Why Haven’t Sexual-Assault Statistics Improved?

Despite decades of protests and programming, blue lights, and self-defense classes, one in four women still will experience a sexual assault during their college career. And yet the one prevention tool proven to be effective at reducing that number remains a rarity at universities.

college women consoling each other college women consoling each other

Illustration by Gillian Whiting.

Catharsis Production’s popular online module for sexual-assault prevention begins with a phantom voice, who says, in a playful manner, “Hey, I’m John. Let’s talk about violence. And yes, that’s how I introduce myself at parties.” Next, I’m prompted to read a set of policies about harassment and assault, which I scroll past and hit “next.” But John’s quick. He asks if I read through all that, insisting there’s no wrong answer. He acknowledges that reading a policy won’t prevent anything bad from happening, but promises repeatedly that my school really does want to prevent violence. As playful graphics reminiscent of a Trader Joe’s bag dance across the screen, I’m asked to choose whether a series of words refer to sex, violence, or both. Pounding, slamming, screwing, hitting, amorous congressing. Spoiler alert: they all refer to both. Later, the screen asks me to choose “How does a slut get treated?” Option A: with the utmost respect, or Option B: probably not that well.

This session is the first of a three-part series used to combat sexual assault at 40 colleges nationwide. But Catharsis Productions is just one of many vendors selling online modules designed to address sexual assault. For today’s college students, completing programs like this is as ubiquitous a part of the freshmen experience as meeting a roommate, spending $600 on textbooks, and taking trips to Bed, Bath & Beyond. And yet rates of sexual assault on college campuses remain as high as ever.

Laws stop short of requiring schools to choose evidence-based programming, and studies suggest rigorous evaluation of programming is not common. The program with the most compelling evidence, which focuses on female empowerment, is only offered at a handful of schools, where staff often struggle to persuade students to take it. The enormous financial and human investment required for effective programming, coupled with the public’s focus on how colleges adjudicate — rather than prevent assaults — may explain why so little has changed since sexual assault on college campuses became a high-profile issue.

How One Student’s Rape and Murder Incited a Legal Reckoning

In 1986, sexual assault on campus began to earn national attention when Jeanne Clery, a student at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Penn., was raped and murdered in her dorm room. Just a year later, psychologist Mary Koss published the first national study of sexual assault on college campuses, revealing that one in four women become victims during their time on campus. In 1990, the Clery Act was passed in honor of Jeanne, requiring colleges and universities to collect and report crime data as a form of consumer protection law. Since then, blue-light systems (stations throughout campus where students can be connected via phone with campus safety officers) have become a de facto part of campus safety, a visual symbol of protection touted to anxious parents on campus tours. Self-defense courses have proliferated, and “Take Back the Night” rallies have become an annual tradition. Public service announcements warn about the importance of consent, and theater productions, online modules, and campus speakers have made bystander intervention a buzzword. In 2011, amid a series of high-profile cases of sexual assault on college campuses, the assistant secretary of education sent out a “dear colleague” letter aimed at intitutions of higher education, outlining how Title IX requires schools to adjudicate sexual misconduct cases. In 2013, the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act included new provisions that tasked schools with providing primary prevention programming to all new and current students and staff. Most recently, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s revised regulations on sexual misconduct in education expand misconduct to include domestic and dating violence.

And still, “Our prevalence on college campuses nationwide has not changed since the 1980s when Mary Koss did her first study,” says Nina Cummings, the sexual violence prevention program coordinator and victim advocate at Cornell University.

Each year research confirms the continued prevleance of sexual assault on college campuses. In the American Association of Universities’ 2019 campus climate survey, 32% of undergraduate women, 29% of transgender, queer, and nonbinary students, and 8% of men reported having experienced unwanted sexual contact during college. At Columbia University — where a student who graduated in 2015 spent years carrying a mattress on her back in protest of the school’s handling of her sexual assault complaint — a 2017 study found that by senior year 36% of women and 15% of men had experienced assault. Reports of sexual assault nearly doubled from 2015 to 2018 nationally, according to the National Crime Victimization Survey, which experts attribute to increased awareness due to high-profile cases involving Harvey Weinstein and Brett Kavanaugh, and the #MeToo movement as a whole.

“Our prevalence on college campuses nationwide has not changed since the 1980s when Mary Koss did her first study.”

