Center for Problem-Oriented Policing

Acquaintance Rape of College Students

Guide No. 17 (2002)

by Rana Sampson

PDF Guide

The Problem of Aquaintance 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