Academic journal article North American Journal of Psychology

The Role of Knowledge of the Law in Perceptions of Sexual Violence

Academic journal article North American Journal of Psychology

The Role of Knowledge of the Law in Perceptions of Sexual Violence

Article excerpt

In recent years, there has been increasing focus in academe on dealing more proactively with sexual violence in its many forms, including sexual assault, abuse, and harassment. For example, in "Campus sexual assault: Suggested policies and procedures," (2012) the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), Committee on Women in the Academic Professions, Subcommittee on Sexual Assault on Campus, proposes what it terms "robust" policies and procedures. Among AAUP's suggestions are operational definitions for the variety of terms used to categorize sexual violence, and increased development of sexual violence prevention programs. AAUP's suggestions seem to respond to the substantial ambiguity in many students' minds regarding definitions of what constitutes forms of sexual violence like date rape (Sawyer, Pinciaro, & Jessell, 1998), and what the punishments for various forms of sexual violence ought to be.

University action is being prompted in part by federal regulation. A part of the 2013 Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act, the Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act, effective March 7, 2014, requires colleges and universities to adhere to more stringent reporting standards, disciplinary sanctions, and educational efforts. Although intended to provide additional guidance to college and university administrators by refining the standards included in the 2011 U.S. Department of Education's Civil Rights "Dear Colleague Letter," there is concern that the Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act will increase the standard of evidence necessary for imposing sanctions on perpetrators, and will complicate matters by referencing laws that differ from state to state (Duncan, 2014).

Efforts to reduce sexual violence on campus are a response, in part, to the risk that women in the US have of being sexually assaulted while in college. In an oft-cited study, Krebs, Lindquist, Warner, Fisher, and Martin (2009) estimated that women face a nearly 20% risk of experiencing sexual assault while in college. Other estimates are that 20-25% of college women experience attempted or completed noncom-sensual sex. Most of the victims know their assailants and do not report the assault (Cantalupo, 2012).

In addition, college and university administrators have been faulted for their failure to adequately address the problems on their campuses. The U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights (OCR) recently released a list of 55 colleges and universities under investigation for possible violations of Title IX regulations because of their handling of sexual violence cases (OCR, 2014). According to these guidelines, sexual violence includes rape, assault, battery, abuse, and coercion (U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights, 2014b).

Because victims sometimes say that they don't report sexual violence because they didn't think the behavior they experienced was a crime or they didn't think it was serious enough to warrant reporting (Cantalupo, 2012), the focus of our study was on how knowledge about the legal definitions of sexual violence impacted college students' perceptions about their own personal experiences, either as victims or perpetrators of sexual violence. Although men are certainly also the victims of sexual violence, for the purpose of this study, we asked women about their experiences as victims of sexual violence and men about their experiences as perpetrators of sexual violence. In particular, we were interested in how college student participants rated their personal experiences with sexual violence before and after reading the legal definitions, used in the state in which they were attending college, for different kinds of sexual violence.


One hundred ten traditional-age undergraduate participants (70 women and 40 men) from two similar small liberal arts colleges in West Virginia were recruited via a convenience sample and tested individually in a private setting on campus. …

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