Today, sexual-assault-prevention programming competes for funding with other issues colleges are tasked with addressing — from substance abuse to mental health. The mental-health crisis and campus sexual assault are particularly intertwined because of the profound impact assault can have on survivors. Though the lifetime risk of post-traumatic stress syndrome for North Americans is less than 8%, half of women who experience sexual assault are diagnosed with PTSD, and research shows up to 95% of women suffer PTSD symptoms within two weeks of a sexual assault. The American Psychological Association acknowledges that on college campuses, sexual assault and self injury may go hand in hand. Sexual assault also significantly increases a survivor’s chance of experiencing depression and anxiety, as well as developing substance abuse, eating and sleep disorders, and suicidal thoughts. Preventing sexual assault is a necessary component of mitigating the campus mental-health crisis, and effective, trauma-informed, mental-health services are needed to help the victims of assault heal.

blue light on college campuses

Illustration by Gillian Whiting.

A Short History of Ineffective Programming

Though schools are required to provide primary prevention programming (including definitions of assault, harassment, stalking, and consent) to all students and staff, what that looks like varies from school to school. “Mandates are the floor — not the ceiling,” says Makenzie Schiemann, vice president for the National Behavioral Intervention Team Association and a senior associate consultant for TNG Consulting, which works with schools and workplaces to reduce violence and discrimination. “A school that’s hitting the baseline could put together a terrible powerpoint that just has the baseline information in it and meet the mandate, technically,” she says.

Beyond the low bar of mandates, much of the programming offered to college students either lacks sufficient research to support its effectiveness or has research that suggests problematic outcomes. Online programs, for example, are popular. One 2017 study found that 12% of schools use online programming, including 22% of public four-year colleges. The program offered by Catharsis Productions is used by about 40 schools, and other popular options include Haven by Everfi, a company that works with more than 1,500 schools each year, Agent of Change, which is used at 30 schools, and Not Anymore, which is offered at more than 40 schools. However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns about using any one program as the sole source of prevention programming, stating: There is evidence that some approaches, such as brief, one-session educational programs aimed at raising awareness and knowledge about [sexual violence], do not work to prevent [sexual violence] perpetration. It is best to not limit prevention to one type of activity — a one hour online class or a one-time theater performance is not sufficient.

Many experts regard bystander intervention as one of the most promising types of intervention. Some research has shown some bystander programs increase participants’ intention to engage in bystander behaviors, or reduce violence among high-school students. Other research shows these programs reduce stalking and harassment; however, researchers say the studies themselves are not rigorous enough to conclude that the bystander program caused these reductions. But more problematic is that often on college campuses, bystander intervention programming is delivered in mixed gender groups, which can negate the effects for men, according to Charlene Senn, Ph.D., the Canada Research Chair in Sexual Violence and a professor in the applied social psychology graduate program at the University of Windsor. Senn also points out that most assaults occur in isolated environments away from potential bystanders. But one 2017 study found that only 30% of U.S. schools offer bystander intervention training anyway.

A recent, high-profile, sexual-assault case demonstrates how “popular” sometimes overrides “research-based” when it comes to programming content. In 2016, the national news spent considerable time on the story of Brock Turner, a former Stanford student who was given six months in jail for assaulting an unconscious woman, Chanel Miller, who lay on the ground beside a dumpster behind a frat house. In framing his decision, the judge said that a longer sentence would have too severe of an impact on the perpetrator, who was described as a star athlete with a promising future. A video went viral around the same time, in which obtaining consent for sex was compared to offering someone a cup of tea. As stick figures move playfully across the screen, the video’s narrator says that when you ask someone if they’d like a cup of tea and they say, “I’m not really sure,” you can make them a cup of tea, or not, but “be aware that they might not drink it.” A bright red circle is drawn around an image of a stick figure pouring tea into another stick figure’s mouth before a line slashes through the photo. The video continues: “Just because you made them tea doesn’t mean you’re entitled to watch them drink it.” If they say no, the video states, “Don’t make them drink tea, don’t get annoyed at them for not wanting tea, they just don’t want tea.’” And finally, if at any point the person becomes unconscious, don’t offer them tea. “Unconscious people don’t want tea. Trust me on this. Whether it’s tea or sex, consent is everything,” the British-accented narrator says, while his words appear on the screen in hand drawn bubble letters. “Now, I’m going to make myself a cup of tea.”

emergency call box

Since the 1990 passage of the Clery Act, which requires colleges and universities to collect and report crime data as a form of consumer protection law, blue-light systems have become a de facto part of campus safety, a visual symbol of protection. Photo by Claire Miller.

