Want to help protect against sexual assault? Make respect the norm

Reading Time: 7 minutes Here’s what can you do to foster a more positive and respectful campus culture.

How to step in when you see someone experiencing unwanted pressure or harassment

Reading Time: 8 minutes Learn what you can do if you see someone experiencing unwanted pressure or harassment. Here are key strategies for bystander intervention.

Bystander intervention goes professional: 4 tips for stepping in on the job

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Here’s something most of us know, and the research backs up: Small actions make a big difference, especially when it comes to preventing sexual harassment and assault. If we see something that doesn’t feel right, we can act. This is bystander intervention: stepping in to reinforce our community values and prevent harm when we see something that looks like disrespect or pressure. Many of us already do this, like when we disrupt a conversation that seems uncomfortable or speak up when people make hurtful comments.

Often, when we think about sexual misconduct and bystander intervention, we’re thinking about intervening in social situations, such as on the dance floor, at a party, or in a relationship. But what happens when you see this happening at your internship, on the job, or at your workplace?

While we might know that it’s equally important to take action in the workplace, we might not exactly know how to do it, especially if we’re dealing with uneven power dynamics—like a boss who’s making crude comments to an employee or an established colleague taking advantage of a new intern. The good news? The basics, which you already know, work here too.

“The skills and strategies that work in social contexts can often be applied to other settings, including professional contexts such as a summer internship or other job,” says Laura Santacrose, assistant director of the Skorton Center for Health Initiatives at Cornell University in New York, who developed Cornell’s “Intervene” project, a bystander intervention initiative for students. The knowledge and confidence that we’ve gained from intervening in other contexts make a difference. Knowing we have the skills to step in makes us more likely to do so, according to a 2014 study of college students in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence.

Besides reinforcing your own personal values, you’re also setting the bar high for the rest of the organization. And that’s important. “Employers hope to create an environment that is welcoming and inclusive for all employees. A safe and inclusive environment fosters teamwork among colleagues, greater workplace satisfaction, and higher levels of innovation and creativity on the job. Employees who are able to facilitate such an environment are highly valued by both their employers and by their clients,” says Jeanine Dames, director of the Office of Career Strategy at Yale University in Connecticut.

Happy professional girl

So how do you do it?

Before you start, consider risk

Whenever we intervene, it’s critical to consider the potential risks involved and to make a safe plan. The power dynamics between supervisors and employees may make it difficult to intervene directly, so consider subtle or indirect actions. “There may be additional supports in a professional setting that will make an intervention easier [than in a social situation], including support from a human resources department,” says Santacrose.

Start here: Stepping in on the job

1. Pay attention to what’s happening

  • Overhear a sexist comment about the new hire’s cleavage? See a colleague’s uncomfortable face when he interacts with his overly handsy boss? Pay attention to the patterns.
  • Ask yourself: How might this situation impact the individuals involved? The department or team? The broader community of the organization or company?

2. Decide: Should someone step in? And who should that someone be?

  • Trust your instincts. It’s OK to decide to do something even if you aren’t sure there’s a problem.
  • Remember that “doing something” might be shooting a quick email to human resources (HR) or chatting briefly with your coworkers to see if they’re noticing it too. Ask your fellow employees or supervisors what they’re seeing or how they might deal with the situation. HR representatives may be particularly helpful. It’s their job to make sure that the workplace is safe and respectful, so they want to know when something seems off.

3. Make a plan

  • There are usually multiple ways to intervene. Play to your strengths. Not sure what those are? Take our bystander quiz here to learn more about your stepping-in style. Remember that interventions don’t have to be dramatic to be effective.
  • Pay attention to power dynamics. If you are worried about the consequences of intervening, consider confidentially reporting the problem to HR.

4. Make your move: Intervene and follow up

  • After you’ve intervened, follow up with the person being targeted or your colleagues.
  • Think about what the organization could do to make positive outcomes more likely in the future. What structural changes would help? Can you review company policies and suggest updates? Are there employee training options that can help set community standards? Make suggestions and be willing to help put them into place if it’s an option.

How would you respond?

Now that you know the basics, or at least can refer back to them, let’s get into some examples. Use the following scenarios to think about possible intervention strategies. What strategies would you choose?

Scenario 1: Inappropriate jokes

Imagine that you share an office space with several other summer interns. One of the interns, Taylor, often makes sexual jokes and suggestive comments. You and the other interns find the jokes annoying, but one of the interns, Sam, looks upset and starts to avoid the space.

  • Taylor is distracting everyone from work.
  • Sam might worry that others think Taylor’s jokes are OK.
  • Sam’s job performance could suffer.
  • Other interns’ job performance could suffer.
  • Taylor might continue this behavior in other workplaces, which could continue to hurt people—and damage Taylor’s job prospects.

