Position Paper: Gender-Based and Sexual Violence on College Campuses

Position Paper: Gender-Based and Sexual Violence on College Campuses

As an organization devoted to the creation of a more peaceful world, the Peace and Justice Studies Association (PJSA) views Gender-based and Sexual Violence (GBSV) as a key social justice issue. We therefore implore academic and activist communities to take the issue seriously and to enact policies and procedures designed to support survivors and to hold perpetrators accountable. A new wave of survivor-led organizing across campuses in the United States has heightened awareness to this problems and the urgency to address its root causes. This position is designed to provide campus officials and faculty members with basic information and recommended guidelines to respond to GBSV by implementing effective prevention and intervention policies and programs.

Scope of the Problem

GBSV on college campuses is not a new phenomenon. Research on the problem reveals that rates of sexual harassment, rape, and sexual assault in higher education have not changed over the past three decades. Research suggests that 30% of graduate students surveyed stated that they experienced some form of sexual harassment in the course of their study.[1] This problem is especially acute for graduate students and junior faculty across the academy. Studies suggest that approximately one in five women and one in 16 college men are targets of attempted or completed sexual assault while they are college students.[2] Other sources indicate that college-aged women are four times more likely than any other age group to face sexual assault.[3] Additional research suggests that freshman and sophomores were at greater risk than juniors and seniors.[4] Mohler-Kuo et al. (2004) found that women in sororities were three times as likely to be raped as were non-sorority members[5].Research also indicates that women living in dormitories or residence halls were 1.4 times likely to be raped than women living off campus. Studies have shown that four percent of men perpetrate 90 percent of campus rapes.[6] Athletes and fraternity members are overrepresented in campus accusations of rape, and many have asserted that this is because these organizations often denigrate women and bond around sexually misogynistic and hypermasculine ideologies.[7]

It is possible that the statistics are higher than studies suggest because incidents of GBSV rape and sexual assault on college campuses are under-reported with less than 10 percent of the students choosing to report the crime to campus authorities or law enforcement (Koss et. al 2014).

Victims have identified many barriers to reporting, including fear, stigma, lack of trust that anything will happen, and inadequate university policies.[8] Two-thirds of victims do tell someone about the assault, typically a friend.[9] Following friends, the next most frequent group to which victims confide is faculty. Systematic implementation of campus climate surveys, now federally required of universities and colleges, will yield even more comprehensive and up-to-date data.

Federal Requirements for Campuses

Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 requires campuses to take action to respond to sexual assault and to implement prevention programs. The Clery Act is federal statute that requires all colleges and universities who receive federal funding to share information about crime on campus and their efforts to improve campus safety.

In April 2013, the Department of Education issued guidelines for campuses regarding adherence to the Title IX requirements. This directive reiterated that campuses must:

  • Define sexual discrimination, including sexual violence, and publish a policy stating that the college or university does not discriminate on the basis of sex;
  • Create and distribute procedures for students to file complaints about sexual harassment, discrimination, or violence;
  • Appoint a Title IX Coordinator to oversee these activities and review complaints.[10]
  • In 2013, Department of Education issued guidance to campuses on retaliation, noting that federal civil rights laws, including Title IX, prohibit colleges and universities from retaliating against students who file complaints about possible civil rights problems on campus, including sexual assault.

Guidelines issued by the White House in 2014 in its “Not Alone” report elaborated on the legal requirements for handling sexual assault cases as well as best practices for initiating or expanding prevention programs. The report noted that Title IX Coordinator must initiate the investigation of sexual assault complaints and develop comprehensive policies that both hold perpetrators accountable and protect victim’s rights. Campuses must also provide interim resources to victims while investigations are under way. These can be on campus or at local rape service centers. Further, the report called on campuses to provide trauma-informed training for school officials and to conduct a campus climate survey by 2016. The White House Task Force provided a sample survey for campuses to use or adapt.  Finally, the White House directed all campuses to engage in prevention programs that raise awareness, engage men as allies, and promote positive bystander intervention.

In the past three years, students have filed formal com­plaints against their universities and colleges, accusing them of violating one or both requirements. Student protest and subsequent investigations by the Office of Civil Rights in the Department of Education have exposed the failure of college administrators to offer services to survivors and an even greater failure to hold perpetrators accountable. The Office of Civil Rights is now investigating 200 violations of Title IX and the Cleary Act at 161 institutions colleges.[11]

Additionally, lawmakers, both at the national and state level, have introduced new legislation on affirmative consent, support for survivors, and the establishment of clear guidelines for reporting, investigating, and adjudicating GBSV on college campuses.

Concerns About Campus Responses

Student activism heightened public awareness to GBSV on college campuses and along with legal action and federal investigations have forced college administrators to revisit their policies and programs. Still, many campuses continue to use the guidelines superficially to demonstrate compliance, without addressing the root-causes of the problem..[12] Research has shown that campuses often lack clear policies, fail to create appropriate services for survivors, and provide scanty, if any, specific curricula or programming related to understanding, responding to, healing from, or preventing abuse.[13] While the topic may come up in some coursework (for instance, social work, criminology, or psychology courses), many students do not take these courses and are thus not typically exposed to the information. Ironically, faculty with scholarly expertise on GBSV have been excluded from campus efforts to address the problem. This is especially true for faculty who expressed support for student activism on the issue.

Many survivors of GBSV have reported that they felt unsupported. This is especially true for survivors who are Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual or Transgender (LGBT) as well as a range of gender non-conforming students. Sis-gender men and survivors from under-represented racial and ethnic minorities have also indicated that they don’t find existing resources helpful. Many have also suffered retaliation from students and administrators when they have reported sexual assault.  Survivors report being asked questions that blame them for the incidents, being forced to remain in classes with assailants, being discouraged from pursuing campus actions or police investigations, and more. Faculty who have supported survivors have sometimes faced retaliation, including changes in job assignment, denial of tenure, and even termination.

