Sexual assault on college campuses

Sexual assault on college campuses is a common problem that often goes unreported. It includes any unwanted sexual activity, from unwanted touching to rape. Alcohol and drugs often play a role in sexual assault on campuses. If you have been sexually assaulted, it is not your fault. You are not alone, and you can get help.

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How common is sexual assault on college campuses?

Sexual assault is common among female students of all ages, races, and ethnicities. One in five women in college experiences sexual assault.1

Studies show that students are at the highest risk of sexual assault in the first few months of their first and second semesters in college.2

Women who identify as lesbian, bisexual, or gay are more likely to experience sexual assault on college campuses than heterosexual women.1

Why is sexual assault on college campuses so common?

Sexual assault happens everywhere and to women and men of all ages. But it is common on college campuses, and, among adults, sexual assault happens most often to traditionally college-age women (18–24). Colleges that get federal funding are required to publicly report sexual assault.

  • Alcohol and drugs. Campus sexual assault often involves alcohol and drugs. One study found that 15% of young women experienced incapacitated rape during their first year of college.3 Being incapacitated means these young women were raped when they could not give consent because they did not know what was happening. Many young adults use alcohol or drugs for the first time during college. Using drugs or drinking too much alcohol can make you unaware of what is happening around you and to you.
  • Reporting sexual assault. Only one in five college-age women who are sexually assaulted report the attack to the police.4 Talking about sexual assault to strangers can be difficult, but reporting sexual assault can prevent attackers from hurting others and help you feel more in control. Reporting also helps school officials make arrangements so you do not have to have contact with someone who assaulted you.
  • Peer pressure. College-age women often live with people their own age on campus, rather than parents or other older adults. Students may feel peer pressure to participate in social activities like drinking, using drugs, going to parities, or engaging in sexual activities that make them uncomfortable. Being forced into unwanted sexual activity for social acceptance is a type of sexual coercion.

What steps can I take to be safer on a college campus?

You cannot prevent sexual assault because violent or abusive behavior is always the responsibility of the person who is violent or abusive. However, you can take steps to be safer around others and help keep others safe from potential perpetrators:5,6,7

  • Get to know someone well before spending time alone with him or her. College is often about meeting new people and making new friends. But do not rely only on someone you just met to keep you safe.
  • Go to parties or hangouts with friends. Arrive together, check in with each other, and leave together. Talk about your plans for the evening so that everyone knows what to expect.
  • Meet first dates or new people in a public place.
  • Listen to your instincts or “gut feelings.” Most women who are sexually assaulted know the person who assaults them. If you find yourself alone with someone you don’t trust, leave. If you feel uncomfortable in any situation for any reason, leave. You are the only person who gets to say whether you feel safe.
  • Be aware of your alcohol or drug intake. Research shows that about half of sexual assault victims had been drinking when the attack happened.8 Drinking alcohol does not make the attack your fault, but using alcohol and drugs can lead to being unaware of what is happening around you or to you.
  • Keep control of your own drink, because someone could put drugs or alcohol in it without you knowing.
  • Get help right away if you feel drunk and haven’t drunk any alcohol or if the effects of alcohol feel stronger than usual. This can happen if someone put a date rape drug into your drink. Date rape drugs have no smell or taste and can cause you to pass out and not remember what happened.
  • Be aware of your surroundings. Especially if walking alone, avoid talking on your phone or listening to music with headphones. Know where you are as you move around the campus. At night, stay in lighted areas, or ask a friend or campus security to go with you.
  • Know your resources. You need to know where you can get help if you need it. Know where the campus sexual assault center, the campus police, and the campus health center are. Find the campus emergency phones and put the campus security number into your cellphone.
  • Have a plan to get home. If you are going to use a ride sharing app, make sure your phone is charged. Consider keeping a credit card or cash as a backup for a taxi.

Find other tips for safety on campus at the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network.

What should I do if I am sexually assaulted while in college?

If you are sexually assaulted, it is not your fault, regardless of the circumstances. If you are in immediate danger, call 911. If you are in a safe place, you can call 911 to report the sexual assault to the police as soon as possible.

If the sexual assault happened on campus or the person who harmed you was a student, you can also report it to school authorities for additional support. The school is required to help you continue your education. There are options to help you feel safe on campus, such as requesting to change class schedules, changing dorms, or obtaining a no-contact order. Schools that receive federal funding may provide other forms of support, such as counseling or tutoring, if you need it because of a sexual assault on campus.

What are some effects of sexual assault on campus?

Women who are sexually assaulted may face health problems that include depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. But they may also have trouble reporting the assault or getting help they are entitled to from the school. Women may also see the person who harmed them regularly in classes, dorms, or other places on campus, which can make it harder to recover from the assault.

One study found that among rape survivors who stayed on campus, nearly one in three had academic problems and more than one in five considered leaving school.1

If you’ve been sexually assaulted, know that you are not alone. Learn what you can do if you’ve been sexually assaulted. This includes going to school authorities and getting help. Your school is required to help you if you’ve been assaulted on campus.

How can I be safer when studying abroad?

The risk of rape may be up to five times higher during a semester studying abroad than on a college campus in the United States.9

When studying abroad, you can follow the same tips that can help you be safer at your home campus. These include being aware of your surroundings, always going out and staying with a group, either not drinking or limiting your drinking to a level at which you still feel in control, and watching your drink at all times.

Before you go, check out information about the country in which you will be living on the U.S. Department of State website Students Abroad. You can enroll in a program called the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program to get safety information and connect with the U.S. embassy in the country where you will be studying.

Sexual Assault Support and Help for Americans Abroad offers pre-travel information, tips for staying safe, and an international crisis line.

Did we answer your question about sexual assault on campus?

For more information about sexual assault on campus, call the OWH Helpline at 1-800-994-9662 or check out these resources from the following organizations:


  1. Krebs, C., Lindquist, C., Berzofsky, M., Shook-Sa, B., Peterson, K. (2016). Campus Climate Survey Validation Study Final Technical Report. Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Department of Justice. 
  2. Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network. (2016). Campus Sexual Violence Statistics.
  3. Carey, K.B., Durney, S.E., Shepardson, R.L., Carey, M.P. (2015). Precollege Predictors of Incapacitated Rape Among Female Students in Their First Year of College. Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs; 76, 829-837.  
  4. U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics. (2014). Rape and Sexual Victimization Among College-Aged Females, 1995-2013.
  5. RAINN. (2016). Safety & Prevention.
  6. University of Michigan Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center. (2016). Drugs & Sexual Assault.
  7. RAINN. (2016). Staying Safe on Campus.
  8. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (n.d.). Alcohol and Sexual Assault.
  9. Kimble, M., Flack, W.F., Jr., Burbridge, E. (2013). Study abroad increases risk of sexual assault in female undergraduates: A preliminary report. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy; 5: 426-430.