Center for Problem-Oriented Policing

Acquaintance Rape of College Students

Guide No. 17 (2002)

by Rana Sampson

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The Problem of Acquaintance Rape of College Students

Rape is the most common violent crime on American college campuses today. 1 This guide describes the problem of acquaintance rape of college students, addressing its scope, causes and contributing factors; methods for analyzing it on a particular campus; tested responses; and measures for assessing response effectiveness. With this information, police and public safety officers can more effectively prevent the problem.

Researchers believe that college rape prevention programs, including the most widely used ones, are insufficient. Most rapes are unreported, perhaps giving campus administrators and police the false impression that current efforts are adequate. In addition, campus police may be influenced by college administrators who fear that too strong an emphasis on the problem may lead potential students and their parents to believe that rape occurs more often at their college than at others.

Related Problems

Acquaintance rape is but one aspect of the larger set of problems related to sexual assault of college students, and a coherent college strategy should address all aspects of these problems. This guide is limited to crime addressing acquaintance rape. Other related problems not directly addressed by this guide include:

There is no data on the number of college students raped after unknowingly ingesting Rohypnol, GHB or similar drugs; most information is anecdotal. Additional information is available from the National Institute on Drug Abuse's website,

  • Sexual assault other than rape (e.g., sexual battery)
  • Use of verbal coercion to obtain sexual intercourse
  • Indecent exposure in college libraries
  • "Peeping Toms" on college campuses
  • Obscene phone calls made to college students
  • Sexual harassment
  • Abuse in college dating relationships (including violence other than sexual victimization)
  • Stalking of college students

Scope of the Problem

"Women ages 16 to 24 experience rape at rates four times higher than the assault rate of all women,"2 making the college (and high school) years the most vulnerable for women. College women are more at risk for rape and other forms of sexual assault than women the same age but not in college.3 It is estimated that almost 25 percent of college women have been victims of rape or attempted rape since the age of 14.4

Rape rates vary to some extent by school, type of school and region, suggesting that certain schools and certain places within schools are more rape-prone than others.† Some features of the college environment—frequent unsupervised parties, easy access to alcohol, single students living on their own, and the availability of private rooms—may contribute to high rape rates of women college students.

For instance, private colleges and major universities have higher than national average rates, while religiously affiliated institutions have lower than average rates (Sanday 1996). Also, students at two-year institutions (15.6%) were significantly more likely than those at four-year institutions (11.1%) to report they had been forced during their lifetime to have sexual intercourse (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 1995). [Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance: National College Health Risk Behavior Survey -- United States, 1995] [YRBSS - National College Health Risk Behavior Survey (NCHRBS)]

College women are raped at significantly higher rates than college men.‡ College men are more likely to report experiencing unwanted kissing or fondling than intercourse.5 College men who are raped are usually raped by other men. However, since so few men report, information is limited about the extent of the problem.6 Even current national data collection systems fail to capture information about rape of men; the FBI's Uniform Crime Report (UCR) does not provide data on male rape victims.§ Researchers have begun to fill this information gap with survey data, which suggest that up to 10 percent of acquaintance rape victims on campus are men.7 Since so little information is available about acquaintance rape of college men, this guide focuses on college women.

Women are also the victims in the vast majority of rapes not involving college students.

§ FBI data also do not capture most acquaintance rapes of women since the FBI only requires reporting of rapes that involve force or fear.

The most recent large-scale study, including students at both two- and four-year colleges, found 35 rapes per 1,000 female students over seven months8 (rape was defined as "unwanted completed penetration by force or threat of force"). Based on this study, a college with 10,000 women students could experience 350 rapes a year. This conflicts with official college data.† In 1999, reported forcible and nonforcible sexual offenses totaled 2,469 incidents for all U.S. college campuses combined,9 underscoring the low levels of rape reporting.

Congress enacted the Student Right-to-Know and Campus Security Act of 1990 [U.S.C. 1092(f)(1)], covering all colleges and universities receiving federal funds, and a 1992 amendment to the act requires campuses to spell out rape victims' rights and to annually publish information on prevention programs. A 1998 amendment added reporting obligations and renamed the act the Jeanne Cleary Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act. Jeanne Cleary's rape and murder on a college campus brought to light some of the inadequacies both in knowledge of the problem and in college reporting of crime.