At Cornell University in Ithaca, the video once served as a reliably popular part of a presentation given by the Title IX Office. Cummings says she raised her objection to the video with the then Title IX coordinator, who responded, “But students love it.” “Well,” Cummings says, “That’s not a bar I’m looking for.” Since there’s no research on the tea video, nobody knows whether it reduces the prevalance of sexual assault or has other effects. “There’s a lot of people on the circuit. There’s a lot of groups, there’s a lot of interactive theater programs, there’s online. I’ve been in this field for a very long time, and there’s very little that works,” Cummings says.

Last fall, the Cornell Title IX office presented students with the mandated definitions of consent and detailed the school’s policies and procedures. The session met compliance needs, but that kind of information can be boring. The students lost interest and grew restless. “There’s a body of literature that in fact is suggesting that doing consent education is not only inadequate and flawed, but could be harmful,” Cummings says. Senn adds, “Rape doesn’t happen because people don’t know what the law is.” Plus, mandates may cause resources to be redirected toward ineffective programming. “We’re spending a lot of money and a lot of resources to just fulfill the mandates,” Cummings says.

For many schools, the benchmark of success is the number of students reached. “We sometimes mischaracterize a successful program as one that is well attended, as opposed to one where people have actually changed their thinking or will change their behaviors based on what they learned,” says Laura Egan, senior director of programs at the Clery Center, a nonprofit which helps schools meet compliance with the Clery Act, a law that requires schools to collect and report crime data. A nationally representative 2017 study of four-year colleges found that only 7% of schools evaluate their programming for effectiveness. And even when evaluations find positive results, the C.D.C. warns against settling for outcomes like changes in attitude or knowledge acquisition (for example, fewer students accepting rape myths in a post-test) when the goal is a reduction in prevelance of sexual violence.

“There’s a body of literature that in fact is suggesting that doing consent education is not only inadequate and flawed, but could be harmful.”

A growing number of researchers have begun to focus on programs that offer tangible results, but implementing them comes with its own set of challenges. In recent years, Dr. Clea Sarnquist, a clinical associate professor of pediatrics at Stanford School of Medicine, and Mike Baiocchi, Ph.D., a healthcare statistician and assistant professor in the Stanford Prevention Research Center, have worked with an organization in Nairobi, Kenya, to implement a sexual-assault-prevention program for women and study its effects. It was based on an empowerment self defense model, which teaches women to recognize and respond to danger. When they read about a similar program in the New England Journal of Medicine, one developed in Canada, by Senn, for first-year university women that led to an almost 50% decrease in assaults, they wanted to bring it to Stanford. But convincing colleagues of its merits came with challenges, as they countered with arguments that programming existed and that this one would require more time and money. “One of the biggest hurdles is people don’t necessarily appreciate or understand the difference between something that’s been empirically verified versus a program that someone put together and hopefully it works,” Baiocchi says. “Which was surprising because we were mostly talking to professors.”

These challenges exist at many schools — especially those with fewer resources than Stanford, the school at the center of the Brock Turner case. Often, institutions stick with programs that have been used before, ones that were designed locally, or those with name recognition, says Amanda Ladika, manager of Blueprints for Healthy Youth Development, an organization based out of the University of Colorado Boulder that maintains a registry of evidence-based prevention programs. The Blueprints team rates each program with one of three designations — promising, model, or model plus — based on factors such as quality of research, specificity of the target population, and whether the programs are ready to use. The research is evaluated based on factors such as the presence of a control group, whether the outcomes are caused by the intervention even when controlling for outside factors, and whether results have been replicated by an independent party. Of the 1,500 programs Blueprints has evaluated since 1996, only 17 programs have earned “model plus” status.

“It’s like a cure for cancer that nobody wants.”

During her junior year at Stanford, Isi Umunna was finishing her undergrad in human biology while simultaneously taking masters courses, working as a research assistant, and participating in the African Student Association. She worked with Sarnquist and Baiocchi and learned about the sexual-violence-resistance course they brought to Stanford, called Flip the Script. Umunna had taken a self-defense course in high school, and she completed Stanford’s required online prevention programming her freshman year, flipping through the module while watching TV. This new course was 12 hours long, held on weekends, and offered for no credit. She signed up for it the first semester it was available. Now, two years later, she deploys the skills she picked up almost every day. “You hope that you’ll never need the things that you’re learning [in a sexual-violence-resistance program],” Umunna says. “I use things like boundary setting and being firm in what I want and what I don’t want every single day.”

