What Is Sexual Assault? 


What Is Sexual Assault? 

The term “sexual violence” encompasses sexual abuse, sexual assault, and rape. In Massachusetts, sexual assault is defined as any crime in which the offender subjects the victim to sexual touching that is unwanted and offensive.  Rape is defined as Sexual intercourse or unnatural sexual intercourse with a person, by force and against his will, or by the threat of bodily injury.  Sexual intercourse and unnatural intercourse include, by definition, the penetration of any bodily orifice by any object. 

On average, sexual assault occurs every 73 seconds in America. 

Young adults ages 18-34 are at the highest risk and represent 54% of sexual assault cases. One out of every six women falls victim to completed or attempted sexual assault within their lifetime. Furthermore, women ages 18-24 not attending college face a 20% higher risk of falling victim to sexual assault. While sexual violence remains a concern, the number of cases has fallen 63% since 1993. 

Sexual Assault Prevention Issues 

Colleges and universities have a legal duty and moral obligation to take all reasonable and necessary steps to prevent sexual assault on campus including but not limited to providing adequate security, responding to complaints quickly and effectively, punishing wrongdoers sufficiently to deter others, and providing prevention education.  When responding to complaints or suspected assault, it is widely accepted that best practices require a trauma-based response and education that provides for the victim’s emotional and psychological well-being. 


According to the Department of Justice, 80% of sexual violence cases go unreported. Women tend to avoid filing reports out of fear or embarrassment, coupled with the notion that police cannot do anything to help. 

The top reasons that women ages 18-24 do not report sexual violence include the following: 

  • Believing it was a personal matter 
  • Fear of reprisal 
  • Feeling it was not important enough to report 
  • Not wanting to incriminate the perpetrator 
  • Believing police could not do anything to help 
  • Reported to individuals other than the police 

Research and statistics tend to focus on female victims. However, male victims often suffer in silence. Similar to female victims, males do not report assault due to: 

  • Shame 
  • Humiliation 
  • Self-blame 

Other factors may include cultural stigmas, such as male invulnerability. Men may even feel that others would not believe their experience. Additionally, 80% of perpetrators know their victims personally, which may also deter men from coming forward. 

Victim Perpetrator Relationship 

Strangers commit only 19% of sexual violence. Thirty-nine percent of sexual violence transpires between acquaintances, while current or former intimate partners represent 33% of cases. Up to 6% of sexual violence involves more than one known perpetrator at a time. Rape statistics indicate that 2.5% of cases include relatives. 

Sexual assault statistics reveal that victims who know their perpetrator struggle in their personal relationships. In fact, 84% of these victims struggle emotionally in future relationships, including non-intimate relationships. These relationships may include other forms of abuse, and victims often do not report the crime because they feel the justice system cannot protect them from future attacks. 

Sexual violence can occur anywhere at any time. However, 55% of assaults occur near victims’ homes. Nearly 50% of survivors reported performing activities at home or sleeping when the attack occurred. Nearly 30% report traveling to or from a common destination, including work and school. 

School Policies and Procedures 

While laws exist to prevent instances of sexual violence, colleges and universities struggle to meet the needs of students who fall victim to predators. In fact, the American Association of Women 2016 analysis of the Clery Act indicates that 89% of 11,000 colleges in the study did not disclose rape statistics. 

By law, postsecondary institutions must file annual reports that provide statistics for sexually-based crimes. However, reports do not indicate how schools resolve these matters. Reports also reveal that cases do not always protect the victim or properly punish the perpetrator. 

Attempts to improve safety include a 30-day turnaround time from when the victim reports the assault. However, stakeholders highlight the lack of school efforts nationwide and the low amount of reported cases that actually lead to disciplinary action. 

Student Safety and Reducing Sexual Assault Risk 

What Students Can Do 

Sexual violence can happen to anyone regardless of gender or age. Victims are not responsible for the assault. In fact, predators seek power and control over others, which fuels their actions. 

While victims are never responsible for the assault, individuals can take precautionary measures to reduce their risk of attack. 


  • Provide information: Students should inform friends and family about their plans, which may include a taxi ride, parties, a late study session, or a date. Important information to provide includes dates and times, names, phone numbers, addresses, and license plate numbers. 
  • Share your location: Most smartphones offer the option to share your location with other people for a set amount of time or indefinitely. If individuals end up in a compromising situation, friends or family can provide local authorities with their location. 
  • Watch your drink: Predators often slip drugs into their victims’ drinks. Students can reduce the risk of this happening by watching who pours their drink, keeping their drink close, and only accepting sealed drinks. 
  • Know your personal limits: Students must identify their sexual boundaries, which can help establish clear communication with partners and reduce compromising situations. No matter the circumstances, students always maintain the right to say no or change their minds. 
  • Have a backup plan: Having a backup plan can increase students’ safety. A portable phone charger, emergency cash, jumper cables, and pepper spray can all come in handy. 
  • Avoid traveling alone: Students should consider walking to and from class with a buddy, especially at night. Commuters often travel alone. However, carpooling with other students can increase safety and reduce gas expenses. Universities often provide campus police escorts to ensure students’ safety. Using the buddy system at parties and social gatherings is also a good precaution. 
  • Explore campus resources: Students can often request campus police escorts. Schools may also provide shuttle buses, emergency phones, and self-defense workshops. Students should also locate campus police and health centers. 
  • Use social media with caution: Students often use social media to share their experiences with loved ones. Instead of immediately posting pictures, students should wait until they leave an event to prevent predators from following them. Social media privacy settings can also reduce the risk of sexual assault. 
  • Stay secure in dorms and apartments: While dorms and apartments contain fewer entry points than houses, students need to make sure they lock their doors, especially at night. Dorms and apartment complexes also keep extra keys. Students may want to purchase inside door jammers, which prevent even unlocked doors from opening. 
  • Utilize multiple routes and well-lit areas: Campuses offer multiple routes to get to the same destination. Individuals who switch routes keep predators from predicting victims’ locations at specific times. While dark shortcuts reduce travel time, students should also stay in well-lit areas at night. 