Stranger rape of college students is less common than acquaintance rape. Ninety percent of college women who are victims of rape or attempted rape know their assailant.10 The attacker is usually a classmate, friend, boyfriend, ex-boyfriend, or other acquaintance (in that order).11, ‡ Most acquaintance rapes do not occur on dates; rather they occur when two people are otherwise in the same place (e.g., at a party, studying together in a dorm room). Thus, "date rape" (rape that occurs during or at the end of a date) is not the appropriate term to describe the majority of acquaintance rapes of college women, as date rapes account for only 13 percent of college rapes (although they make up 35 percent of attempted rapes).12 Gang rape of college women (multiple men taking turns raping a woman) is also a problem, although to a lesser extent than even date rape.13

The most recent survey on college rape "did not find that college professors committed any of the rapes or sexual coercions; however, they were involved in a small percentage of the unwanted sexual touching" (Fisher, Cullen and Turner 2000). [Full text]

Victim Underreporting

Fewer than 5 percent of college women who are victims of rape or attempted rape report it to police.14 However, about two-thirds of the victims tell someone, often a friend (but usually not a family member or college official). In one study, over 40 percent of those raped who did not report the incident said they did not do so because they feared reprisal by the assailant or others.15 In addition, some rape victims may fear the emotional trauma of the legal process itself. Low reporting, however, ensures that few victims receive adequate help, most offenders are neither confronted nor prosecuted, and colleges are left in the dark about the extent of the problem.16

Many acquaintance rape victims (using the legal definition of rape) do not label their assault as rape.† Perhaps it seems unimaginable that an acquaintance would rape them, and victims often initially blame themselves. Acquaintance rape victims offer a range of reasons for not reporting the rape to authorities:17

One of the largest studies of the problem found that in nearly half the incidents legally categorized as completed rapes, the women did not consider the incident to be a rape (Fisher, Cullen and Turner 2000). [Full text]

  • Embarrassment and shame
  • Fear of publicity
  • Fear of reprisal from assailant
  • Fear of social isolation from the assailant's friends
  • Fear that the police will not believe them
  • Fear that the prosecutor will not believe them or will not bring charges
  • Self-blame for drinking or using drugs before the rape, self-blame for being alone with the assailant, perhaps in one's own or the assailant's residence
  • Mistrust of the campus judicial system
  • Fear that their family will find out

Some police officers believe that there is an unusually high rate of false rape reports (by both college students and the general population of women). The FBI does not separately track false reports; it tracks only the total number of unfounded reports. The category of "unfounded" consists of both baseless cases—in which the elements of the crime were never met—and false reports. In 1998, unfounded rape reports accounted for 8 percent of total reported rapes; however, this number is questionable. Some police officers incorrectly think that a rape report is unfounded or false if any of the following conditions apply:

  • The victim has a prior relationship with the offender (including having previously been intimate with him)
  • The victim used alcohol or drugs at the time of the assault
  • There is no visible evidence of injury
  • The victim delays disclosure to the police and/or others and does not undergo a rape medical exam
  • The victim fails to immediately label her assault as rape and/or blames herself‡

For more detailed information about unfounded allegations and the need for accurate training on this subject, see:

Types of Acquaintance Rape

In examining the problem of acquaintance rape of college students (which, as noted, accounts for 90 percent of college rapes), it is important to define the subproblems for analysis, investigation and prevention purposes. Among them are:

  • Party rape (can also include gang rape)
  • Date rape (usually takes place in the victim's or offender's residence or in a car after the date)
  • Rape in a non-party and non-date situation (e.g., while studying together)
  • Rape by a former intimate
  • Rape by a current intimate

In each case, the offender's behavior before the attack and the contributing environmental factors during the attack may be different.† For instance, the typical party rape occurs at an off-campus house or on- or off-campus fraternity and involves the offender's plying a woman with alcohol or targeting an intoxicated woman. Environmental factors that could facilitate the rape include easy access to alcohol, availability of a private room, loud music that drowns out the woman's calls, and, potentially, a cover-up by the house's residents, who may choose to maintain group secrecy over reporting the rape. By contrast, a date rape typically involves two people who are just becoming acquainted, and the offender rapes the woman in a car or residence after the date. [Stranger rapes tend to occur in isolated areas of campus (e.g., parking lots or campus garages) or in the woman's dorm room. In these cases, the victim usually has not drunk any alcohol, and there is no prior relationship or even acquaintance between the victim and the rapist.