In initial studies of Flip the Script, known officially as the Enhanced Assess Acknowledge Act program, or EAAA, women were either randomly assigned to the training or given pamphlets about sexual assault. Six months later, women who took the EAAA training experienced 58% fewer rapes than those who read pamphlets. At the one-year mark, the risk of attempted or completed rape remained reduced by 50% (not to mention decreases in self-blame and other positive outcomes). After two years, some positive effects were sustained.

Such a significant reduction in prevalence had never been seen before. Other programs measured changes in rape-myth acceptance or perceived willingness to intervene as a bystander. Some men’s programs backfired when post-test results showed an increase in acceptance of rape myths and reported aggressive behavior, and decreased willingness to intervene in coercive situations. In other programs, positive effects were found, but couldn’t be sustained. And still thousands of programs continued to be used that hadn’t been evaluated, which meant outcomes remained a mystery. By comparison, EAAA delivered powerful, measurable results. For every 13 women trained, one assault is prevented; for every 22, one less rape.

“I use things like boundary setting and being firm in what I want and what I don’t want every single day.”

And yet, only seven U.S. schools (out of more than 5,000) offer EAAA (18 worldwide). Despite its proven effectiveness, the resources required to bring EAAA to campus can be prohibitive. First, a school needs a staff member whose job it is to keep up with the latest research and who has the expertise to distinguish high quality research from lesser evaluations and recognize the value in EAAA. The responsibility for coordinating prevention programming could fall under any number of titles, whose backgrounds are far from standardized. At one school it might be a Title IX director with a background in law; at another, someone who came out of residential programming, or a researcher with a background in psychology.

Training for staff members is extensive, including six eight-hour days of in-person training and two 2.5-hour web seminars, and costs $3,300 per person, plus tax, not including travel and accommodations. Blueprints estimates the cost of implementing the program in the first year to be $37,190 if 160 students signed up, an expense that would be slightly lower in subsequent years and is dependent on staff salaries and other variables. “Not a lot of schools even have those kinds of resources to put into this particular issue amongst all the other issues they’re dealing with,” Sarnquist says. “Mental health, alcohol, it tends to come out of those same budgets. There’s a lot of really difficult decisions and trade-offs that have to be made.”

Even when budgets allow for EAAA, the fact that it’s for female-identifying students only makes some bristle. When Cummings came across initial research on EAAA, she worried it was a new iteration of the “same old same old” victim-blaming self-defense program for women. In her office on the sixth floor of Cornell Health, we sit across a table with a box of tissues and an orchid, next to a floor-to-ceiling window looking out over the bustling campus. “I’m an old feminist,” Cummings says, lifting her hands in the air. It took results published in the New England Journal of Medicine at the two-year mark for Cummings to move forward with the program, eventually inviting Senn to campus to convince her colleagues. Even then, at some schools, like Cornell and Ohio University, implementing a program for female-identifying students means having to produce an equivalent program for men.

Once staff are trained, and EAAA is offered, convincing students to participate presents another hurdle. At Cornell, three out of five sessions of EAAA have been cancelled due to low attendance. Facilitators spoke with students about what would motivate them to sign up, and heeded their suggestion to hold it over February break, a long weekend in which many students stay on campus. They advertised the session in dorms, with sororities, on flyers, and in emails. But not one student signed up. And those challenges are not unique to Cornell. At the University of Iowa, the first school to offer the program for credit, low participation has made the future of the program uncertain. “It’s like we have the vaccine for cancer and nobody wants it,” says Cummings.

Mental Health & Sexual Assault

The Center for Collegiate Mental Health’s 2019 report on students who were seeking mental-health treatment for the 2018-19 academic year revealed that roughly one-third of students had experienced sexual violence.

A study is underway measuring outcomes for EAAA courses at the University of Arizona, Stanford University, Georgia State University, Cornell University, and the University of Massachusetts at Boston. Researchers want to know if Senn’s results can be replicated in the United States. When Cummings first agreed to participate in the study, she hoped that replicating Senn’s results would lead to widespread use of the program. But she now has doubts whether even such remarkable outcomes will lead to meaningful change. “Year after year I’ve watched how difficult it is to get people to think about the risk on college campuses to our women,” Cummings says. “What will the benefit of this grant be, other than to say, okay we’ve replicated it, it has the same impact, maybe somebody will listen?”

