College Culture: Most Students Don’t Report Sexual Assault

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Syracuse University has signs all over campus with safety recourse numbers. Photo courtesy of Emma Misiaszek.

Edited and packaged by Rachel Muller.

*Names have been changed to protect the identities of those involved.

Audrey* began her first semester at West Virginia University in the fall of 2019. Far from her native New York town, she was excited to finally have some independence as a young adult and fully experience campus life. On Oct. 19, Audrey went to a frat house with her friend, her friend’s boyfriend and his friend Cody* to celebrate Audrey’s new job bartending in town. 

“After we got there, the last thing that I remember was Cody giving me a drink in his room. I woke up the next day with bruises in the shapes of fingers on my upper arms, the worst headache of my life, a gash on my nose and intense soreness that felt like I had had really rough sex,” Audrey recalled. “I was on the floor of a guy’s room that I didn’t know, with no pants and my underwear were inside out. I had no idea what happened at that point, but I knew something was very wrong.”

Greek life, drug and alcohol use and campus reporting culture are all potential causes for the high prevalence of sexual assault on campuses. Rape and sexual assault on college campuses most often occur in locked dorm rooms and behind closed doors at parties. The incidents often go unreported. ​The moments following an assault are disorienting and stressful for survivors, often leaving them confused and unaware of what steps they should take next.


In the Campus Sexual Assault Study conducted by the U.S. Department of Justice, survivors identified that one of the most common barriers to reporting an assault is “not knowing how to report the incident.”

​Sexual assault survivors on college campuses are faced with a bewildering array of options that each come with their own processes and outcomes, and the burden of reporting is a hard one to carry. How you report an assault determines if your report is confidential, who you have to talk to from there, if law enforcement is involved, if you want to get a sexual assault forensic exam, what punishment your assailant can face if found responsible and so on, all without knowing if you will even find justice.

​An aggregate list of the country’s top party colleges, with information from the Princeton Review and Niche, includes universities from across the country, from Syracuse University in New York to the University of California-Santa Barbara. The rate of sexual assault reporting on these campuses has been steadily increasing over the past few years.

Click the play button to view the number of reported cases of rapes over the years. Data visualization by Emma Misiaszek

Reporting Options

“I first thought about reporting once I was at the hospital. I went in and asked for them to check my head, my nose and to get a rape kit done. At this point I started getting text messages from my family that my mom had told, and everyone was telling me that I had to report to the police. I was very overwhelmed,” Audrey said. “After having someone strip me of my freedom of choice less than 12 hours before, it set me off that everyone was telling me what to do. I ended up having the rape kit done, but I never reported to police. I reported the assault to my school’s Title IX office so I could receive the accommodations they offered assault survivors.”

A rape kit, also known as a sexual assault forensic exam (SAFE), is conducted to collect any evidence left behind in a sexual assault.  In most cases, DNA evidence needs to be collected within 72 hours in order to be analyzed, but a survivor can get a sexual assault forensic exam at any time. To undergo a SAFE, a survivor only needs to go to a local hospital, where a designated Sexual Assault Forensic Examiner or Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) who is trained to perform rape kit examination will be called in.

“The SANE nurses were actual f*cking angels,” Audrey said. “They were very patient with me and asked for my consent before they did anything to me throughout the examination. They also provided me with lots of resources.”

The examination itself varies by state and jurisdiction, but the general process includes caring for immediate wounds, going over the survivor’s medical history, having them describe the assault and an examination of the body. A full body examination may include internal examinations of the mouth, vagina, and/or anus, taking blood, urine or hair samples, photographic documentation of injuries and the examination, as well as the collection of clothing or personal affects with possible DNA evidence.

A rape kit is free to those who request them and the examination can be stopped at any time by the patient. These kits can be used as evidence if the survivor decides to go through with a trial and often times, a victim advocate will be present with you through the exam and afterwards to comfort you or inform you of your options going forward.

“The most helpful person in terms of information given to me was my advocate,” Audrey explained. “I guess when you have a rape kit done they send an advocate that works with assault survivors and she stayed the entire time I was there to help me with anything I needed. I could have asked her to leave, but it was nice having someone like her there.”

Vera House serves as a rape crisis center in Syracuse, New York. Their services include outreach and advocacy, preventive education programming and a SANE unit. Tiffany Brec is the Campus Project Coordinator at Vera House. She helps run their Enough is Enough program, which works with universities in the area to provide prevention education, hold awareness events and help support students in navigating the processes on campus and off, as well as education and advocacy.

