Abstract: Graduate Student Experiences with Sexual Assault, Dating Abuse and Opinions of Available Services at One University (Society for Social Work and Research 23rd Annual Conference - Ending Gender Based, Family and Community Violence)

Graduate Student Experiences with Sexual Assault, Dating Abuse and Opinions of Available Services at One University

Sunday, January 20, 2019: 9:30 AM
Golden Gate 2, Lobby Level (Hilton San Francisco)
* noted as presenting author
Jane Palmer, PhD, Director, Community-Based Research Scholars program, American University, Washington, DC

Campus sexual assault has received unprecedented attention in the past decade or so. The primary focus, however, has been on undergraduate student experiences at predominately non-commuter schools (e.g., Krebs, et al. 2007). Cantor et al.’s (2015) recent study was one of the first to include a sizeable graduate student population – at 26 schools with a 23.2% response rate). Their findings (and others, see Cantalupo & Kidder, 2018) indicate that the graduate student experience may be different than the experience for undergraduates. The purpose of this study is to examine graduate students’ experiences with victimization and their opinions of services at a mid-sized private university.


This study was conducted in the Spring 2017 semester using Dillman’s Tailored Design Method. The survey is part of a repeated cross-section biennial survey at a mid-sized private university in the Mid-Atlantic region. The graduate student response rate was 70% (n=1049). The sample was random, stratified proportionate to enrollment in the various schools within the university. Sampled students received a lead letter with a $2 cash pre-incentive followed by an email invitation to participate in the survey. Over two weeks, they received a handful of reminders.


Almost one-third (31%) of graduate students had experienced unwanted sexual activity in their lifetime, with 6% indicated it had happened since they were a graduate student. A fellow student was the perpetrator in only 15% of the incidents. Almost half (47%) had ever experienced some form of abusive or unhealthy behavior in the context of an intimate relationship, while 14% had ever experienced physically abusive or threats of physical abuse from an intimate partner. Almost two-thirds (62%) indicated they knew where to get help for sexual assault on campus, while only half (52%) indicated they would feel comfortable getting help on campus. Only 37% indicated they understand the university’s formal procedures to address sexual assault, while less than half (45%) indicated they have confidence that the university administrators use these formal procedures to address complaints of sexual assault fairly. Also, 57% trust that the university police department would respond sensitively respond to sexual assault reports. A majority (61%) were unsure whether the social worker advocates on campus are a confidential resource.


The results of this study indicate that graduate students have experienced victimization but do not see the university as a possible source of help, are not aware of the available services or do not, as a whole, trust the service providers. While it is true that many have not needed these resources if they haven’t experienced victimization recently, but they are required to go through a training that provides this information. Also, information about the resources on campus are available in highly visible locations throughout campus, but graduate students may not see these resources as “for them.” Existing support services are available to them even if they experienced victimization before enrolling in the university. Additional targeted outreach to graduate students may be helpful to increase their knowledge, awareness and utilization of on-campus services.