The Sexual Victimization of College Females

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Abstract

This paper seeks a brief overview of the issues associated with the sexual victimization of college females and uses the 1999 government commissioned research project done by the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) as foundation for study and template for researching why it is that college females experience a far greater incidence of sexual victimization that do similar cohorts within the general population? The research explains the use of the study's "two-step model" for gathering data and information on such crime; a behavior specific survey and a separate, detailed incident report questionnaire and also touches upon difficulties in getting accurate and honest survey answers on this sensitive subject. This research and the literature review attempts to distinguish the factors that make living on campus more dangerous than being in the general population and also describes the now myriad of incidents, acts and behaviors, no matter how inconsequential they seem, that were recorded in the focus research project and which are now considered acts of sexual victimization. As well, an attempt is made to differentiate not only the reasons between "on campus" and general population crime rates but also to investigate and separate those mitigating environmental factors; dormitory living, peer-pressure, drinking and drug use, but also seeks to find a connection between behavioral factors and likelihood one is a potential victim-or potential attacker. Aside from totally and completely random acts of attack, a multitude of studies done in recent years shows a significant pattern of behavior and set of indicators as to which college females are most likely to be sexually victimized. This paper, against all concerns for safety and self-preservation attempts to discuss the correlation between behaviors and sexual victimization and suggests ways the university administrators and health professionals might adjust their models of treatment.

Sexual Victimization of College Females

The prevalence of sexual victimization of college females presents unique challenges to researchers as well as university administrators and law enforcement. It is an area of study that deserves more investigation and scrutiny as the incidence of sexual victimization of college females occurs at an unusually higher rate than among same-aged females in the general population. Additionally, due to the culture and atmosphere of the university, sexual assault and other forms of victimization may well be one of the most unreported and unprosecuted forms of crime in our society as a whole. Factors such as lack of education as to what constitutes illegal and prosecutable harassment, intimidation, coercion-and even rape make these types of crimes difficult to detect and investigate. The damage done to young women by such victimization does not necessarily correspond to the label given the abuse and the severity that society or law assigns to it (Harned, 2004). Each victim and incident is unique and only recently have researchers attempted more in-depth investigation and analysis. Women often do not want to face the personal scrutiny nor do they desire to report crimes by acquaintances and fellow students fearing embarrassment and even reprisal (Edwards, Kearns, Calhoun & Gidycz, 2009). Despite that many improvements have been made in the areas of sensitivity training and rape counseling, many women choose to avoid the added trauma and many crimes goes unreported-and this make true and accurate figures difficult to come by (Koss, 1996). No woman should be made the victim again during the investigation and prosecution of their attacker and that perceived stigma prevents many from reporting sexual victimization at all.

Researchers and various methods of data gathering had for some time been inadequate and inefficient and many university administrations downplay the occurrences even as far as to under-report any crimes of a sexual nature at all; while some colleges may not mind a reputation as a "party school" none wish to be known as a haven for sexual misconduct and the victimization of their female students (Parks, Hsieh, Bradizza, & Romosz, 2008). The campus setting presents unique challenges to the researcher as universities are one of the few institutions in America that employee there own police force and various "codes of conduct" and often seek to mediate and handle things "in house" and with expediency. Very often victims are encouraged and, perhaps intimidated by the process into dropping charges or abandoning pursuit of their attackers and, very much like the stereotype of the antiquated and outmoded 20th century police force, campus police might be more likely than local police to imply that it is the victim's "fault" that the incident happened-even as far as to suggest that the female might have been "asking for it." (Hammond, & Calhoun, 2007).

While this attempt to interpret crime figures for their individual campus as to portray a safe environment is understandable, in the very litigious 21st century, college administrators can be sued for not adequately informing prospective students of the accurate picture of campus safety. Perhaps no other single factor has influenced education about sexual victimization and honesty in regards to reporting crime statistics as has the torte system. The liability that a university can incur if it is proven negligent in its role as protector of its students has inspired administrators to be "safety conscious" and has likely led to increased investigation and prosecution of such crimes.

Because of the discrepancies in the way sexual victimization is defined, reported, prosecuted, and recorded, the methodology utilized in research models presents at times disparate, if not misleading numbers. For this reason, more and more detailed research and data gathering needs done in order to obtain a clearer picture of what may well be an epidemic of sexual victimization across all of our college campuses. Without extensive, certain and empirical evidence to support efforts at educating students and providing them a safe environment, administrators may be misled by unsubstantiated assertions and statistics presented out of context-and their attempts at improving campus safety and education towards reducing sexual victimization of their female attendees may be unproductive- or even counterproductive. Common wisdom might submit that the discrepancy in college female sexual victimization and the similar subset in the population at-large is a simple product of their proximity to a large population of males and the use of drugs and alcohol-and that would be correct but those factors are only environmental variables. More in-depth surveys now have allowed researchers to gain insight as to what kind of person the attacker is likely to be as well as an even more detailed picture of what type of college female is most likely to be sexually victimized.

