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Improving Estimations of the Prevalence of CSM on College Campuses

Campus sexual misconduct (CSM) is a pervasive, widely misunderstood facet of campus life. Activists, advocates, scholars and policymakers have long recognized the scope and severity of sexual misconduct, yet years of research and policy development have not yet made significant progress on eliminating or reducing CSM among college students. Still, many have taken up the task of untangling risk factors and specific behaviors corresponding to shifting, overlapping terminology from a social network of student experience.

In Campus Sexual Assault: A Systematic Review of Prevalence Research From 2000 to 2015 Lisa Fedina, Jennifer Lynne Holmes, Bethany L. Backes comprehensively review what discrepancies exist in the current prevalence findings, research design, methodology, sampling techniques and measures (including types of sexual misconduct measured). Researchers defined prevalence as the percentages of participants within each study sample that reported sexual victimization since entering college or during a follow-up period while attending college. Among the studies examined are those that informed the Obama White House Administration whose campaign against CSM broadened the scope of Title IX to ensure universities were properly investigating, punishing, and preventing CSM.

Authors argue that currently, the effort is dominated by an empirical focus on capturing broad prevalence estimates, the rate of assaulted students, but is not the most robust image of the issue. It is likely that rates are higher than what research captures; there is widespread underreporting of CSM and estimating prevalence from reports to official entities is limited in its utility and accuracy. Further, data collection methods and approaches to a survey often result in varying rates in reported victimization. Definitional issues and inconsistency in the types of misconduct measured across studies and the composition of the study sample can introduce corruption of the situational context of the misconduct studied.

The review also found that studies too often capture the experience of limited sections of the student body, thereby cementing bias or misaligned influences into data meant to inform prevention programming and policy. A majority of studies reported findings based on primarily white, heterosexual student samples, and thus findings are primarily linked to this population. This is especially damaging to prevention given newer findings that the high rates of CSM are higher for queer students and students of color.

Generally, the authors found a large degree of variability in prevalence findings due to confounding factors of research design, reporting time frame, differences in sampling strategies, different sample characteristics, measures used, and variability in constructs and definitions for CSM. Studies that provide students with clear and consistent definitions of CSM, the possible behaviors or responses to unwanted sexual advances, can measure the range of unwanted sexual experiences more closely, leading to an enhanced recall of events and more accurate estimates of CSM.

Future studies on CSM should clearly define terms used, including the range of experiences that may fall under "unwanted sexual contact" as well as distinguish between the use of force, incapacitation, sexual coercion, and drug- and/or alcohol-facilitated assault. Standardized definitions for each form of victimization, measured separately, may improve our understanding of the prevalence of various forms of sexual victimization experienced by students on college campuses.


Work Cited

  1. Fedina, Lisa, Jennifer Lynne Holmes, and Bethany L. Backes. 2018. “Campus Sexual Assault: A Systematic Review of Prevalence Research From 2000 to 2015.” Trauma, Violence, & Abuse 19(1):76–93. doi: 10.1177/1524838016631129.

Last Fact Checked on May 29th, 2021.


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