Terms referring to sexual violence in relationships include intimate partner rape, intimate partner sexual violence, domestic violence, or marital rape. Sexual violence in relationships often transpires alongside emotional or physical abuse. Understanding common warning signs can help victims identify unhealthy behavior and seek help. 

For instance, aggressors often attempt to create distance between their partner and their partner’s family. Other abusive partner behaviors include extreme jealousy, insults, destroying property, and preventing a partner from going to work or school. Aggressors may also threaten to harm their partner and take their children away. 

Victims of intimate partner sexual violence may find it challenging to press charges for multiple reasons. Victims may feel concerned about the well-being of their children if they come forward. Furthermore, partners financially dependent on the abuser may feel trapped. Victims should not feel responsible for the predator’s actions. 

Several organizations exist to help survivors, including the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. 


If you’re unsure how to get away from an abusive partner, contact a support hotline for assistance. Loveisrespect and the National Domestic Abuse Hotline both provide 24/7 phone assistance. 


Self-blame is extremely common in abusive relationships. It can be easy to feel trapped in your situation. However, your partner’s abusive actions are absolutely not your fault or a result of weakness on your part. Keep this in mind when you seek help. 


Know where you can go in case you need to get away from an abusive partner. This might include a campus counseling center, a trusted friend’s dorm room, a survivors’ shelter, or a residence hall staff office. 


It can be emotionally painful to save threatening messages that your partner sends. However, voice messages, emails, IMs, and other hostile communications can be immensely useful in demonstrating a history of abuse when you speak with counselors or authorities. 


Virtually all college campuses have on-site counselors who are trained to help with domestic violence and other forms of sexual assault. If you can’t find a way to contact a campus counselor directly, ask a residence advisor, professor, or academic advisor to help you explore these resources. 


If you are being threatened with assault, find a safe place, and call the police immediately. 

What Colleges and Universities Can Do 

Colleges and universities continue to search for the best ways to combat sexual violence on campus. Some schools hire security guards to patrol campus property and provide transportation services to eliminate students traveling alone. Colleges also offer educational programs that explain sexual violence and how to reduce risk exposure. 

Green Dot program teaches people how to become active bystanders. Students may also want to consider the Enhanced Assess, Acknowledge, Act program, which relies on social psychology theory and provides techniques for handling a situation without bystanders present. 

The federal government also addresses sexual violence in post-secondary institutions. The Clery Act demands that schools provide crime statistics and safety policies to the public. Title IX addresses equal treatment for sexual harassment, gender-based discrimination, and sexual violence. While all efforts to reduce sexual violence have an impact, schools must understand the need for additional measures to reduce risk. 

What Parents Can Do 

Parents often experience anxiety when sending their children off to college, including the fear of sexual assailants. However, nearly half of sexual violence cases affect victims under 18 years old. Parents can help their children reduce exposure to sexual violence through age-appropriate education, including defining inappropriate touching or using proper terms to identify body parts. 

Before students leave for college, parents should review unsafe situations, methods for reducing risk, and how to effectively communicate whereabouts with friends and family. Parents and incoming college students should also ask schools about their policies, including questions about amnesty clauses for non-violent violations, Title IX training, resources, and student training. 

Exploring online resources can also help parents educate their children. For instance, End Rape on Campus (EROC) provides methods for reducing risk and direct support for survivors. EROC also provides articles and videos to assist parents in supporting their children. 

After an Assault 

Sexual violence can leave lasting effects on victims, including depression, suicidal thoughts, and drug use. Ninety-four percent of women experience PTSD immediately after rape, and 30% continue to experience PTSD nine months after being assaulted. Victims can access multiple online resources for support. 

After an Assault: Immediate Steps 

Get to a safe place: Victims of sexual violence often experience fear and disorientation after sexual violence. However, victims need to immediately leave the location where the attack occurred and find a safe place. 

Document what happened: Predators often know their victims. Therefore, survivors should compile proof of communication if applicable. While difficult to consider, victims should not change their clothing or shower because authorities can use kits to confirm the predator’s DNA. 

Reach out for help and support: Victims who go straight to the hospital can access help from local authorities to file a report. However, victims can also contact the National Sexual Assault Hotline, where a trained representative can provide assistance and direction. Students who feel uncomfortable calling the police can use their smartphone to report assault through apps, such as JDoe and Callisto. 

Seek medical attention: Receiving medical attention provides multiple benefits to victims. For instance, health practitioners can collect samples to confirm the identity of predators. In fact, many facilities only allow 72-96 hours for collecting forensic evidence. Healthcare facilities also offer to screen for STIs or medicine that can prevent HIV. Medical practitioners can also help drugged victims. 

Students who experience sexual violence outside of rape should still seek medical assistance. Responses to sexual violence include suicide and severe anxiety. 

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