Weaknesses in Methodology

The variables that are not considered when one hears broad statistics on sexual victimization of college students belie the weaknesses in methodology-and as well as can be intentional manipulation of the numbers to suit ones needs. While true that college females are more likely to be assaulted, does that statement mean both on and off campus? When numbers represent sexual victimization, do they include only rape and violent assault or other kinds of abuse and intimidation? Do percentages consider and reflect the margin of error as far as those who will not even admit to being victimized depending on the format of survey used (Edwards, Kearns, Calhoun & Gidycz, 2009)? Are the surveys worded in such a way that prevent any confusion or misreading of the questions and the details it is asking for (Koss, 1996)? Do rates of reporting change with the type of assault (Thompson, Sitterle, Clay & Kingree, 2007)?

Sampling and controls are very important when trying to grasp the breadth of such a widespread and complicated problem and how one frames and reports the results is as equal in relevance as how one frames and poses the questions asked in the surveys (Koss, 1996). This is true whether questioning females or males in the student population at large. Design must make comfortable the respondent and illicit the highest rate of truthful answers in order for control comparisons to be true and this holds both for reports of victimization but also behavioral data gathering such as obtaining accurate statistics on drinking and drug use as well as other factors that now can be used as predictors (Walsh & Braithwaite, 2008). These variables, when accurately explained, can in some cases change what people have believed about the issue for years and some of the interpretations of the data can be quite alarming and even shocking.

Two studies funded by the Justice Department in the late 1990's have remained the definitive and most relied upon research to date. While numbers may have fluctuated in the decade since, patterns that were discovered in these two comprehensive studies have given the first true statistics as well as detailed information about the exact circumstances under which the victimization occurred, what type of force or coercion was used, and what exactly took place-and both surveys involve in-depth investigation of the specific acts as to better define and categorize survey respondents. Additionally, these surveys were the first large group questionnaires to include other, non-violent forms of sexual harassment and intimidation such as stalking and verbal intimidation. These studies were also far-thinking and far-reaching in their success at profiling attackers as well as victims-something that had not been previously attempted at any great length.

The National College Women Sexual Victimization (NCWSV) study from 1999 was funded by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), and aimed to expand upon previous studies and research on the sexual victimization of college students. Their project design contained its own means of assessing the effectiveness and accuracy of rape estimates that used the two-stage process (behaviorally specific and separate incident report questionnaires) and were drafted as to be compatible to be compared to the sample of college women who responded to the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) as a control. The comparison component was third party and financed by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). The accumulated data of these two studies and the comparison study have provided the most systematic and expansive analysis of the sexual victimization of college women ever and has spurred smaller research such as common factors and traits in both likely assailant and victim and well as more in-depth research on culture and environment and how and to what extent they contribute (Fisher & Cullen, 2000).

Both studies were very similar and used similar sized sampling (+/- 4500) and study length (+/- 180 days) but the NCVS study used a much more in-depth and detailed survey in their incident report questionnaire. The studies were intentionally set up as to compare data and study variables as influenced by the exact wording of the survey questions. This was an attempt to get not just the most detailed answers but the most accurate and honest response from the 4500 hundred or so surveyed about a six month period of one spring semester. While the data might not reflect rates for fall and summer semesters, that time frame was chosen as to minimize memory fade and all questions began with "Since the start of this school year…" and surveys were initiated in January and February while student's minds were still fresh as to the previous semester's events (Fisher & Cullen, 2000).

The NCVS questions begin by determining the precise type of victimization; "attacked or threatened or intimidated" and then respondents are read a list that includes questions about specific places and situations in which the victimization occurred; "at work or at school"; objects or weapons used; "knife, gun" threats and intimidation; "firing, bad grade, verbal harassment", determination of the relationship to the abuser/attacker; "friend, stranger, family member" as well as more subtle forms of coercion and harassment such as stalking, unwanted contact, verbal and visual victimization and acts such as being shown pornography or having a male expose themselves to them (Fisher & Cullen, 2000).