  • Don’t laugh at the jokes. An awkward silence can speak volumes.
  • Privately check in with Taylor. “You probably mean well, but those jokes make you seem unprofessional.”
  • Privately check in with Sam. “You seemed a little bit uncomfortable with Taylor’s jokes. Are you OK?”
  • Talk to a supervisor. Suggest that supervisors discuss appropriate workplace conduct with new interns now and in the future.
  • Consider structural changes that can prevent this problem from happening again. Proactively start positive, professional conversations in the shared workspace. This sets a good example and minimizes chances for inappropriate conversations to begin.
  • Student story: “I politely interrupted the situation by asking a work-related question to cause a distraction and interruption. Then I privately talked to my co-worker at a later time.”
    Rebecca B., fourth-year undergraduate, Rochester Community and Technical College, Minnesota

Scenario 2: Unfair treatment

Imagine that you have a part-time campus job in a lab. The professor in charge of the lab chooses a graduate student, Riley, to lead a project. A few weeks ago, Riley asked one of your coworkers, Casey, out on a date. Casey said no. Since then, Riley seems to be treating Casey differently from the other lab members. Riley often dismisses Casey’s comments in meetings and assigns all the menial jobs to Casey.

  • The professor might think that Casey is not a good employee.
  • The rest of the lab members are missing out on Casey’s contributions.
  • Other lab members might feel like they must always agree with Riley or face retaliation.
  • Riley is behaving unprofessionally, which could hurt Riley’s future job prospects.

  • Validate Casey’s contributions. If Riley dismisses one of Casey’s comments, say, “I actually thought that was a really good point.” Similarly, volunteer to do the menial jobs yourself.
  • Check in with Casey. Tell Casey that you’ve noticed the problem and are available to help. Providing emotional support after an incident of harassment is the most common kind of workplace bystander intervention, according to a 2016 study in the International Journal of Human Resources Management.
  • Express your concerns with the professor supervising the lab.
  • Consider reaching out to an official such as a Title IX coordinator or HR representative.
  • Propose structural changes to ensure everyone’s voices are heard and menial jobs are fairly distributed. For example, you could suggest that everyone takes turns performing the less-desirable tasks using a chart that’s visible in the lab.
  • Student story: “I told my manager right away. The manager handled it from there.”
    Kassandra J., first-year graduate student, Texas Woman’s University

Scenario 3: Callouts on appearance

Imagine that you have a part-time job. Your supervisor makes small talk with employees as you arrive in the morning. Topics range from sports to the weather, but on several occasions, your supervisor has made comments about the appearance of one employee, Kai, such as, “You look gorgeous today!” and “That shirt looks great on you!” Your supervisor does not comment on other employees’ appearances.

  • This behavior creates a workplace that emphasizes people’s appearance, perhaps implying that their looks matter more than their ideas.
  • Kai may feel uncomfortable at work and worry about what the manager expects.
  • Other employees might worry that they will be treated differently based on appearance too.

  • Check in with Kai and express concern about the comments.
  • Subtly steer conversations back to appropriate topics.
  • Speak to another employee and ask for advice.
  • Talk to an HR representative. They may be able to take action without revealing your identity.

See? Your bystander skills just went pro. When you break it down like this, intervening becomes a little easier, which means your workplace can be just as supportive of a community as your campus is. So remember: Your bystander skills can work in any context, at any time.

Want more bystander info? Check out Cornell University’s bystander initiative, “Intervene.” This interactive training, useful for students of all kinds, offers concrete strategies for intervening in a wide range of social, academic, and professional settings.

Strategies developed by the Communication and Consent Educator program at Yale University.

[school_resource sh101resources=’no’ category=’mobileapp,healthservices, wellnesspromotion, counselingservices, titleix’] Get help or find out more


Article sources

Jeanine Dames, JD, director of office of career strategy, Yale University, Connecticut.

Laura Santacrose, MPH, assistant director, Skorton Center for Health Initiatives, Cornell University, New York.

Banyard, V. L. (2011). Who will help prevent sexual violence: Creating an ecological model of bystander intervention. Psychology of Violence1(3), 216–229.

Banyard, V. L., Plante, E. G., & Moynihan, M. M. (2004). Bystander education: Bringing a broader community perspective to sexual violence prevention. Journal of Community Psychology32(1), 61–79.

Bennett, S., Banyard, V. L., & Garnhart, L. (2014). To act or not to act, that is the question? Barriers and facilitators of bystander intervention. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 29(3), 476–496.

Bowes-Sperry, L., & O’Leary-Kelly, A. M. (2005). To act or not to act: The dilemma faced by sexual harassment observers. Academy of Management Review30(2), 288–306.

Carmody, M. (2005). Ethical erotics: Reconceptualizing anti-rape education. Sexualities8(4), 465–480.

Garcia, S. M., Weaver, K., Moskowitz, G. B., & Darley, J. M. (2002). Crowded minds: The implicit bystander effect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology83(4), 843–853.

McDonald, P., Charlesworth, S., & Graham, T. (2016). Action or inaction: Bystander intervention in workplace sexual harassment. International Journal of Human Resource Management, 27(5), 548–566.