For a discussion of the need to study different types of acquaintance rape, see Koss and Cleveland (1996).

Refining recordkeeping to include subtypes of acquaintance rape allows police to better understand the dynamics of rape, design prevention around the subtypes, and improve rape investigations within the subtypes.‡

Although this guide does not focus on investigation, it is important to mention that the defendant generally does not claim consent as a defense in a stranger rape case. Thus, the investigation need not focus intensely on disproving consent. However, in an acquaintance rape case, consent is the most likely defense. Disproving consent becomes the most important part of the investigation. It also follows that evidence of nonconsent in a party rape will differ from that of nonconsent for a date rape that occurred in a car.

In addition, there are patterns regarding time (temporal), place (geographic), victim injuries, victim resistance, fear of rape, psychological harm to victims, and attitudes about acquaintance rape. These patterns are outlined below.†

Some of the research covers data for both acquaintance and stranger rape of college students. Since nearly 90 percent of the time, college rape victims know their assailant, these temporal, geographic and victim resistance patterns would likely apply to college acquaintance rape, although perhaps with some slight variations.

Temporal Patterns

College students are the most vulnerable to rape during the first few weeks of the freshman In fact, the first few days of the freshman year are the riskiest, limiting the value of any rape prevention programs that begin after that. Research has shown that rapes of college women tend to occur after 6 p.m., and the majority occur after midnight.19

Geographic Patterns

Thirty-four percent of completed rapes and 45 percent of attempted rapes take place on campus.20 Almost 60 percent of the completed campus rapes that take place on campus occur in the victim's residence, 31 percent occur in another residence, and 10 percent occur in a fraternity

Victim Injuries

Only 20 percent of college rape victims have additional injuries, most often bruises, black eyes, cuts, swelling, or chipped teeth.22 Thus, investigative practices should be modified to obtain more subtle evidence of lack of consent, rather than just use of force.

Victim Resistance

Slightly more than 50 percent of college rape and attempted rape victims use force against their assailant, and 50 percent tell the person to stop. Most victims try to stop a rape by doing one of the following: using force, telling the assailant to stop, screaming, begging, or running away.23

Fear of Rape

The fear of rape is widespread among college women, although they fear stranger rape more than acquaintance rape, even though the latter is much more common.24 College women—even those aware of acquaintance rape's pervasiveness—take more precautions to guard against stranger rape—even if they have been a victim of acquaintance rape.25

Psychological Harm to Victims

Acquaintance rape victims suffer the same psychological harms as stranger-rape victims: shock, humiliation, anxiety, depression, substance abuse, suicidal thoughts, loss of self-esteem, social isolation, anger, distrust of others, fear of AIDS, guilt, and sexual dysfunction.26 College acquaintance rape victims face additional consequences. Many drop out of school27 because, if they stay, they might regularly face their attacker in class, in their dorm, in the dining hall, or at campus functions and events. Since most victims do not report, colleges cannot intervene to protect them from reencountering their attackers.

Societal Attitudes About Acquaintance Rape

During the 1990s, researchers found that attitudes about acquaintance rape victims improved. However, in general, college students, campus administrators, police, prosecutors, judges, and juries still overwhelmingly view and treat acquaintance rape less seriously than stranger rape, sustaining the myth that stranger rape is "real rape," while acquaintance rape is less serious and less harmful. College studies still find that many on campus, both men and women, have little understanding of acquaintance rape because, as discussed below, it is a much more complex crime than stranger rape.

Rape myths allow us to believe that a "real rape" is one in which a victim is raped by a stranger who jumps out of the bushes with a weapon, and in which she fought back, was beaten and bruised, reported the event to the police, and had medical evidence collected immediately. In a "real rape," the victim has never had sex with the assailant before, is preferably a virgin, was not intoxicated, was not wearing seductive clothing, and has a good reputation.… Unfortunately, acquaintance sexual assaults contain few, if any, of those elements. In many acquaintance rape situations, the victim had been drinking, did voluntarily go with the man to his apartment or room, was not threatened with a weapon, did not fight back, did not report the event to the police immediately, did not have medical evidence collected, and may have even had sex with the assailant voluntarily before.28 

Risk Factors Associated with Acquaintance Rape

Understanding the factors that contribute to your problem will help you frame your own local analysis questions, determine good effectiveness measures, recognize key intervention points, and select appropriate responses.