Despite that these were surveys designed for college females, the precision, clarity and specificity of the questions, along with establishing subcategories never before surveyed was essential and was refined to exclude both bias and confusion or redundancy. The resulting comparison though is not precise as one study used a method of counting only the highest degree of victimization, i.e. penetration and rape to completion would be counted as a "ten" on the scale of sexual violence and victimization. With that designation the respondent was placed and categorized only once while the other study entered the respondents in numerous categories by defining acts and circumstances rather than only outcome. True to their aim though the overall numbers match up and both studies are considered empirical data. Little dispute has arisen in the ten years since these studies were done and perhaps their only weakness were small sampling size and length of study.

A Clearer Picture

Of course, accounting for unique circumstances; the college environment and culture but with all other factors seeming steady and uniform, research attempted to understand other factors aside from environment, such as lack of education on the matter and safety issues inherent to living on a college campus. The goal was to differentiate between the two groups of women-students and non-students and find factors, variables and even predictors of what makes this problem more prevalent among college females than the general public-despite that college campuses are known both for their education and safety priorities. Going farther than any previous study, this data also allowed for researchers to differentiate between two other types of females; college females who where sexually victimized and those who were not (Synovitz & Byrne, 1998).

Leaving random acts of sexual violence both on college females and general population females aside, these studies exposed numerous misconceptions and dispelled many myths. Perhaps most interesting is the more detailed picture given both of the common attributes of the most likely attacker and the situation under which they would operate-but also the detailed surveys included behavioral questioning that characterized what personality traits and behaviors were most common to college women who experienced sexual victimization (Kaczor, Ryckman, Thornton & Kuehnel, 1991). The studies found that the percentage of incidents of sexual victimization is no lower at small schools, rural colleges or even faith-based universities (Vanderwoerd, 2009).

While study since these two reports has expanded to attempt to survey and understand college-age males and their predisposition or likelihood towards sexual victimization of any sort, the study of circumstances and the behaviors of the victims has shed light on the patterns of abuse as well as better informed the counseling and law enforcement professions on how to address the problem (DuRant, Champion, Wolfson, Omli, McCoy, D'Agostino Jr. et al., 2007). The data portrays a set of dangerous behaviors that perhaps college administrators and sexual victimization awareness programs are not addressing; the reason that college females experience a significantly higher incidence of sexual intimidation lies in the university culture itself, and while many assaults are random and isolated incidents, the reason that college females more often fall prey than non-students seems to be in their willingness to indulge in risky behavior. Factoring that females admitted to college could be presumed more intelligent than that same age females in the at-large population seems peculiar especially in view of the fact that likely every campus in the nation has education and awareness programs. This might lead one to investigate both behavior, the cultural aspect of the environment (as opposed to the physical factors) and even peer-pressure that might influence behavior.

When compared to the known factors considered and reported in at-large general population surveys, the numbers do not point to any major differences; whether the attacker is known to them or a stranger, whether alcohol or drugs was used a means of effective coercion, or even the use of threat, intimidation or force, it becomes clear that many, if not most college female victims have a certain lifestyle in common that lends itself to the scenario desired most by the typical sexual predator (Howard, Griffin & Boekeloo, 2008). While this might be easily construed as a politically incorrect conclusion to reach, numerous studies point to antecedent factors and predictors for both attackers and for victims including number of previous sexual partners, alcohol and drug use-and even previous abuse (Synovitz & Bryne, 1998).

Simply put, a population of competitive-minded, testosterone-filled males at their sexual peak living coeducationally in close quarters with a similar cohort of females raised to portray themselves as sexually desirable naturally lends itself to sexual interchange if not misconduct (Kaczor, Ryckman, Thornton & Kuehnel, 1991).The mixture of social and binge drinking along with both illicit and prescription drug abuse and the addition of peer-pressure creates a breeding ground for poor judgment and sexual aggression (Krebs, Lindquist, Warner, Fisher & Martin, 2009). Drugs and alcohol are considered a form of coercion in these surveys (Du Mont, Macdonald, Rotbard, Asllani, Bainbridge & Cohen, 2009). Research finds that drinking games are solely aimed at intoxicating the females in the game as to lower their inhibitions and resistance-or lower their guard and cloud their judgment (Johnson & Stahl, 2004). Quickly shifting and evolving morays inevitably create confusion and conflict and college culture and the newly acquired freedom and developing sexual attitudes of college students almost prove disputed theories that critical thinking skills are not fully developed until one's late twenties and university would better serve an older more mature population (Oswald & Russell, 2006). If these children are not mature enough to make wise decisions about their safety despite numerous warnings then how is one to believe that they are capable of making a career choice at that young age?

