Bystander Perceptions: Implications for University Sexual Assault Prevention Programs

By Koelsch, Lori E.; Brown, Amy L. et al. | Violence and Victims, July 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

Bystander Perceptions: Implications for University Sexual Assault Prevention Programs


Koelsch, Lori E., Brown, Amy L., Boisen, Leah, Violence and Victims


The college party environment comprises a risk factor for unwanted sexual activity but may also provide a safety net, given the presence of bystanders who can potentially intervene in risky situations. Sexual assault prevention programs are increasingly incorporating bystander education into their designs. This article presents findings intended to inform these programs. Qualitative data from single-sex focus groups about typical college party behavior was analyzed for common themes. Analysis of these themes suggests that although some sexual behavior is visible at college parties, most sexual behavior is assumed to occur behind closed doors. In addition, intervention and prevention methods may vary by gender. Multiple factors appear to promote or dissuade bystander intervention in college party situations.

Keywords: sexual assault prevention programs; bystander intervention; college student parties; qualitative research

Despite years of study and multiple intervention strategies, sexual assault on college campuses remains a significant problem. Large national studies conducted for more than two decades indicate that between 11% and 15% of college women have experienced a completed rape (Kilpatrick, Resnick, Ruggiero, Conoscenti, & McCauley, 2007; Koss, Gidycz, & Wisniewski, 1987; Tjaden & Thoennes, 1998). As many as 50% of college women have experienced some form of sexual victimization (Koss et al., 1987; Messman-Moore & Brown, 2006). Some researchers argue that the college party environment is conducive to sexual assault and rape (Armstrong, Hamilton, & Sweeney, 2006). One contributing factor is the culture of excessive alcohol consumption at college parties.

Binge drinking among college students is a largely social activity (Wechsler, Dowdall, Davenport, & Castillo, 1995), and most drinking among college students is done at parties and bars (Harford, Wechsler, & Seibring, 2002; Single & Wortley, 1993; Vogler, Webber, Rasor, Bartz, & Levesque, 1994). As part of a campus sexual assault study, researchers found that incapacitated sexual assault was associated with victims' substance abuse and the frequency of attendance at college fraternity parties (Krebs, Lindquist, Warner, Fisher, & Martin, 2009). This could partly be due to the fact that excessive alcohol consumption, among other effects, slows cognitive functioning and impairs decision-making ability (Peterson, Rothfleisch, Zelazo, & Pihl, 1990). Another important aspect of college culture appears to be the pursuit of sexual behavior outside of relationships or " hooking up" (Bogle, 2008; Owen, Rhoades, Stanley, & Fincham, 2010; Vander Ven & Beck, 2010). When young adults consume large quantities of alcohol in social settings within a context that encourages casual sexual behavior, the risk of victimization and dangerous or regretted sexual behavior is very likely increased.

Alcohol use by the perpetrator and/or victim has been shown to be a risk factor for sexual assault and rape (Ullman, 2003). In a college sample, Lawyer, Resnick, Bakanic, Burkett, and Kilpatrick (2010) found that drug- and alcohol-related assaults were more common than nondrug- and nonalcohol-related assaults. Additionally, these assaults were most frequently associated with voluntary consumption of alcohol on the part of the victim. Literature reviews (Abbey, 2002; Testa, 2002) suggest that at least 50% of sexual assault incidents involved alcohol use by the perpetrator. Most these assaults are perpetrated by an individual known to the victim (Fisher, Daigle, & Cullen, 2010; Kilpatrick et al., 2007; Koss et al., 1987). Surveys of college students indicate that between 62% (Littleton, Grills- Taquechel, & Axsom, 2009) and 72% (Mohler-Kuo, Dowdall, Koss, & Wechsler, 2004) of female college student sexual assault victims were impaired or incapacitated during the time of the assault. The strong relationship between alcohol use and sexual assault among college students suggests that the key to reducing sexual assault lies in targeting heavy drinking (Testa & Livingston, 2009). …

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