Acquaintance rape is less random and more preventable than stranger rape.29 A woman's condition or behavior does not cause rape, but certain factors appear to increase a woman's vulnerability to it:

  • Frequently drinking enough to get drunk30
  • Drinking to the point of being unable to resist forceful sexual advances31
  • Using drugs and/or drinking (both the victim and the assailant)32
  • Having previously been the victim of sexual assault, before the start of the school year33
  • Being single34
  • Engaging in social activities with sexually predatory men35
  • Being at an isolated site36
  • Miscommunicating about sex37
  • Holding less conservative attitudes about sexual behavior38

Repeat Victimization

Numerous studies of campus rape have found that a small number of victims are repeat victims.39 One of the largest studies to date found that 22.8 percent of college rape victims had been victimized before.40

College women most at risk of rape are those who were previously victims of childhood or teen sexual assault.41 Prior victims are nearly twice as likely to be raped in college than those with no previous history of sexual assault.42 "Adolescent/young adult victimization is the most robust risk factor for victimization in the college years, and victimization in one semester predicts victimization in the following semester."43 Some researchers believe that college men can sense out women who are less able to defend themselves, or target women whose behavior (e.g., binge drinking) weakens their credibility. 44

Repeat Offending

It is unknown how many college rapists are repeat offenders. Most college acquaintance rapists go unpunished (in part because reporting is so low), so the number of serial offenses are difficult to determine. However, one study found that 96 college men accounted for 187 rapes, 45 suggesting that further research may establish that serial rapists are a common component of the acquaintance rape problem. Lack of reporting complicates the problem, since it may prevent colleges from identifying and ridding themselves of their most dangerous students.

Why Some College Men Rape

In studies in the early 1980s and 1990s, approximately one-third of college men reported they would rape a woman if they knew they would not get caught. 46 Given the number of college women raped, researchers have tried to explain the problem's prevalence:

  • Some men have stereotypic views of women's sexual behavior. In light of the high number of rapes, researchers believe that rape is not the product of psychopathic behavior; rather it is the product of mainstream beliefs about women's role in sexual situations. 47 For example, many men are socialized to believe that women initially resist sexual advances to preserve their reputation and, because of this, prefer to be overcome sexually. If a woman says no, a man is to proceed as if she said yes. In addition, some men believe that if a woman is a "tease" or "loose," she is asking for sex. If she then claims rape, she changed her mind after the fact. Such men generally believe that most rapes are false reports.
  • Some college men have sexist attitudes and seek sexual conquests. Some men simply do not care about women's feelings. "They have learned that what counts, in the popular sports term invariably adopted is that they 'score.'"48
  • Some men see alcohol as a tool for sexual conquest. While alcohol use does not cause rape, "alcohol abuse is strongly related to abuse of women."49 In addition, many college men may be unaware that having sex with someone who is drunk is rape.
  • Some men receive peer support for sexually abusive behavior. Sexually abusive men often are friends with and loyal to other sexually abusive men and get peer support for their behavior, fostering and legitimizing it.50 During the 1980s and 1990s, a series of rapes in fraternity houses, and subsequent cover-ups by fraternity members, suggested to researchers that certain all-male living arrangements foster unhealthy environments conducive to rape. 51

Alcohol's Role in Acquaintance Rape

Alcohol appears to play a large role in acquaintance rape, although it is not the cause. Research indicates that in over three-quarters of college rapes, the offender, the victim or both had been drinking. 52 Researchers provide several explanations for alcohol's presence in so many rapes:53

  • Men expect to become more sexualized when drinking. "Men view the world in a more sexualized manner than women do and, consequently, are more likely than women to interpret ambiguous cues as evidence of sexual intent."†

† Some studies have found that men (more so than women) view certain cues as evidence that a woman is interested in having sex, such as her wearing revealing clothing, agreeing to a secluded date location such as the man's room or the beach, drinking alcohol, complimenting the man during the date, and tickling the man (Abbey 1991).