How the Golden Standard of Sexual-Assault Prevention Works

When a sudden earthquake hits, it takes a minute for people to realize what’s happening and react. It’s this same psychological mechanism that makes aquaintance rape (which is far more common than the stranger-in-a-dark-alley scenario we tend to picture) harder to resist, Senn says. She explains that when a stranger attacks someone at random, the victim is immediately able to recognize danger and identify what options they have to escape. When violence comes from someone familiar, the victim is faced with a particular set of “cognitive emotional barriers” to acting in their own interest. “This expectation of safety [in familiar settings with people we know] impairs our ability to recognize and respond to danger,“ Senn says. It takes longer to see danger when you’re not expecting it, a phenomenon that is exacerbated by cultural scripts that normalize dangerous behavior such as dominance and control as part of heterosexual interactions. The basis of EAAA is teaching women to overcome these barriers.

While traditional self-defense courses offered to college women teach physical moves, EAAA addresses the mechanisms that stop women from using them. Sarah Deatherage-Rauzin, the assistant director of healthy relationships at Florida Atlantic University, who helped bring the course there, recalls a student with a background in martial arts. Being an expert in self-defense, the student doubted the course could offer her anything. Still, it transformed her ability to fight back. She had always practiced the moves on an imaginary stranger, never imagining the skills could apply to someone she knows. “It’s not about the move themselves,” Deatherage-Rauzin says. “It’s realizing you have the permission to do it, and to not be taken by surprise that it’s someone that you know and probably trust.”

Senn designed the course to highlight the inherent conflict in what she calls “nice-girl socialization,” the urge to prioritize politeness or the preservation of a relationship over protecting one’s safety and bodily integrity. During one exercise, participants go through a list of types of people (from strangers to long-term partners) and activities (from going to the movies to having sex) and write down which activities they’d do with which types of people. Umunna mentioned this was one of her favorite activities, as did Sarnquist and Karen Grajczyk, a behavioral health consultant who facilitates the course at the University of Iowa. “In education, this is known as a transfer-learning problem,” Baiocchi says. He compares the exercise to using word problems in math class, which helps students see how the skill is applicable in the real world. “People don’t want to believe that something bad is happening,” Baiocchi says. “So by thinking about boundaries, it helps people recognize that they’re approaching boundaries, and that starts to trigger the knowledge, or the intuition that they can start using their skills.”

Umunna says these skills have made her a better communicator overall — whether a situation is intimate or not. Now, when her friends want to go out and she doesn’t feel like it, she has no problem saying no. “Women are often conditioned to be nice, and things like saying no seem not nice,” Umunna says. “You can say no and still be really nice. You can decide what you want to do and still be a good person and a really good friend.”

“To our knowledge, there are no evidence-based college sexual assault prevention programs targeting LGB and GNC students.”

During another exercise, participants watch video and audio clips of coercive situations and are asked to imagine their personal obstacles to resistance, whether it’s fear of hurting the perpetrators’ feelings or facing judgement from mutual friends, and then brainstorm different ways to overcome them. EAAA never tells women what not to do, avoiding prescriptive messages like ‘don’t drink’ that are a common feature of more traditional programs. Instead, “it does point out what alcohol consumption does to our appraisal and our perceptions and our physicality, and then there’s lots of brainstorming about ways we could undermine a perpetrators’ advantages without limiting our freedom,” Senn says. If a participant suggests a woman in the film “should” do something, the facilitators are trained to correct them by saying “you mean they could,” which helps to combat potential self-blame from all angles.

EAAA also addresses the miscommunication myth, the disproven idea that assault occurs when partners misunderstand each other. “That has a number of functions that impair women’s ability to get out of a situation early,” Senn says. The research confirms that when people brush off advances with excuses, for example, saying, “I have to get up early tomorrow” instead of an explicit “no,” both parties understand that that person is not interested. “In a world where we buy this idea that it’s about miscommunication, I feel like I wasn’t clear enough, and I have to stay here and continue to make my point, and the risk to me is escalated,” Senn says. “The research on perpetrators shows that they use that myth to actually persist.” As Cumming’s put it, someone who’s willing to commit assault doesn’t care about consent — they override it. To combat this, facilitators show a poster, designed by the Canadian Federation of Students, containing a range of statements that mean “no.” Then they present research findings that men and women possess the ability to interpret all different cues that mean “no,” plus evidence that men who have been coercive in the past are less likely to listen to an initial “no.”

Given that miscommunication isn’t at the core of most sexual assault, the merits of consent education come into question. “We’ve been doing consent education for 40 years,” Cummings says, noting that rates of sexual assault have remained the same. “That tells me that it’s not doing what it needs to do.” Consent workshops often teach students that a partner must say “yes” for sexual activity to be consensual, and that a person under the influence of drugs or alcohol cannot give consent. But it’s more complicated than that.

