Understanding the role of campuses in campus sexual assault

Research Topics > Understanding the role of campuses in campus sexual assault

Several years ago, the American Association of Universities (AAU) conducted a multi-campus survey of student experiences of sexual assault and found that the rate of sexual assault among undergraduate women ranged from 13% to 30% on the 27 campuses included in the study. Other multi-campus studies have found similarly wide ranges across campuses, with some colleges having rather low rates and others much higher. Differences of a few percentage points could be explained by random variation and margins of error, but a nearly 20-point difference seems unlikely to be due to chance alone.

As a researcher, I have spent the last few years studying campus sexual assault, and one of the things I noticed is that we tend to talk about campus sexual assault as a single phenomenon as if it is the same on every campus. A glance at any college guidebook, however, reveals rich variation in campus structures and cultures, which suggests that while campuses share some things, there are also meaningful differences. Yet, most of the research on campus sexual assault fails to account for the ways that campus environments might contribute to the social problem of high rates of sexual assault among college students. It became clear to me that the field has been neglecting the role of social environments in understanding campus sexual assault and, because of that, failing to intervene at the level of the institution. Since then, I have been attempting to address this gap by asking the question, “Why do some campuses have higher rates of sexual assault among students than other institutions?”

We found that the strongest campus-level predictors of sexual assault rates included higher campus rates of binge drinking, higher proportions of sexual minority students, younger students, and higher proportions of students reporting experiences of discrimination.

To begin answering this question, I searched the research to identify any studies that did account, in some way, for campus characteristics. I published a paper with a doctoral student reviewing and summarizing this research in order to draw attention to the need for more focus on campuses. In developing that paper, we found research that suggested a range of campus-level factors that shape prevalence and response, including campus rates of binge drinking, campus inclusion related to diversity, and even things like whether the university is public or private and whether the campus and wider community are characterized by gender equity. However, very few studies looked at data from enough campuses to be able to make conclusions about what campus-level factors matter.

I found an existing dataset that allowed us to explore campus-level factors that might be associated with higher and lower rates of sexual assault prevalence among students. The dataset includes 474 campuses and over 300,000 students. I led a research team in using this data to identify factors linked with increased rates of sexual violence among students. We found that the strongest campus-level predictors of sexual assault rates included higher campus rates of binge drinking, higher proportions of sexual minority students, younger students, and higher proportions of students reporting experiences of discrimination.

We are currently doing further analysis to look at the interplay between individual-level risk factors and campus-level risk factors. While we are still finalizing and writing up those findings, we are learning that even when you take into account students’ individual risk and protective factors (those things that research has repeatedly linked to an increased risk of sexual violence), campus-level factors uniquely contribute to a student’s individual risk. All of this is powerful evidence that campus contexts matter.

The recognition of the importance of campus context should come as no surprise to social workers. When I think back to my training as a social worker, we talked often in classes and field about the importance of understanding “person in environment.” Understanding that broader social environments shape individual behavior and experience is one of the cornerstones of our profession. It is this understanding of the importance of context that directs social workers to consider interventions at multiple levels. A clinical intervention alone is not going to change the social conditions that have given rise to the presenting problem, though it may help alleviate distress or increase capacity for coping. Coupled with an intervention to change the social environment, however, a social worker might just be able to both increase an individual’s capacity to cope and alter the conditions that create stress or hardship.

In doing this research, my hope is that our findings will encourage campuses to shift their thinking to incorporate how the campus and its institutional culture might contribute to or protect students from the risk of sexual assault. Our findings suggest the need for prevention strategies that target the campus as an institutional culture instead of just targeting individual students (though campuses must continue to improve individual-focused prevention too). For example, establishing campus alcohol policies that reduce the culture of binge drinking on a campus might be a means of sexual assault prevention when you understand that the rate of binge drinking at a campus poses a unique risk to students beyond their own engagement in drinking. Creating inclusive campus climates that honor difference and diversity is sexual violence prevention when the research suggests that the amount of discrimination on a campus is associated with the rate of sexual assault.

To truly tackle the problem of sexual violence on campuses, we need more information about what it is about campuses, or about certain campuses, that creates risk for students so that we can design interventions that effectively alter the campus (and wider social) conditions that give rise to sexual violence.

Moylan, C. A. & Javorka, M. (In Press). Widening the lens: An ecological review of campus sexual assault. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse. doi: 10/1177/1524838018756121
Moylan, C. A., Javorka, M., Bybee, D., Stotzer, B., & Carlson, M. (In Press). Campus-level variation in the prevalence of student experiences of domestic and sexual violence. Journal of the Society for Social Work and Research.
Moylan, C. A. (2018). Widening the lens: Focusing on the campus in campus sexual assault. Invited speaker for Let’s End Campus Sexual Assault Statewide Summit, Kalamazoo, MI.