Identifying Predictors

Research finds that women who were sexually victimized as adolescents were far more likely to experience a similar incident their freshman year (Smith, White & Holland, 2003). As well underage-freshman drinking drastically increases the odds of victimization (2009). A finding such as this likely establishes causation between behavioral traits and the likelihood of being victimized. One survey showed that over 35% of incoming freshman females had experienced some form of sexual victimization already in their lives (Himelein, Vogel, & Wachowiak, 1994). Re-victimization becomes more likely each time a female is victimized; should she be a victim her freshman year, so increase her chances of it happening again but that is, at least, influenced by how she deals with the assaults. (Littleton, Axsom, & Grills-Taquechel, 2009). Studies and statistics would seem to confirm that behavioral factors may play a major role and could be indicators of the likelihood of victimization (Krebs, Lindquist, Warner, Fisher & Martin, 644). Research asserts that counseling and prevention programs do not affect rates among student who had already experienced one instance of sexual victimization (Rothman & Silverman, 2007) Not even self-defense training in concert with awareness programs have in any way reduced likelihood of an attack (Gidycz, Rich, Orchowski, King & Miller, 2006). Aside from drug and alcohol misuse and abuse and the correlation between ones likelihood of being sexual victimized and the number of sexual partners that the victim has had, these other commonalties, the common behavioral traits, are not dealt with completely by administrations and university mental health/crisis counseling centers (White & Humphrey, 1993)

Irrefutable Patterns Might Lead to New Strategies

As sometimes the case when a researcher tackles an issue that is previously unknown to them and that they approach with no predisposed bias, patterns emerge-and even new insights and theories arise. Assuming that the physical and environmental factors that differentiate the college female from the general population; living arrangements, segregation with other immature students of a similar socio-economic and educational background, can be factored and factored out, the variable that strikes one as common is the character profile of the victim herself. Providing that all areas of education and prevention are adequately addressed and the same as far as potential attackers or intimidators as well, one can only assume that behavior modification, not education or prevention, needs to somehow be part of the equation and most likely the best method for affecting the numbers.

With adequate research of peer-reviewed journal articles, studies and experiments it becomes evident that the behaviors and their predictors are obvious-but unpopular to talk about. So far, research on female predisposition to being attacked have been studied more than the profile of the attacker but still something proactive might need tried on both female and male fronts. Despite sounding rather intrusive and even demeaning, proactive measures need implemented that truly addresses the entire student as either a potential attacker or potential victim. Males need broken of their "wilding" instinct and females need "called-out" on their dress and behavior-and substance abuse. Behavior modification calls for a very strong rewards and punishments regime-better punishments, as to set a strong example and colleges need "zero tolerance" attitudes but also need to safeguard rights, due process and privacy. Still, nothing sends a more negative signal than some star college athlete being protected by administration and getting away with sexual victimization and punishments need to be swift and harsh if the epidemic is to be slowed. Students these days watch too much unrealistic and fantastic internet porn and some start very early. At age nineteen or twenty they have only a slight grasp of reality or difference between the sexes and those of them with little experience with drugs or alcohol seem more likely to lose control.

Not found much in research are studies on the value of proactive counseling and an attempt at some form of behavior modification of females who have been victimized or assaulted-especially those who have been more than once. The feminist expectation that a female should be able to walk down Main Street in the skimpiest of attire and expect not be accosted might be reasonable and an ideal to aspire to but reality dictates a more realistic and pragmatic approach and teaching young women that they should be allowed to go up to an older college athlete's room after midnight and expect every time that "No" will result in "No" is a manifestation of both poor upbringing and poor judgment.

It would be hard to imagine the uproar were a university to mandate, on a case by case basis, that if the female was assaulted while at a party too drunk to function rationally that she herself shall be ordered to counseling sessions if drugs or booze were a factor in her poor judgment? Or consider that since sixty-percent of rapes occur in the victim's own dorm room could they be banned from having male company for a determinate length of time (Fisher, 1999)? If the victim has had a history of abuse could the Dean ask that she undergo extensive counseling-as in mandate it? This might not seem unreasonable or overly intrusive when you consider the facts about re-victimization.

The numbers are stark and this writing has intentionally avoided statistics until the end as to emphasize a point; 350 rapes occur each school year per 10,000 students (Fisher, 2000). The NCWSV report showed that 22.8 % of the time it is not the victim's first rape and also concluded that in the course of a five-year college career that the percentage of completed or attempted rape of college females might well be on the order of 20% to 25%. A woman's chance of graduating college without getting raped, or at least having to fend off a rapist, are around one-in-four or one-in-five. These are very frightening numbers indeed and while perhaps there are no set numbers that designate "an epidemic" these numbers are out of control by anyone's standards. University administrations need to stop putting their concerns for covering their flanks as to their possible exposure and liability and instead be proactive and do what is needed whether deemed popular or unpopular, draconian or progressive-or even politically incorrect.

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