The Importance of Audience and Age in Programming

In the summer of 2014, as the American Association of Universities was gearing up to do a national study of sexual assault on campus, Jennifer Hirsch, Ph.D., the co-director of the doctoral program in sociomedical sciences at Columbia University, felt like something was missing. So much of the public conversation about campus assault focused on adjudication. “It seemed to me what was missing was a conversation about prevention,” Hirsch says. So, she launched her own study, co-directing the Sexual Health Initiative to Foster Transformation (SHIFT), a multifaceted study that examined sexual assault at Columbia and Barnard College. In her book, Sexual Citizens: A Landmark Study of Sex, Power and Assault on Campus, Hirsch and her coauthor, Shamus Khan, professor and chair of Columbia’s sociology department, recount hearing from more than 100 students about their sex lives and the ways they negotiate consent. More often than not, students recalled using a number of phrases or interactions as stand-ins for an affirmative “yes” or “no.” Agreeing to go back to somebody’s room, for example, or asking them to get a condom was how they gauged consent, rather than asking for it more explicitly. Consent education makes consent seem simple, but it often fails to account for certain power dynamics and cultural scripts that inform when partners feel responsible for asking, and whether they feel able to say no. When Hirsch and Kahn asked women how they received consent from their male partners, the female students often lacked answers. It hadn’t occurred to them that they should ask. Hirsch and Kahn attribute this lapse in thinking to social scripts about sex that dictate men move the ball down the field and women act as blockers. Culture tells us that men are always game, so why would women ask?

flyer for Sexual Citizens book

In her book, Sexual Citizens: A Landmark study of Sex, Power and Assault on Campus, Jennifer Hirsch, the co-director of the doctoral program in soiomedical sciences at Columbia University, recounts hearing from more than 100 students about their sex lives and the ways they negotiate consent. Photo by Claire Miller.

“The message consent education gives students is ‘just do this, and your sex won’t be assault,’” Hirsch says. "But, for students who’ve had zero sex education, a session on consent is like teaching calculus before they’ve had arithmetic, or even learned the names of the numbers.” More comprehensive education can be effective, but it’s rare. One SHIFT study found that students who had received comprehensive sex education in high school that included training on how to say no to sex experienced almost 50% fewer assaults than those who didn’t.

Sexual Citizens tells the story of a woman who, upon finding a situation progressing past a point which she is comfortable with, tries to convey with her body language that she wants out, but ultimately can’t find the words to stop it. In another chapter, it’s only during an interview that one woman realizes the sex she had with her best friend, a gay man, which took place after persistent badgering on her part, had been coercive.

“Some students need to learn to see, acknowledge and correct for the many ways in which social forces tilt the playing field in their favor all the time,” Hirsch says. “Others need spaces and activities that prompt critical reflection about gender norms of being nice in relation to their own sexual citizenship. All students need to learn how situational factors might silence a partner.”

For LGBTQIA students, for whom the binary, heteronormative sexual scripts don’t always apply, there exists an entirely different set of risk factors that produce vulnerability to assault, ones rarely addressed in standard prevention programming. One SHIFT study found that LGBTQIA students were at greater risk for experiencing sexual assault than their cisgender and heterosexual peers, noting that: “To our knowledge, there are no evidence-based college sexual assault prevention programs targeting LGB [Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual] and GNC [gender nonconforming] students.”

And LGBTQIA students aren’t the only marginalized community left out of standard prevention programming. Though every single Black woman who Hirsch and Kahn spoke with had experienced unwanted sexual touching, they found that much prevention programming focuses on risk factors that pertain mostly to heterosexual white students. For example, for students of color, who, research shows, tend to drink far less than their white peers, programming that zeroes in on the ways alcohol facilitates assault, and fails to address risk factors unique to students of color, misses the mark. One nationally representative study found zero schools delivered programming that addressed the risks and needs of minority students, though 5% and 4% percent of schools respectively offered programming tailored to the unique needs and risks of student athletes, and those involved in greek life.

“Starting prevention earlier, at least theoretically, there’d be fewer victims coming into college.”

