Unwanted Sexual Contact, in Context

Unusual report explores the relational and social contexts of campus incidents.
May 8, 2008

The college social scene is the setting or context for much of the unwanted sexual contact that happens on campuses, as a new report by researchers at the University of New Hampshire, exploring the experiences of the university's undergraduates, details.

"For both female and male students, unwanted sexual contact occurs where they live, at social events, and often when the perpetrator and victim have been drinking. The vast majority of incidents occurs between UNH students, and an acquaintance is most often the perpetrator," the report states.

“I think the main point we’re trying to make is that there are situations in which students find themselves, where they have these kinds of experiences, and they’re not situations that they would define as threatening situations," said Sally Ward, a professor of sociology and one of five faculty authors of the report, which is based on paper- and Web-based surveys completed by 2,405 New Hampshire undergraduates, male and female, in 2005-6.

"It’s part of the normal social scene. People go out and they party and things happen that they aren’t expecting to happen. That is, we think, a consistent finding over time in this research," said Ward.

The report, on “The Context of Unwanted Sexual Experiences” at UNH, is the latest product of a research project begun in 1988 and funded by the president’s office at New Hampshire. The university is relatively unusual (although not alone) in tracking, and publicly releasing, campus-specific data on unwanted sexual contact, defined as sexual situations including kissing or touching but excluding intercourse, that students knew at the time they did not want to engage in and communicated that in some way (or otherwise were incapacitated), as well as unwanted intercourse.

"There aren’t a lot of studies that have followed this for 20 years," said Ellen Cohn, a professor of psychology and coordinator of justice studies who has been involved in the project since 1988.

Overall, 28 percent of New Hampshire women report at least one incident of unwanted contact, as do 11 percent of men. About 7 percent of women and 4 percent of men report unwanted intercourse. The researchers find that, by and large, the contexts for unwanted sexual contact are similar for women and for men. They do find some differences, however, in the contexts for unwanted sexual experiences based on type of experience (i.e. intercourse versus contact) and gender.

Researchers find, for instance, that men are more likely than women to experience unwanted sexual contact in a UNH residence, while women are more likely than men to experience it in a Greek house. The association with alcohol is higher for women than it is for men (though it is high for both). And men who experience unwanted sexual contact are proportionately more likely than women to be victimized by a date or romantic partner (such incidents comprise 19 percent of experiences reported by men, versus 10 percent among women). Friends or acquaintances were identified as the perpetrators 53 and 56 percent of the time for men and women, respectively.

“These differences suggest that unwanted sexual contact is more a product of the college social scene for women, and more a relational phenomenon for men,” the report states.

The report also finds that, for women, unwanted sexual contact is likely to happen as part of the college social scene, whereas unwanted intercourse is more likely to happen in the context of a date or relationship.

The report notes that the number of men who report unwanted intercourse is too small to make any comparisons across types of unwanted sexual experiences. Male victims were, however, more likely to have used drugs than female victims (8 versus 2 percent) and more likely to report a same-sex perpetrator (9 versus 2 percent).

Overall, UNH has found that the number of unwanted sexual experiences on campus declined significantly from 1988 to 2000, during which time the university established a crisis center and put a number of prevention programs in place. However, there has been little change since 2000 -- prompting a need for more creative, broad-based responses, said Victoria Banyard, an associate professor of psychology and a co-author.

“We need coordinated community responses. We really need to think about how to involve everyone, change community norms, change peer norms, those kinds of things," Banyard said.

“It’s a hard thing to research, but I think on the other hand, the national data is very clear that this is a problem on all of our campuses,” Banyard continued. “UNH has really been a leader in saying, ‘You know what, this is important and we know it’s happening here because it’s happening everywhere and so we want to understand more about it.’ ”

“Our prevention efforts are going to be better if we know the specifics of where we live.”


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