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Acquaintance Rape of College Students, 2nd Edition

Guide No. 17 (2018)

by Rana Sampson and Victoria N. Murray

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The Problem of Acquaintance Rape of College Students

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 campus public-safety officers can more effectively reduce the problem.

What This Guide Does and Does Not Cover 

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

  • Abuse in college dating relationships (including violence other than sexual victimization)
  • Drug-induced rape
  • Indecent exposure in college libraries
  • Sexual assault other than rape (e.g., unwanted touching)
  • Sexual harassment
  • Stalking of college students
  • Stranger rape
  • Use of verbal coercion to obtain sexual intercourse
  • Voyeurism (“peeping Toms”) on college campuses 

Some of these related problems are covered in other guides in this series, all of which are listed at the end of this guide. For the most up-to-date listing of current and future guides, see www.popcenter.org

General Description of the Problem 

On a national scale, one in five women in college will be sexually assaulted while in college.[1] Of that number, 38 percent of heterosexual women reported their first rape between the ages of 18 and 24, putting college-aged women at highest risk for rape.[2] Non-students seemingly have a higher chance of being raped than students; however, this could be because non-students are more likely to report their rapes than are students.[3] 

Rape rates vary by school, type of school and region, suggesting that certain schools are more rape-prone than others. For instance, private colleges and major universities have higher than national-average rates, while religiously affiliated institutions have lower-than-average rates.[4] Also, students at two-year institutions (about 16 percent) were significantly more likely than those at four-year institutions (about 11 percent) to report they had been forced during their lifetime to have sexual intercourse.[5] As a word of caution, a recent study systematically reviewed 34 studies on campus sexual assault published since 2000 and found that the prevalence of sexual victimization varied greatly, largely due to measurement and definitional differences, rendering it difficult to compare findings across studies.[6] 

College women are raped at significantly higher rates than college men.† Some research suggests that less than 1 percent of men report being raped.[7] However, so few men report their sexual assault that information is limited about the extent of this problem.[8] Accordingly, this guide primarily addresses college women as victims.

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

Stranger rape of college students is less common than acquaintance rape. Indeed, by the 1990s, acquaintance rape had replaced stranger rape as the focus for rape prevention.[9] Most campus sexual assaults are committed by a victim’s acquaintance[10], usually a classmate, friend, boyfriend, or ex-boyfriend.[11], ‡ Nonetheless, many women misunderstand their risk for acquaintance rape, believing it is more likely to happen to others than to themselves.[12]

‡ One survey “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). 

Societal and Official Attitudes About Acquaintance Rape 

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 view that stranger rape is “real rape,” while acquaintance rape is less serious and less harmful.[13] 

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.[14] 

Many acquaintance rapists who are convicted get shorter sentences, on average, than rapists who are strangers to the victim.[15] Additionally, women who do not fit traditional gender roles are often seen as more responsible for their rapes, particularly those who are acquaintance-rape victims.[16] 

Types of Acquaintance Rape of College Students 

Although the various labels and subcategories within the general problem of acquaintance rape have no legal significance, it is important to understand the different forms of acquaintance rape for prevention and investigation purposes. The common subcategories, which can overlap, and the terms most commonly associated with 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)†
  • Acquaintance rape in a non-party and non-date situation (e.g., while studying together)
  • Rape by a former intimate
  • Rape by a current intimate

§ More than 90% of rape and sexual victimizations of female students (95%) and nonstudents (92%) were committed by a single offender, rather than a group of offenders (Sinozich and Langton, 2014).

 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) (Fisher, Cullen and Turner, 2000). 

In each case, the offender’s and victim’s behavior before the attack, and the contributing environmental factors during the attack, may differ.‡ 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.† In these cases, the victim usually has not drunk any alcohol, and there is no prior relationship or even acquaintance between the victim and offender.

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

§ Many sexual assaults during college are defined as party rape because of the close association with partying and alcohol (Armstrong, Hamilton and Sweeney, 2006).

† The term date rape is sometimes used to refer to incidents in which offenders surreptitiously give victims drugs in order to reduce their resistance. Rohypnol is the most commonly used drug for this purpose, known by its street name as a ‘Roofie’ or ‘Mickey’ (Weiss and Colyer, 2010). 

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.‡

‡ Defendants generally do not claim consent as a defense in a stranger-rape case. Thus, the investigation need not focus 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. 