Hirsch’s book, Sexual Citizens, pleads with readers to look beyond the personal responsibility aspect of sexual-assault perpetration to examine the way our culture and the ecosystem of college facilitates assault. Space serves as a central theme. On a cold February day at Princeton University, in a sleek conference room amid a campus full of ornate, gothic buildings, Hirsch welcomes visitors to the latest stop on the Sexual Citizens book tour and makes her way to a podium at the front of the room. Wearing a brown floral pantsuit and a lipsticked smile, Hirsch urges her audience, a group of four dozen people, mostly adult women, to think about a pair of freshmen heading back to a dorm after the bars have closed and parties have ended. “When they open the door to that dorm room, they see four items — a desk, a chair, a bureau, and a bed,” she says. “If they don’t sit together on the bed, it’s awkward, but sitting together means sharing a bed. And like it or not that has a powerful meaning.” Dining halls are closed at that time, common spaces are often taken, and party spaces tend to be controlled by older, whiter, more often male, heterosexual students. The book suggests that it’s an assault opportunity structure, one that could be lessened if all students had access to spaces that weren’t automatically sexual, like a bedroom, and if spaces were controlled by a wider variety of students, including marginalized ones like women, students of color, and queer students.

Each of the dozens of researchers interviewed for this story expressed hesitancy when asked to name one gold standard program because such a complex problem demands a complex solution. The results garnered from the randomized control trial of EAAA offer the most compelling evidence to date, but even Senn says her program shouldn’t be the only thing schools do. The C.D.C.’s best practices for sexual violence prevention programming include nine factors. Programs should be comprehensive, including multiple interventions over time in multiple settings and given by multiple types of people. They should feature varied teaching methods, including active skill practice. It’s one thing to tell students to get consent, another to have them think through how they would do so. The third factor is sufficient dosage, meaning there should be enough quality content delivered for long enough periods of time. Good programs vary based on the needs of the individual.

Schiemann says schools looking to deliver comprehensive programming need to consider all the different populations and their unique risk factors. A program designed for LGBTQIA students should be free of heteronormative language, include examples of LGBTQIA relationships, what consent looks like within them, how risk presents itself within the context of an LGBTQIA relationship, and what unique challenges these students face. Then, Schiemann says, schools have to consider varied ways of delivering the information — from passive to active and awareness events — and deliver them throughout all four years on campus.

The Ability to See and Surrender Fear

On the first day of EAAA, students are given a marble and told to put it aside. Later, they pull it out. While many hold green marbles, some open their palms to find blue ones. They represent the women in the room who, statistically, will experienced sexual assault during college — about one in four. This exercise is part of the acknowledge unit and is designed to dispel optimism bias, the belief we all share that bad things won’t happen to us. The danger is there, EAAA programming reinforces, and it’s not something you can avoid by staying in at night. It comes, most often, from the people you know, in the situations with which you’re comfortable.

three hands holding green marbles, one hand holding blue marble

Illustration by Gillian Whiting.

“Oddly enough, I feel safer,” Umunna says. “It’s not like these things are new. It’s the ability to see it.” Before taking EAAA, Umunna says she wouldn’t have recognized danger until a situation progressed and she was in a more compromising situation. “Now the way I engage in social settings it’s like, I don’t enter the room, or I feel very strongly about saying ‘if you buy me a drink, I want to see it poured,’ and feeling like that’s not an unreasonable thing to ask.”

Senn says that teaching women where danger exists empowers them to let go of unfounded fear. “Women have already been socialized to do all of these precautions — like holding our keys between our fingers and not walking to the library even though we really need that book, and not taking jobs that mean we’ll be getting out at 2 a.m.,” Senn says. “All of those precautions restrict our quality of life, but they don’t actually protect us in any way.”

Sara Feldmann, who helped bring the course to the University of Iowa, agrees. “I didn’t realize until I went through the curriculum how much I had bought into the messages that women get that they are weak and defenseless and need to be protected. Something about how we raise girls, we make them feel powerless,” she says. “To be able to go through your life and feel like you’re not powerless is a gift.”

EAAA targets women at the tail end of their childhood and tries, in 12 hours, to undo a lifetime of socialization; to help them unlearn the lesson that setting boundaries and preserving their bodily autonomy is less important than being nice or not causing a scene. But the hope is that in the future, children will never learn those harmful lessons in the first place. Experts agree that we should task schools with addressing the issue of sexual assault long before students go off to college. The C.D.C.’s best practices for prevention programming recommend that interventions take place when behavior is still moldable. For example, the research that serves as the basis for these recommendations cites a prevention-program aimed at reducing HIV/AIDS. Though the program was successful in reducing sexual-risk taking, that outcome held true only for participants who received the training before they became sexually active. While prevention programming during college is important, the average age that Americans have sex for the first time is 17, and 40% of female rape survivors are assaulted before age 18. “If you wait until two or three years after somebody has started to engage in any kind of behavior, you’re less likely to be effective with your education,” says Dr. John Santelli, a professor of population and family health and pediatrics at Columbia.

