Updated: Sex Assaults and Type of Institution

New study finds higher rates of sexual victimization at public institutions than private colleges.

July 12, 2016

(Note: This article has changed substantially due to an error in the original research. The size of a university had no significant effect on the risk of sexual victimization. The article has been updated to reflect the changes. --The Editors)

Undergraduate women at public universities are at greater risk of becoming victims of rape than those at private colleges, a new study suggests.

The study, published in the journal Violence and Gender, examined data from the Online College Social Life Survey, which was conducted between 2005 to 2011 and contained responses from about 16,000 female students at 22 institutions. The study’s author, Stephen Cranney, then compared the rates of rape where victims are incapacitated by alcohol or drugs, forced rape, attempted forced rape and “unwanted sex due to verbal pressure” by type and size of institution, as well as how popular sororities and fraternities were on a given campus.

"Public schools tend to be more dangerous, as far as forced rape goes," Cranney, a sociology lecturer at Baylor University, said. "The study suggests that institution-level factors play some role in the risk of sexual victimization."

A survey conducted last year by the Association of American Universities of 27 of its member campuses reached the opposite conclusion about public and private colleges and universities: undergraduate women were slightly more likely to be victims of sexual assault at private institutions than public institutions. Other researchers have reached similar conclusions as Cranney.

A 1995 study, published in the journal Campus Crime, found a positive relationship between size of the student body and rape. The authors attributed the relationship to the fact that large, public institutions “could provide more targets for attack and more anonymity for prospective offenders.” Cranney said this explanation is “unsatisfactory,” given his finding that acquaintance rape -- where the attackers are not anonymous -- was also more likely at public institutions.

A 2006 paper published in the journal Social Problems theorized that public universities may be more dangerous because they more likely to support certain types of locales, such as bars and fraternities.

According to the new study, colleges with a large fraternity and sorority presence are less likely to have cases of rape, described in the paper as “physically forced intercourse.” That’s not the case for attempted rape, rape where victims are incapacitated by alcohol or drugs, and verbally coerced assault, however. And -- on an individual, rather than institutional, level -- “sorority membership increases the risk of victimization” across the board, the study found.

"If you're at a university where they have higher proportions of students in sororities and fraternities, then, all other things being equal, it's actually a safer university for students overall," Cranney said. "But if you are a member of those organizations, your chances of being assaulted are actually higher. Those conflicting findings make it a complicated story, and one that's difficult to interpret."

Other studies have also noted higher rates of sexual assault among women involved in Greek letter organizations.

Fraternity members are three times more likely to commit sexual assault than nonmembers, according to a 2007 study authored by John Foubert, a professor of higher education and student affairs at Oklahoma State University and founder of the sexual assault prevention program One in Four. A study published by NASPA Journal concluded that women involved in Greek organizations were 74 percent more likely to experience rape than other college women.

Another study published in NASPA Journal in 2009 found that 86 percent of fraternity house residents engaged in binge drinking, compared to 45 percent of nonfraternity men. Fraternity members were twice as likely as nonfraternity men to engage in unplanned sex because of drinking.

Last year’s Association of American Universities survey on campus sexual assault found that 40 percent of female Harvard University seniors who participated in fraternity and sorority events had been sexually assaulted. The university singled out the groups in a report of recommendations on preventing and dealing with campus sexual assault.

In 2014, Wesleyan University announced that its fraternities must become coeducational or they would be forced to shut down. In a blog post, the university’s president, Michael Roth, wrote that it was “clear that many students see fraternity houses as spaces where women enter with a different status than in any other building on campus, sometimes with terrible consequences.”

In Cranney’s study, female students from elite Ivy League institutions were not at a lower risk of sexual victimization than at any other institutions. At the same time, economically privileged students at all institutions -- as measured by the level of education attained by their mothers -- were more likely to be victims of sexual assault.

“Wealthier students have the time and resources to attend parties, patronize bars and be involved in social events in general,” Cranney wrote.


Back to Top