Mentors in Violence Prevention Project, InterAct (United Way), Bringing in the Bystander, the Men’s Project, One in Four, Coaching Boys to be Men, Green Dot and Know Your Power has shown the effectiveness of bystander prevention training. Among the most rigorous evaluations of bystander intervention training on violence rates, a five-year study funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that I worked on with Ann Coker of the University of Kentucky and other colleagues last year, found that violent victimization rates were significantly lower among students attending a campus with a Green Dot program, relative to two comparison campuses. Further, perpetration rates of sexual violence were lower among males attending the intervention campus. The evaluations of bystander intervention among college students are in their infancy stage. However, these evaluations show promise for positive results in the efforts to improve campus safety.

Measuring the effects of prevention efforts, particularly in the long term, is a daunting task. Nonetheless, administrators hopefully will not shy away from this task but instead incorporate it into their respective campus climate surveys. As more postsecondary institutions implement bystander intervention training, hopefully administrators will commit to documenting their implementation process, evaluating their effectiveness across a range of outcome measures other than sexual violence (e.g., perceived risk of victimization, sense of community, violence prevention efficacy), and publicly sharing this information with researchers, advocates, service providers and the federal government. This logical next step is an opportunity to identify both the facilitators and barriers to effective bystander intervention among college students, so as to improve upon the evidence-based approaches to date, and to keep the momentum for rigorously evaluating campus prevention efforts on the agendas of both postsecondary institutions of higher education and the federal government.

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The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.