“Starting prevention earlier, at least theoretically, there’d be fewer victims coming into college,” says Christine Gidycz, Ph.D., a professor emerita at Ohio University who conducts research on sexual-violence prevention. “And I think getting consistent messages throughout one’s development would likely make the work that we’re doing on college campuses easier and likely more effective.”

Expecting colleges alone to shoulder the burden of preventing sexual violence fails the students who are assaulted before they ever step foot on a campus, (not to mention those who don’t go to college, who experience assault at even higher rates), especially because research shows that having been assaulted in the past is the single strongest predictor that one will be assaulted in the future. The need for earlier, more comprehensive, long-term programming is two fold: to prevent the assaults that happen before college, and to protect students entering college as survivors, who are statistically at the greatest risk of being assaulted, again.

event sign for sexual assault seminar

On the night of author, professor, and researcher Jennifer Hirsh’s book-tour stop at Princeton University, her alma mater, the campus featured a showing of the popular Vagina Monologues, which demonstrates advice she offers for parents: “Start young, using the actual names for body parts” because avoiding those words “only cloaks them in shame.” Photo by Claire Miller.

Parents can do their part too. “Parents don’t hand their kids the car keys and say ‘good luck learning to drive,’ and then turn away thinking ‘I hope they learn to do it safely and don’t hurt anyone even if they’re drunk,’” Hirsch says. “It’s magical thinking to believe that young people can learn to put their bodies close to other bodies safely, without getting hurt, when for most kids the only message that they get from their parents is ‘not under my roof.’” Gidycz says that parents need to be conscious of not treating even the smallest children in ways that are consistent with traditional gender norms such as excusing aggressive behavior in little boys. Senn urges parents not to force children to hug or kiss relatives when they don’t want to, a gesture which, however well intended, introduces the idea that sacrificing bodily autonomy and ignoring one’s boundaries is a necessary part of being good and nice.

Hirsch and Kahn urge parents to “start young, using the actual names for body parts,” as avoiding the words penis and vagina at all costs only cloaks them in shame. “Grasp the teachable moments: books, movies, television shows, even memes are full of messages about bodies, respect for others, and the meaning of intimacy.” Sex, Hirsch and Kahn argue, is just another part of teaching children to interact with others with kindness and respsect. In the same way that we teach children to apologize if they step on someone’s foot, they argue, we need to give children the tools to see their sex partners as autonomous people worthy of respect, who, if inadvertantly hurt, deserve an apology and a discussion about how to do better.

There’s no single fix, but sometimes, pieces of the solution are simpler than one might imagine. Since Hirsch’s research was published, Columbia started keeping their dining halls open later so that students have a place to hangout after hours, instead of a room where, as Hirsch points out, the presence of a bed and not much other furniture can escalate things.

At Cornell, one member of a student group who worked on sexual assault prevention initiatives had an idea. During parties at his fraternity, coats were stored in an upstairs bedroom. At the end of the night, women, who were often very drunk, had to find a brother who lived in the house to take them upstairs so they could find their coat. As a victim advocate, Cummings knew the risk posed by situations like this. The student worked with his fraternity to come up with a solution that was simple: They cleaned out a downstairs closet and installed a coat rack.

“College is such an intense social moment, and it is the moment where women particularly experience a lot of risk,” Umunna says. “I think colleges have some sort of responsibility to think about programs like Flip The Script in a really serious way as part of their curriculum. Not just as far as relationships with guys, but I think feeling empowered to stand up for yourself is such a critical skill to have at any point in your life. Had I taken that my freshman year, I think that my experience might have been really different.”


RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) provides a National Sexual Assasult Hotline that gives you access to a range of free services, including: confidential support from a trained staff member, support finding a local health facility that is trained to care for survivors of sexual assault and offers services like sexual assault forensic exams, someone to help you talk through what happened, local resources that can assist with your next steps toward healing and recovery, referrals for long-term support in your area, information about the laws in your community, and basic information about medical concerns. Call 800-656-HOPE (4673).

The National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC) maintains a directory that lists sexual assault coalitions, victim/survivor support organizations, and local communities of color sexual assault organizations by state and territory.

View a complete list of resources.