Victim Underreporting 

Rape reported to authorities is estimated at as low as 12 percent,[17] with the rate as low as about 3% when the rape involved drug or alcohol use,[18] perhaps giving campus administrators and police the false impression that current prevention efforts are adequate.§ Acquaintance rape is less likely than stranger rape to leave visible injuries, meaning that acquaintance-rape victims most likely report lower levels of rape than the general public.† Low reporting results in fewer victims receiving assistance, fewer offenders being confronted or prosecuted, and college administrators being poorly informed about the extent of the problem.[19] However, about two-thirds of victims tell someone, often a friend (but usually not a family member or college official).[20]

§ Some universities have been found to be deliberately categorizing sexual assault as different types of crimes in order to make their colleges seem safer (Hardy and Barrows, 2001).

† The lesser the physical injury to the victim, the less likely they are to report their attack (Wolitzky-Taylor, et al., 2011). 

The most common reason for underreporting for women is the fear of retaliation by the perpetrator, and for men, underreporting is mainly due to the fear of being perceived as gay.[21] Other common reasons for not reporting the rape to authorities include the following:[22] 

  • Embarrassment and shame
  • Fear of publicity
  • 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
  • Uncertainty that what occurred was illegal
  • Belief that the incident is not important enough to report 

Underreporting of acquaintance rape has also been linked to “rape myth acceptance,” a cultural norm that women should resist sexual advances to maintain their purity, while men should act on their sexual urges because it makes them masculine.[23] One study found that the more a person believed in rape myth acceptance, the more likely they were to discourage someone from reporting their rape.[24] This is true for male and female rape victims. Therefore, the prevalence of rape myth acceptance contributes to low rape reporting and prosecution. 

Finally, rape victims are more likely to disclose the incident to a peer rather than the police, and those who do disclose their rape often do so to those who have suffered rape themselves, binge drink, abuse substances, have a lifetime history of PTSD, and have sought help for emotional concerns.[25] 

False Reporting 

Some police officers erroneously believe that a high percentage of rape reports are deliberately false (by both college students and the general population of women).[26] In fact, false allegations of sexual assault range from only 2 to 10 percent, indicating that most rape reports are valid.[27], §

§ 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 (Lisak, Gardinier, Nicksa, Cote, 2010). 

Some police investigators incorrectly think that a rape report is unfounded or false if any of the following conditions apply: 

  • The victim has a prior, perhaps intimate/sexual, relationship with the offender
  • The victim does not fight off the offender
  • The victim was wearing revealing clothes
  • The victim used alcohol or drugs at the time of the assault
  • There is no visible evidence of injury
  • The victim begrudgingly agreed to sex after being continuously harassed by the offender
  • 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 

Consent and Victimization 

In fact, regardless of the above factors, whether the victim gave consent to the sexual activity that occurred is the determining factor as to whether a rape occurred.†  However, a study of a Midwestern college found that while most students agreed that a ‘yes’ should be given in order to constitute consent, most felt that situations leading up to the event, including nonverbal cues, could be considered consent.[28] Meaningful discourse when students enter college is imperative in order to teach students that consent not only means a mutual ‘yes’ by both parties, but also that a lack of a yes does not mean no (see discussion of consent on p.). Furthermore, encouraging open communication regarding consent in college has been shown to lower sexual assaults.[29]

† Historically, rape law was more accepting of implicit consent and extended that consent to additional acts that the victim might not have intended, but more recently, courts and university administrators have adopted more-stringent standards regarding consent, expecting that consent be explicitly given and that it be limited to specific sexual acts and times (Anderson, 2010; Dougherty, 2015).  

Another aspect of consent that should be addressed is that an initial ‘yes’ is not necessarily a continuous notion. This means that at any point, either party can say ‘no’ or ‘stop,’ halting any previous consent. In one study addressing the continuous consent of females in acquaintance rape, researchers found that most women had the hardest time communicating to their attacker that they were uncomfortable as the attack was happening due to the muting effect, which essentially renders the victim speechless because they are frozen in fear.[30] 

Harms Caused by Acquaintance Rape of College Students 

Physical Harm to Victims 

Although most acquaintance rapes are not physically violent, 20 percent of college rape victims suffer physical injuries, most often bruises, black eyes, cuts, swelling, or chipped teeth.[31] Thus, in most acquaintance-rape cases, there will be a need to investigate more subtle evidence, such as lack of consent and focusing on witnesses, as opposed to relying solely on physical signs of abuse to corroborate a victim’s story.

