Colleges and universities strive to be safe havens for students. Yet, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, one in five women and one in 16 men are sexually assaulted while in college. These incidents can have a lasting impact on students’ physical and mental well-being. And as recent literature review identified, these students are also more likely to report lower grades, problems with learning, and dropping out.
To support colleges and universities in their efforts to address sexual assault on campus, Vector Solutions has aggregated and anonymized hundreds of thousands of responses from students across the country. The data provides insight that can help inform sexual assault education and prevention efforts at colleges and universities. The findings in these data reveal students’ perceptions and feelings relating to sexual activity and substance abuse and the impact of sexual assault on LGBTQIA+ students. They also highlight the stigma many survivors experience and provide insight into why students who experience harm choose not to report it.
The data was collected between June 2021 and May 2022 and is based on student responses to pre-course and post-course surveys of students who took Vector Solutions’ online course Sexual Assault Prevention for Undergraduates. More than 650,000 responses were received. Here are some of the highlights.
The data reinforce findings from other national and institution-specific surveys -- most students do not experience sexual assault prior to or while on campus. However, some students, especially those who identify as female, report they have had a personal experience with sexual assault, relationship violence, or stalking before they arrived on campus.
Understanding the extent of students’ histories with sexual assault, relationship violence, and stalking can help colleges and universities as they work to identify the best ways to support those students and develop awareness and prevention strategies.
Students’ responses to the Vector survey reveal the extent of the stigma that exists around sexual assault. Despite movements like #MeToo and other advocacy and awareness efforts, nearly 37% of students believe they could be blamed for being sexually assaulted. This stigma can play a role in their decision to report these incidents. The data reveals 23 percent of students didn’t tell anyone about unwanted sexual contact because they feared they would be blamed. The data shows that although the majority of students do not think it’s okay to blame someone who has been sexually assaulted, they have less confidence that their peers feel the same way. This disconnect between students’ personal beliefs and their misperceptions of what they think can influence students’ decisions to not report incidents.
There are other reasons too for not reporting. Of the students who said they experienced unwanted sexual contact:
If students feel comfortable telling someone about their experience, clearly understand what resources are available to them, and have confidence in the institutional systems and processes for victims on their campus, they are much more likely to report their experience to campus officials. Institutions that wish to increase reporting rates should focus on these areas.
Students’ attitudes and behaviors when it comes to sexual encounters can be impacted by the normalized belief that alcohol consumption and sexual activity go hand-in-hand. However, according to the National Institutes of Health, alcohol use can also be a major contributing factor to sexual assault. NIH reports about half of sexual assaults on college campuses involve a situation in which the perpetrator, the victim, or both were consuming alcohol. And, although Vector’s data reveals, promisingly, that most students (93%) report they would not engage in sexual activity with someone who is incapacitated by alcohol or drugs, only 51% believe other students at their school would behave the same way. Campus prevention efforts that include education about both sexual assault and substance use could reduce the instances of sexual assault in situations where substance use plays a role.
Students who identify as LGBTQIA+ report experiencing unwanted sexual contact at nearly double the rate of the whole student population.
Identifying campus-specific factors that may make LGBTQIA+ students more vulnerable to experiencing sexual and gender-based violence at higher rates and developing resources that address the specific needs of these students may help improve prevention efforts and increase reporting.
Colleges and universities may also be able to support sexual assault awareness and prevention by working to counter certain misperceptions among students. For example, Vector’s data reveals that although 91% of students reported they would act if they witnessed someone trying to take advantage of another sexually, only 64% reported they believe the same would be true of most students at their school. Students are less likely to step in if they don’t think others would support them. Addressing this misperception of others’ behavior can help to encourage peer intervention.
Education is a key part of prevention. Providing students with training about sexual assault prevention can help prepare all students to help identify, intervene, and seek support for themselves or a friend when needed. Online training such as that offered by Vector Solutions is a convenient and engaging way to provide this support to students and has had good results. Student responses to the Vector survey reveal that after taking Vector’s Sexual Assault Prevention course, there was a relative increase of:
Having the right data can help colleges and universities understand and strategically respond to challenges and concerns impacting students, including sexual and gender-based violence. When higher education leaders and practitioners have more information about students’ experiences, behaviors, and perceptions of sexual and gender-based violence, it can help inform the development of campus prevention programs and further goals of providing safe, supportive campus communities for all students.
About the data: The above Sexual and Gender-Based Violence data was collected between June 2021 and May 2022 and included responses from 651,803 students. Of those, 62% were white, 74.4% were heterosexual or straight, 40.60%were men and 55.50% were women.