  • Alcohol increases misperceptions because it reduces a person's capacity to analyze complex stimuli. Alcohol (and drug) use increases the risk that men and women will misinterpret messages between them.
  • Some men believe in stereotypes about women and drinking. Some men believe that women who drink are more sexually available than those who do not.54
  • Some men use alcohol as a justification or an excuse. Some men use alcohol to justify or excuse acting out, misbehaving or committing a crime.
  • Alcohol causes poor sending and receiving of friendly and sexual cues. "While drinking alcohol, a woman may not notice her date's persistent attempts to get her into an isolated location or encourage her to consume even more alcohol."55 In one study, "three-quarters of the acknowledged date rapists interviewed . . . said that they sometimes got women drunk in order to increase the likelihood of having sex with them."

‡ In one study, researchers found that women did not see being alone with a man and drinking as putting them at risk. Women tended to appropriately estimate the risk to others, but not to themselves, perhaps because on prior occasions, being alone with a man and drinking did not result in rape. The researchers found that women drinkers believed they could drink a lot before being at increased risk for sexual aggression (Norris, Nurius and Graham 1999).

  • Alcohol decreases women's ability to resist rape. Alcohol slows motor functions, reducing the likelihood that a woman can verbally or physically resist a rapist.

Research has found that when alcohol or drugs are involved in acquaintance rape—which is frequently the case—peers tend to hold women more responsible for the rape, and men less responsible for it.

Athletic Teams, Fraternities and Acquaintance Rape

College athletes are disproportionately reported to campus judicial officers for acquaintance rape.56 It is unclear whether they actually offend more, or whether students tend to report them more (perhaps angered by athletes' esteemed and privileged status). On some campuses, revenue-generating athletes (usually football and basketball players) may believe they are immune to campus rules (and sometimes are), and take advantage of "groupies" or other women they perceive as sexually interested in them.57

As for fraternities, a disproportionate number of documented gang rapes involve fraternity members. Research on reported gang rapes committed by college students from 1980 to 1990 found that fraternity members committed 55 percent of them.58 Fraternities often have a unique place on campus; they are typically housed in private residences (with many private rooms) and hold large unsupervised parties, often with free-flowing alcohol. Some fraternity members approve of getting a woman drunk to have sex. This, combined with some fraternities' emphasis on loyalty above identifying members who rape, has put fraternities in the center of controversy because a disproportionate number of reported rapes occur on their property. A number of researchers believe that certain fraternities, because of their practices, are more rape-prone† than others, placing sorority members (and other frequent women attendees at fraternity parties) at greater risk of rape. Some researchers also believe that binge drinking makes certain fraternities high risk for rape. Many national Greek organizations now require education for their local chapters concerning sexual assault and alcohol consumption, and some now mandate "dry" houses.

† Humphrey and Kahn (2000) found that college women correctly identify the campus fraternities and athletic teams that are high risk and low risk for rape, based on the type of parties they have had.

Legal Obligations of Colleges

The more that acquaintance rape remains a hidden crime, the less incentive that schools have to invest sufficiently in its prevention. Stranger rape results in dramatic and unwelcome publicity for colleges. Administrators try to prevent such victimization by putting cameras in parking garages, running late-night student escort and/or shuttle services, deploying student patrols, placing emergency telephones throughout campus, locking buildings to prevent strangers from entering, trimming obstructive foliage, and improving the lighting in dark or less-traveled areas. The costs of these prevention initiatives far exceed the dollars spent on acquaintance rape prevention, even though acquaintance rape is a much more likely occurrence. Increased reporting—even anonymous reporting—may push colleges to further invest in more effective acquaintance rape prevention.

Colleges have a legal duty to warn students of known risks and to provide reasonable protection.59 If a crime is foreseeable, then a college can be held liable for not sufficiently protecting against it. As noted, acquaintance rape is the most common violent crime on college campuses.60 If "acquaintance rape(s) occur at predictable times and places, the school must make reasonable efforts to prevent a recurrence; and the school may be liable if it fails to deal effectively with repeat student offenders, including rapists, whose conduct eventually results in more damage."61