Many Female College Freshmen Report Sexual Assault, Rape

A walkway on a college campus
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During her freshman year of college, a woman has a 1 in 10 chance of being forcibly sexually assaulted or raped, and a 1 in 7 chance of being assaulted or raped while incapacitated by drugs or alcohol, according to the findings of a new survey from one U.S. college campus.

"With a fine-grained analysis of events that are occurring over the very first year of starting college, we get surprisingly high rates of attempted or completed rape," said Kate Carey, one of the study researchers and a professor of behavioral and social sciences at Brown University School of Public Health in Providence, Rhode Island. "We wanted to add to the growing scientific documentation that this is a public health problem that really deserves more attention both at the policy level, but also at the individual-prevention level."

In their report, published yesterday (May 19) in the Journal of Adolescent Health, Carey and her team note that a national study published in 2007 estimated the annual incidence of rape among college women at 5 percent, fivefold higher than for women not in college. But that study and others looking at rape prevalence were limited in that the number of participants was small and the studies did not focus on the first year of college, when women's risk of rape is highest.

To address these issues, Carey and her colleagues surveyed 483 women at a university in upstate New York at four different times: when the women arrived on campus, at the end of their fall semester, at the end of the spring semester and at the end of the summer after their first year in college. The women reported whether they had been raped, including whether they were incapacitated by drugs or alcohol at the time, and whether the rapist used threats of violence or physical force.

Upon arriving at college, 18 percent of women said they had already experienced an attempted or completed rape while they were incapacitated, and 15 percent of women reported an attempted or completed rape by force.

Because of the way the researchers collected the data, it's possible that the survey participants reported a single event that involved both incapacitation and the use of force or threats, Carey said. Therefore, in the researchers' findings on forcible rape and rape while a woman was incapacitated, it's likely there is overlap, with the same event being counted in both categories, she said.   

During the women's first year of college, 15 percent reported attempted or completed rape while they were incapacitated, and 9 percent reported attempted or completed forcible rape. All told, by the time study participants entered their second year of college, 26 percent had experienced attempted or completed incapacitated rape, and 22 percent had reported attempted or completed forcible rape.

Women who reported being raped while incapacitated before college were six times more likely to be assaulted or raped while incapacitated during college, compared with other women in the study. And they were more than four times more likely to experience attempted or completed forcible rape.

Colleges and universities need to make sure that victims of assault feel comfortable reporting an incident, and that victims feel supported when assaults happen, Carey said. But what's especially needed are prevention strategies, she said.

There has been little research on the effectiveness of prevention programs and policies, Carey told Live Science. "I think we really do need to redouble our efforts to try to build an evidence base and really try to identify what are the components of preventive interventions that actually work." [Understanding the 10 Most Destructive Human Behaviors]

Future research should follow students over their college careers "to really understand where the potential pockets of risk might be," Carey added. And prevention efforts should not be a one-time thing. "This probably ought to be a conversation that's initiated on a regular basis just to give people the permission to speak about the events that have happened to them, but also to adapt to new situations and really think about managing the risks for themselves and their friends over time."

Heather McCauley of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and Adam Casler of Siena College in Loudonville, New York, wrote in an editorial accompanying the study that more prevention programs are indeed needed.

"Implications here are clear; efforts to reduce risky alcohol use on college campuses — whether in the form of campus policies and programs or brief interventions in college health centers — would benefit from incorporating universal messages about healthy relationships and healthy sexuality, which are, in fact, strategies for violence prevention," the authors said.

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Contributing Writer