“The victim advocate’s role is really up to the survivor. If the student wanted to navigate the legal system, the advocate could be the person to help them do that and do the advocacy on their behalf,” Brec explained. “If the student wanted the advocate to be their advisor of choice through the student conduct process, they can. Victim advocates can connect survivors to information and offer any other ongoing support that student may need.”​

If a survivor does decide they want to report to their university, they have multiple options. Administrators and professors are an option, but it is important to know often times, these resources are considered “mandated reporters” meaning they are mandated by laws or campus policies to share your disclosure. Advocates from a campus women’s center, campus health center or a campus-based sexual assault advocate are also options, but based on jurisdiction, communications between advocates and survivors of sexual assault may or may not be covered by privilege laws. Licensed professionals such as mental health counselors, health center employees, or social workers are also resources and they are not required to report incidents of sexual violence to the Title IX Coordinator in a way that identifies the student. 

Laura Mals, the Associate Director of the Office of Student Conduct at Indiana University at Bloomington outlines the process of reporting a sexual assault to a Title IX officer or coordinator.

“We start off by having the student complete what we call a ‘complainant information meeting’ where we go over a lot of the resources that they may already be aware of, but we also go over the procedures and talk about the steps of each process,” Mals said. “It varies in terms of what they want to learn more about, but we go through all the information, and then they have the opportunity to decide if they want to move forward with an investigation or not.”

Patricia Powers, a practicing attorney in Washington State for 27 years, specializes in cases involving sexual assault and domestic violence. For the past four years, Powers has been working as an attorney advisor at AEquitas, a nonprofit organization made up of former prosecutors focused on developing, evaluating and refining prosecution practices related to gender-based violence, sexual assault and human trafficking. 

​AEquitas works with prosecutors, law enforcement, advocates and medical professionals to provide training and technical assistance in areas such as sexual assault, domestic violence, human trafficking and stalking.

​”A number of universities will take a victim’s report of sexual assault and go through proceedings within the college. These proceedings are more civil in nature, but a victim still has a right to report to law enforcement, which would involve a criminal investigation,” Powers explained. “The two systems however are pretty separate, although I think in some instances, depending upon what was worked out, there could be a sharing of information between the campus and the criminal investigation.”

​Institutes of higher education and local law enforcement agencies often have a memorandum of understanding (MOU) in regards to campus sexual assault. An MOU consists of communication and coordination between the two institutions in response to sexual assault. This agreement includes deciding whether the investigation is carried out by local law enforcement or is handled by the college, how they will inform each other about reports received involving students and to develop and share policies regarding prosecution or disciplinary proceedings when applicable.

The civil justice system, like that of a college campus, focuses on finding some responsibility while the criminal justice system focuses on finding all responsibility.

In a civil case, the person who has brought the allegation and the person who’s responding to it are entitled to due process. That means they have an opportunity to be heard, to present information or present evidence and to be treated fairly. Both parties in the criminal justice system are also afforded due process; the primary difference between the two systems is the standard of proof. In a civil proceeding the standard of proof is the preponderance of the evidence. This means the person bringing forth the allegation bears the burden of proof; they must present evidence which is more credible and convincing than that presented by the accused. Whereas in a criminal process, the burden of proof needs to be beyond a reasonable doubt, meaning that no other logical explanation can be derived from the evidence except that the defendant committed the crime.

“Ultimately, the major difference is that a person, depending upon the laws of the state and what charges are brought by the prosecutor, is facing potential incarceration upon conviction. That’s not the case in a campus setting,” Powers said.

On the campus of the University of Indiana, Mals explained that rather than calling it a trial, they call it a hearing, respondent instead of perpetrator and complainant instead of accuser. “We try to use certain terms because we want to make sure the students don’t interpret the hearing to be a substitution of a criminal process. But, if somebody goes all the way to a hearing and they’re reporting an allegation of sexual assault that involves penetration and the respondent is found responsible, then typically they’re going to be looking at a suspension. If there is evidence of aggravated force, that makes them more likely to be expelled from the university.”

Barriers to Reporting

“In general, I think that survivors should not have to relive their assault over and over again to get justice for what had happened to them, because the thought of doing that definitely discouraged me and I’m sure thousands of other women,” Audrey said.

Marla Eisenberg, a professor in Pediatrics in the Division of General Pediatrics and Adolescent Health at the University of Minnesota focuses her research on social influences on health, behavior and well-being among adolescents and young adults, and disseminates findings for real-world application.

She was the lead researcher in a study examining sexual assault reporting and emotional distress among college student survivors. The study used data from over 2,000 college women who had experienced sexual assault to test whether reporting to a formal resource and/or an informal resource was related to mental health. Formal resources include the police, healthcare provider, Title IX Office or professor, while informal resources include friends, family members, victim advocates.

They found that those who reported their assault to a formal resource had significantly higher rates of being diagnosed with anxiety, depression, panic attacks and PTSD compared to those who reported only to informal resources.

