Sexual Assault and Victim Blaming: the College Experience?

BlogHealthMar 3 2014

The year I began college – 2007 – a landmark study was released highlighting that one in five women on college campuses had experienced a rape or attempted rape. So, when I left home to attend school in DC my mom and sister were shouting warnings at me until I closed their car door. At the time, I thought they were being overprotective. By the time I completed my master’s program, however, the number of my friends that had been attacked by their friends or dating partners was more than I could count on both hands. Like 60 percent of sexual assault victims nationwide, most of my friends never reported these crimes. And our experiences are not isolated.

Campus sexual assault has dominated recent headlines, as students across the country are coming together to speak out against a culture of sexual violence many feel is pervading their campuses. That we are pressed to find a campus not struggling with the issue of sexual assault is perhaps one reason that the Obama Administration put together a task force on campus sexual assault in January and Vice President Biden began his listening campaign last week with students, survivors, and advocates to find out what can be done to decrease sexual assault on University campuses as part of a renewed call to action to end rape and sexual assault.

Young women ages 16-24, in particular face the highest rates of teen dating violence and sexual assault. Child and adolescent victims of sexual assault are 2-11 times more likely to be victimized in adulthood than individuals who were not victims during childhood or adolescence. Victims of sexual assault are also at increased risk for PTSD, depression, self-harm, suicide, substance use, sleep disorders, and eating disorders.

A recent study found that nine percent of teens ages 14-21 have committed an act of sexual violence, including coercive sex, forced sexual contact and rape. Young perpetrators were equally likely to be male or female. Alarmingly, over half of these young perpetrators of abuse blame the victim for their own actions.1 This victim-blaming mentality is harmful to survivors. The Chicago Task Force on Violence Against Girls and Young Women created a reporting toolkit, with recommendations for reframing the dialogue around sexual assault. Suggestions include framing the perpetrator of violence using active language. For example, a headline reporting that “Sam was attacked” should instead state that “Chris attacked Sam.” The first headline emphasizes the victim as the subject of the act while the perpetrator is indirectly alluded to as an unnamed, passive player. The toolkit also notes the importance of removing victim-blaming language entirely from any dialogue or reporting. For example, asking or answering an assault victim questions such as: “what were you wearing?; why were you  walking alone?” places the fault of the crime on the victim.

My daughter is two years old. I hope to be able to drop her off at her college someday without having to worry that she has a twenty percent chance of experiencing sexual assault. I am hopeful that policymakers and other groups will continue to support programming and education to youth at risk of perpetrating violence and support for victims.

Sexual assault and dating violence awareness and prevention programs are working to empower youth to prevent and reduce sexual assault. The popular Break The Cycle and Love is Respect campaigns are working to prevent dating violence and foster healthy relationships by teaching  young people to treat dating partners with respect. Break The Cycle’s Teen Power and Control Wheel shows that teen dating violence can be mental, physical, and sexual, and the campaign reinforces that message that violence of any type is not acceptable. Health and social service providers can also help reduce sexual assault by screening for intimate partner violence. Until recently, screening for relationship abuse was not part of regular well visits. A new toolkit for healthcare providers will help medical professionals incorporate this type of screening into routine visits and hopefully will soon be adapted to screen for perpetration of abuse (in addition to victimization).

[1] Ybarra, M. L., Mitchell, Kimberly, J. (2013). Prevalence rates of male and female sexual violence perpetrators in a national sample of adolescents. JAMA Pediatrics, 167(12), 1125-1134.