Psychological Harm to Victims 

Rape victims experience post-traumatic stress disorder at a higher rate than all other victims of crime. [32] 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, anxiety about sexually transmitted disease, guilt, and sexual dysfunction.[33] College acquaintance-rape victims face additional consequences. Many drop out of school because, if they stay, they might regularly face their attacker on campus.[34] Since most victims do not report, colleges cannot intervene to protect them from reencountering their attackers. 

Fear Among College Women 

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.[35] 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.[36] 

Factors Contributing to Acquaintance Rape of College Students 

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[37], so it is important to understand the factors associated with offending, victimization, and the environmental setting to prevent the crime. Neither the victim’s condition nor behavior cause nor are responsible for rape, but the following factors appear to increase a victim’s vulnerability to it:‡ 

  • Using drugs and/or drinking (both the victim and the assailant). According to self-reporting, 82 percent of women were under the influence of drugs or alcohol when they were attacked.[38]
  • Frequently drinking enough to get drunk[39]
  • Drinking to the point of being unable to resist forceful sexual advances[40]
  • Having previously been the victim of sexual assault, before the start of the school year[41]
  • Being unmarried[42]
  • Engaging in social activities with sexually predatory men[43]
  • Being at an isolated site
  • Being younger and relatively anonymous on campus[44]
  • Miscommunicating about sex[45]
  • Holding less conservative attitudes about sexual behavior[46]

 ‡ See Hanson and Gidycz (1993) for a discussion of the research on risk factors. 

Some features of the college environment, such as frequent unsupervised parties, easy access to alcohol, single students living on their own, and the availability of private rooms, may also contribute to high rape rates of college students.[47] 

Patterns regarding time (temporal), place (geographic), victim injuries, victim resistance, fear of rape, psychological harm to victims, and attitudes about acquaintance rape are summarized below.§

§ Some of the research covers data for both acquaintance and stranger rape of college students. Since nearly 80 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 and sophomore years.[48] Research has shown that rapes of college women tend to occur after 6 p.m., and the majority occur after midnight.[49], †

† However, since the change in the FBI’s definition of rape, there have been no new studies regarding the temporal patterns of rape among college students.

Geographic Patterns 

Thirty-four percent of completed rapes and 45 percent of attempted rapes take place on campus.[50] 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.[51] 

Victim Resistance 

About one-half of victims try to stop a rape by doing at least one of the following: using force‡, telling or begging the assailant to stop, screaming, or fleeing.[52] The term “token resistance” is often used in rape cases, where the victim’s verbal and physical resistance is part of the thrill of the assault. [53], §

‡ Nationally, only 13 percent of acquaintance-rape victims fight their assailant (Anderson, 2010).

§ “In general, some type of overt resistance was predictive of higher levels of victim credibility, perpetrator culpability, and perpetrator guilt, and lower levels of both victim culpability and victim pleasure” (Angelone, Mitchell, & Grossi, p.2294, 2015). 

Some researchers assert that sexually predatory men can sense which women are less able to defend themselves, or to target women whose behavior (e.g., binge drinking) undermines their credibility.[54] 

Repeat Victimization 

A small number of acquaintance-rape victims are repeatedly victimized.[55] One of the largest studies to date found that nearly one-quarter of college rape victims had been victimized before.[56] College women most at risk of rape are those who were previously victims of childhood or teen sexual assault[57], and “...victimization in one semester predicts victimization in the following semester.”[58] 

Repeat Offending 

An estimated three-quarters of rapists who are not prosecuted are repeat offenders[59], making it likely they will offend again. Repeat offenders who have not been convicted average six rapes per offender.[60] Most college acquaintance rapists go unpunished­—in part because reporting is so low—so the number of serial offenses is difficult to determine. Serial rapists tend to know that the punishment is harsher in forcible-rape cases, so they try not to use force or leave marks on or demean their victims; or they choose victims whom they believe juries will be disinclined to believe due to their sexual histories.[61] Lack of reporting exacerbates the problem because it precludes colleges from identifying and ridding themselves of their most dangerous students. 