“These resources don’t always perform as well as they should. There is still considerable judgment against survivors and many are re-traumatized in the process of obtaining medical or legal help,” Eisenberg said.

In a 2017 study published by Ohio State University, approximately 2,700 college students responded to a survey about barriers to reporting sexual assault on college campuses. A majority of respondents stated that the potential consequences of reporting sexual assault are far greater than any potential benefits.

“I knew that if the police showed up at the fraternity and investigated, everyone would know that it was because of me, and I had no desire for everyone there to hate me because of what had happened to me,” Audrey said. “I decided that because of the slim possibility of me receiving any kind of justice for his actions, it would be less damaging to me to just try and move on from the incident on my own instead of pressing charges.”

“There is plenty of evidence documenting the pitfalls of reporting to formal resources and positive outcomes for survivors are relatively rare,” Eisenberg said. “Unfortunately, the logical choice for those who reasonably expect to not be believed, to be blamed, to have their stories dragged through the mud and not have anything come of it, is to not report an assault experience.”

In 2018, Indiana University had a total undergraduate enrollment of 43,503 students, while their annual Clery Act Report states there were 13 reports of sexual assault to campus officials.

“I think those numbers don’t necessarily reflect the total number of reports that we would have received that year,” Mals said. “We absolutely believe that there are barriers for students, and not just students — I think in general on a societal level there are many barriers and obstacles for people who have experienced sexual misconduct.”

On May 6, the U.S. Department of Education released its final regulations governing campus sexual assault with Title IX under Betsy DeVos, the Secretary of Education. These new regulations will supposedly secure due process rights for students who report sexual misconduct and for those accused of it. Points of contention among sexual assault survivors and advocates are the requiring of colleges to provide live hearings and allowing students’ advisors to cross-examine parties and witnesses involved.

This new process sets a higher burden of proof and has the possibility of re-traumatizing survivors, both factors potentially preventing survivors from coming forward to report their assault.

Vanessa Grigoriadis is a journalist and author of “Blurred Lines: Rethinking Sex, Power, and Consent on Campus.” Grigoriadis researched the subject of sexual assault on college campuses for three years, interviewing 120 students from 20 universities, speaking with nearly 80 university administrators and experts and combing through dozens of case reports. Here, she discusses why so few student survivors report.

“It’s so easy to believe a victim in theory. But most of the time, people are looking for a victim to trip up. They almost enjoy poking holes in their story. And the fact is that that is incredibly hard to go through emotionally — to have unburdened yourself and then not be believed,” Grigoriadis stated.

Moving Forward

Each college campus has its own culture of reporting, whether that culture facilitates trust in the reporting process or not is up to the university and their efforts to educate students on their options and if they offer supportive outreach programs.

“I recommend widespread training in trauma-informed care for health care providers in college settings, to appropriately work with survivors of sexual assault. University policies that respect the rights of survivors — including the right to not move forward with legal reporting without consent — may also benefit survivors and increase reporting in the long run,” Eisenberg said.

Powers also argues the same approach would be more beneficial for survivors.

“It’s important for prosecutors and law enforcement to be responsive to victims,” Powers said. “These are life altering events for victims and they’re highly traumatizing. One of the things that’s very important is to adopt a trauma informed approach to prosecution and that approach is very victim centered and it recognizes that the victim has been impacted by trauma.”

“Something that would help students in accessing the reporting system is if the system wasn’t so complicated — if it wasn’t so confusing and overwhelming,” Brec said. “If we could do a better job in creating a reporting system and an accountability process that isn’t a deterrent for students, we would see an increase in students actually navigating the reporting process.”

In the end, it is completely up to the survivor if they want to report or not, and who they report to. Colleges need to educate their students so they are aware of the options they have for reporting a sexual assault, that way, they are able to make an informed decision that will serve their individual needs.

“There are so many people on campus who are there to help you. They might be called the Office of Advocacy Centers, the Violence Intervention Center or just the campus health center. They may not ultimately give you the answer that you may want — they may not pull through as saviors, but they will definitely try to help you,” Grigoriadis remarked.

For Audrey, reporting her assault to her campus’s Title IX office helped her receive accommodations, such as excusing her from classes and schoolwork for a week to go back home to be with her family. But she decided to not report the assault to local police and go through with an investigation, which is entirely understandable. A survivor has the right to choose whatever path they wish to take, whether that means reporting or not, but they should have options. “I couldn’t find the strength to press charges for what he did to me, but I hope that my story can help someone else.”

Mannequin with "talk about it" tape wrapping body
Most women do not report sexual assault, for many reasons. This means many more women are victims of rape, harassment and assault than the statistics show. Photo Courtesy of Mika Baumeister.

Emma Misiaszek

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