Here’s Your Talking-Points Memo on Campus Sexual Assault

Have you ever been challenged while advocating against campus sexual assault? We put together responses to some common questions people ask about it so that next time you’re challenged, you’re ready!

Q: What is sexual assault?

Sexual assault, as defined by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), is “any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient.” Sexual activities that fall under this definition include forced sexual intercourse, forcible sodomy, child molestation, incest, fondling, and attempted rape.

Q: What are the relevant statistics?

A 2007 campus sexual assault study by the U.S. Department of Justice found that around 1 in 5 women are targets of attempted or completed sexual assault while they are college students, compared to about 1 in 16 college men. The Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network reports that college-aged women are four times more likely than any other age group to face sexual assault.

Each year schools disclose the number of sexual assaults reported on campus in their annual security reports, and to the U.S. Department of Education. In 2013, the requirements for schools were updated as part of the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act. Colleges and universities will now also disclose the annual number of domestic violence, dating violence, and stalking incidents reported.

Q: Who are the perpetrators of sexual assault?

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According to a 2000 report funded by the National Institute of Justice, the vast majority of campus sexual assaults are committed by an acquaintance of the victim — in 90 percent of the reported cases, the victim knew her or his attacker.

Q: How often is rape reported?

Less than 5 percent of rapes and attempted rapes of college students are reported to campus authorities or law enforcement. Investigative reporting by the Center for Public Integrity reveals many barriers to reporting sexual assault, including inadequate university sexual assault policies. As a result, the extent of the problem remains hidden on campuses nationwide. The small number of cases reported on a campus likely does not mean that sexual assault is not occurring, but rather that there are barriers to reporting.

But sample studies can shed some light on the numbers. One sample study of college men found that about 6 percent engaged in sexual activity that met the criteria for rape or attempted rape. That number sounds deceptively low, but two-thirds of those rapists were repeat offenders — the average perpetrator committed not one but six assaults.

Q: What role does alcohol play in campus sexual assault?

Alcohol is the most widely used date-rape drug; 89 percent of assaults occur when the survivor is incapacitated due to alcohol. Sexual assault is never the fault of survivors, regardless of whether they were using drugs or alcohol (voluntarily or against their will). Use of alcohol or drugs by perpetrators is no excuse for their actions.

Q: What role does federal law play?

Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 prohibits the sexual harassment of college and university students. Sexual assault, an extreme form of sexual harassment, “denies or limits, on the basis of sex, a student’s ability to participate in or receive benefits, services, or opportunities at the institution.” When it affects the survivor’s or other students’ educational opportunities, sexual assault creates what the legal system identifies as a hostile environment. In April 2011, the DOE issued guidance on the responsibilities of colleges and universities under Title IX. The 2011 guidance requires colleges and universities to

  • Define sex discrimination (including sexual violence) and publish a policy stating that the school does not discriminate on the basis of sex
  • Have and distribute procedures for students to file complaints when sexual harassment, discrimination, or violence takes place
  • Appoint a Title IX coordinator to oversee these activities, review complaints, and deal with patterns or systemic problems (even when there are no formal complaints) and distribute the Title IX coordinator’s name to students

Under the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act (the Clery Act) institutions of higher education must also notify students about crime on campuses, publicize their prevention and response policies, publish their crime statistics, and advise victims of their basic rights.

In 2013, Congress reauthorized the Violence Against Women Act and included provisions to improve campus safety. Colleges and universities will now have to report the number of domestic violence, dating violence, and stalking incidents that occur on campus every year in addition to the longstanding requirement to disclose sexual assault incidents, along with other crimes. They will also have to update their annual security reports to include the institution’s programs (available to all students and employees) to prevent dating violence, domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking. In addition, students will now be provided with clear options and support when they report an incident of dating violence, domestic violence, sexual assault, or stalking. These new requirements are in addition to the longstanding obligations under Title IX and the Clery Act.

Q: What do I do if I know someone who is a survivor?

If a friend discloses to you that they have been assaulted, the first thing to do is believe them. Often a victim’s worst fear is that the person they tell will not believe them. Ask them if they need medical help, and if they do, take them to the nearest hospital that has a sexual assault nurse examiner present. If they do not want to go to a hospital, do not insist unless it is a medical emergency. When a person is assaulted, they can feel a loss of control over their body and their life. If you push them to tell you more than they volunteer, to report the assault, or to submit to a medical exam, you can unintentionally perpetuate that loss of control. Know the resources on your campus and help your friend connect with those resources. You can also refer them to RAINN’s hotline or take them to a local rape crisis center. If they just want to talk to someone, listen.

Q: Where can I learn more?

The National Sexual Violence Resource Center offers extensive information on trainings and programming, and it can connect people to both national and state-run resources.


Learn more with the Ending Campus Sexual Assault Tool Kit.