Too often, campuses, like the U.S. in a broader sense, do not challenge rape culture. According to Faculty Against Rape (FAR), in a rape culture, GBSV is “common and normalized by societal attitudes and practices.” [14] GBSV is tacitly condoned when societies or institutions deny the frequency with which it occurs, deny the harm it creates, and blame victims. Rape culture reflects systemic inequalities and differences in power and privilege, including male and heteronormative privilege and white and class privilege.  [15]

Best Practices for Campus Response and Prevention

Faculty members have an important role to play in transforming their college’s response to GBSV. They can offer scholarly expertise in conducting research on relevant topic as well as exploring creative ways to integrate it into the curriculum. Faculty can also get involved in policy reform and support student activism on the issue.

FAR has compiled a detailed description of best practices in terms of supporting survivors for faculty and for campus officials. Most important for faculty is to listen and not judge survivors when they disclose a sexual assault and to express empathy, as many survivors feel scared and alone. Faculty should begin from a place of believing the survivor and avoid asking probing questions that may appear as though they do not accept the story as truthful. Faculty on all campuses should be knowledgeable about campus resources so that appropriate referrals can be made, and should follow up with the survivor to see how they were treated and if they have other unmet needs. FAR also recommends a disclosure statement on sexual assault be included in all syllabi. Such a statement tells students where to report sexual assault and where they can receive services. FAR provides a sample on their website. Faculty are encouraged to host events, invite guest speakers, get involved in campus task forces, and to publish articles or op-eds in student newspapers or other relevant sources.

Campuses must establish and enforce clear definitions of consent. California provides a model of “affirmative consent,” or “yes means yes” consent. This legislation establishes that consent must be ongoing and that lack of protest or resistance do not entail consent. Students must also be educated regarding what is considered to be sexual violence by state and federal law. FAR recommends that this occur through mandatory orientations and ongoing trainings. Further, campus officials must send a clear message that sexual violence of any kind will not be tolerated, and must enact strong sanctions when someone is found, through an appropriate judicial process, to have perpetrated it. Currently, only one-third of students found to be responsible for sexual assault are expelled, a rate lower than that of expulsions for cheating.[16]

Numerous studies have confirmed that the most effective prevention programs are ongoing and that they inform bystanders how they can intervene positively to prevent sexual assault.[17] The White House has provided recommendations for campus prevention programs, which are available at https://www.notalone.gov/assets/evidence-based-strategies-for-the-prevention-of-sv-perpetration.pdf

Broad alliances between student activists, faculty, parents, alumni and legislative bodies are needed in order to keep GBSV on the public agenda and to ensure a comprehensive solution to this deep-rooted problem. PJSA and FAR call on our peacemakers, peacebuilders, and peace educators to make this issue a priority. By working to address GBSV on our college campuses we contribute to making the world a better, more just place.



[1] Rosenthal, M., Smidt, E., & Freyd, J. (2016). Still second class: Sexual harassment of graduate students. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 1-14.

[2] Fisher, B., Cullen, F., & Turner, M. (2000). The sexual victimization of college women. National Institute of Justice. Retrieved July 21, 2016 from https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/182369.pdf

[3] Krebs, C., Lindquist, C., Warner, T., Fisher, B., & Martin, S. (2007). The Campus Sexual Assault Study (CSA). Washington, D.C: National Institute of Justice. Available at https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/221153.pdf

[4] Ibid.

[5] Mohler-Kuo, M., Dowdall, G., Koss, M., & Weschler, H. (2004). Correlates of rape while intoxicated in a national sample of college women. Journal of Studies on Alcohol, 65, 37-45.

[6] Lisak, D., &Miller, P. (2002). Repeat rape and multiple offending among undetected rapists. Violence and Victims, 17(1), 73-84.

[7] See for instance Hayes, R., Abbott, R., & Cook, S. (2016). It’s her fault: Student acceptance of rape myths on two college campuses. Violence Against Women, 1-16.

[8] Lombardi, K. (2010, February 24). A lack of consequences for sexual assault. Center for Public Integrity. Retrieved April 20, 2015 from http://www.publicintegrity.org/2010/02/24/4360/lack-consequences-sexual-…

[9] Fisher, Cullen & Turner, Op cit.

[10] AAUW Issues: Title IX. (n.d.).  Retrieved April 20, 2015from http://www.aauw.org/what-we-do/public-policy/aauw-issues/title-ix/

[11] McGrady, M. (2016, January 25). Under Obama, federal investigations of campus sexual assault cases skyrocket. The College Fix. Retrieved July 12, 2016 from http://www.thecollegefix.com/post/25985/

[12] Daigle, L., Fisher, B., & Cullen, F. (2008). The violent and sexual victimization of vollege women: Is repeat violence a problem? Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 23, 1296-1313.

[13] Fisher, Cullen, & Turner, Op. cit.

[14] See http://www.facultyagainstrape.net/

[15] See http://www.facultyagainstrape.net/

[16] Kingkade, T. (2014, September 29). Fewer than one-third of campus sexual assault cases result in expulsion. Huffington Post. Retrieved July 12, 2016 from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/09/29/campus-sexual-assault_n_5888742…

[17] See for example Smith, P., & Welchans, S. (2000). Peer education: Does focusing on male responsibility change sexual assault attitudes? Violence Against Women, 6(11), 1255-1268.