Offender Motives 

Studies conducted in the 1980s and 1990s indicated that approximately one-third of college men reported they would rape a woman if they knew they would not get caught.[62] In studies of some colleges, as much as 15 percent of the men surveyed indicated that they committed rape and up to 57 percent indicated that they committed some form of sexual assault.[63] Below are some explanations researchers have offered 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.[64] A study of 37 convicted rapists found that 70 percent of the rapists thought of women as sexual objects and that men rape because they feel entitled to a woman’s body.[65] 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 men receive peer support for sexually abusive behavior. College men—especially the younger of them—tend to place great importance on their male peers’ opinion of them and, therefore, pursue sexual conquests to gain favor in their social groups.[66] 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.[67] Some men learn not to care about women’s feelings. “They have learned that what counts, in the popular sports term invariably adopted…is that they ‘score.’”[68] 

Alcohol’s Role in Acquaintance Rape 

Alcohol appears to play a large role in acquaintance rape, although it is not the cause.[69] In over three-quarters of college rapes, the offender, the victim or both had been drinking.[70] Among the explanations for alcohol’s presence in so many rapes are the following:[71] 

  • The mere fact that a woman consumed alcohol causes some men to assume that women wanted to have sex, even when they use force to have it.[72]
  • Some college men are unaware that having sex with someone who is drunk is rape because the victim cannot give legal consent when under a certain level of alcohol impairment.
  • 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.”† One effect of consuming alcohol is a form of myopia, which causes men to think about their own pleasure while ignoring the signs of resistance and discomfort in women.[73]
  • Some men consider their own intoxication a justification or excuse for acting out, misbehaving or committing a crime. Men who justify rape due to their intoxication are likely to continue relying on this excuse in the future.[74]
  • 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 one another’s words and actions. One study at a Midwestern U.S. university reported that 60 percent of women who were under the influence of alcohol and had been raped thought that their judgment had been moderately to severely impacted by the alcohol.[75]
  • Alcohol causes poor sending and receiving of friendly and sexual cues, such as the victim’s unawareness that a man is trying to maneuver her into an isolated location or to encourage her to become intoxicated.[76] Some women who recognize the risks in others’ behavior, fail to accurately gauge their own risks in being alone with a man and drinking, perhaps because on prior occasions, being alone with a man and drinking did not result in rape, and perhaps because they inaccurately believe they can drink a lot before being at increased risk of being victimized by sexual aggression.[77]
  • Alcohol decreases women’s ability to resist rape by slowing motor functions, thereby reducing their ability to verbally or physically resist a rapist.

 † 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). 

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.[78] 

Athletic Teams and Fraternities 

College athletes are disproportionately reported to campus judicial officers for acquaintance rape.[79] 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.[80]

‡ Many of the gang-rape charges involving athletes “seem to involve members of such contact team sports as football, basketball and lacrosse, rather than athletes from such individual nonaggressive sports as tennis and golf” Parrot et al. (1994). 

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.[81] 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. Furthermore, some fraternities that emphasize sex as an important defining aspect of membership[82] or that promote binge drinking, appear to be more rape-prone§ than others, placing sorority members (and other frequent women attendees at fraternity parties) at greater risk of rape. Many national Greek organizations now require education for their local chapters concerning sexual assault and alcohol consumption, and some now mandate “dry” houses. Rapes in fraternity houses, and subsequent cover-ups by fraternity members, suggest that certain all-male living arrangements foster unhealthy environments conducive to rape.[83]

 § 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. 

One review of 29 studies concluded that hypermasculinity† in fraternities and on sports teams encourages rape and sexual assault as a means of demonstrating male dominance.[84]

† “Hypermasculinity involves attitudes of sexual callousness, male dominance, and acceptance of aggression” (Murnen and Kohlman, p.153, 2007). 

Legal Obligations of Colleges 

The more that acquaintance rape remains a hidden crime, the less incentive schools have to invest in its prevention. A recent review by the U.S. Department of Education has exposed that many college administrators have been misreporting the incidence of sexual assault on their campuses to have their school viewed as being safer than other schools.  Stranger rape results in dramatic and unwelcome publicity for colleges. College 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 typically far exceed the dollars spent on acquaintance-rape prevention, even though acquaintance rape is a much more likely occurrence.  

Due to research studies and lawsuits in the seventies, the Clery Act‡ was passed, which requires that colleges warn students of known risks and to provide reasonable protection.[85] If a crime is foreseeable, then a college can be held liable for not sufficiently protecting against it. 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.”[86]

‡ Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act (20 USC §1092(f)). 

Many universities have developed comprehensive policies and procedures relating to sexual and gender-based misconduct, covering at a minimum: student and faculty conduct, police and administrative investigative procedures, misconduct consequences, and relevant rights and responsibilities.§

§ See, for example, Columbia University’s “Sexual Respect” policy and procedures at https://sexualrespect.columbia.edu/university-policy.
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