McMahon, S., & Banyard, V. L. (2012). When can I help? A conceptual framework for the prevention of sexual violence through bystander intervention. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse13(1), 3–14.

Rayner, C., & Bowes-Sperry, L. (2008, June). Mobilizing bystanders to intervene in workplace bullying. In The 6th International Conference on Workplace Bullying.

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Virtual abuse? How to build a positive online community

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Most of us have witnessed online harassment. For that matter, most of us report that we’ve experienced it, according to surveys. Young adults are the most likely to be abused online. That experience can make it harder for students to attend class or concentrate on learning, according to a survey by Hollaback!, a coalition to prevent harassment. Online harassment can raise the risk of suicide in adults who are already experiencing emotional or situational stress, according to a 2011 study in Educational Leadership.

How can you respond if you or a friend is harassed online? How can you make sure your own online presence is positive? The prevalence of trolling, roasting, stalking, and other forms of harassment gives us all opportunities to intervene. Online behavior is contagious, studies show. We are all well positioned to model respectful behavior on social networks, influence a comment thread that’s veering toward abuse, and help build more positive online spaces in which everyone can participate freely. Leaders in the tech industry have our backs on this as they work to make online spaces more accommodating for all. For six steps to keeping the cyber-peace, see below. For resources and tools, see Get help or find out more. For guidance on how to argue constructively online and off, see Tame the tension: Science-backed ways to talk it out in this issue.

Online harassment includes one-time incidents as well as cases of cyberbullying that unfold over months or years. It includes attacks based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, religion, appearance, and more. Severe harassment online has been linked to notorious controversies, such as “GamerGate,” when harassers targeted women in the video game industry. In a polarized political environment that has seen documented increases in hate crimes, online harassment has made for alarming headlines, as when the writer Milo Yiannopoulos was banned from Twitter for inciting racist abuse.

Online harassment takes various forms:

  • Trolling (sometimes called flaming) means posting comments with the intention of triggering distress in others.
  • Roasting is a direct attack on another person’s view or position.
  • Exclusion involves singling out someone and not letting them participate in group chats or threads, and/or making negative comments toward them.
  • Harassment means repeatedly attacking a person, often by insulting their racial, ethnic, gender, sexual, or religious identity.
  • Cyberstalking involves repeated, unwanted online contact with the purpose of tracking, threatening, or harassing someone.
  • Doxing means using online sources to trace someone’s identity and gather information about them, then using that information to harm or harass the person.
  • Outing involves the malicious release of personal and private information about a person.
  • Masquerading means creating a fake identity in order to harass someone anonymously or impersonate someone else.

Quiz: Is it cyberbullying? (Affordable Colleges Online)

Some communities are targeted by cyberbullying more frequently than others. Young people, women, and LGBT youth report especially high rates of harassment online. Here’s what that looks like:

  • Two in three (65 percent) of young adult internet users (aged 18–29) have been the target of at least one of six identified types of online harassment, according to a 2014 study by the Pew Research Center.
  • 10–28 percent of college students experience cyberbullying, according to an analysis of seven recent studies (Sage Open, 2014).
  • Men seem more likely than women to report online harassment overall (44 percent versus 37 percent), especially name-calling, being purposefully embarrassed, and physical threats, according to the Pew study.
  • Young women aged 18–24 seem more likely than other demographics to experience certain severe types of harassment. In the Pew survey, one in four young women had been stalked online, and the same proportion had been sexually harassed online.
  • Sexual harassment in general is often targeted at women who are perceived to violate stereotypical gender norms, according to “The Sexual Harassment of Uppity Women,” a study in the Journal of Applied Psychology (2007). This finding helps explain the later “GamerGate” online abuse directed at women in the video game industry.
  • LGBT youth are cyberbullied at significantly higher rates than their heterosexual peers, with 54 percent experiencing it within the past three months, according to a national study in the International Journal of Critical Pedagogy (2010).
  • Disabled people are targeted for online abuse, though the current research is slight. A 2016 study involving 19 disabled people concluded that harassers targeted people with disabilities and the impact was more severe for reasons relating to the disabilities (Disability and Society). Grade-school students receiving special education services are more likely than their peers to report being victimized online, according to the Journal of Special Education (2013).

Online harassment and cyberbullying have widespread and well-documented consequences. For example:

  • Distress More than one in four people who’d experienced online harassment found it “extremely upsetting” or “very upsetting,” in the 2014 Pew survey.
  • Isolation Students who experience online abuse report higher rates of isolation. One in four people harassed online withdrew from social media, the internet, or their phones as a result, according to a 2016 report by the Data & Society Research Institute.
  • Emotional and behavioral health risks Children and teenagers who are cyberbullied or harassed online are nearly twice as likely as their peers to experience depression and substance abuse, a 2007 study in Child Maltreatment found. Cyberbullying negatively affects grade-school students’ school attendance and academic achievement, according to a 2012 study in the Journal of School Violence.
  • Suicide risk Online harassment can raise adults’ suicide risk by exacerbating loneliness and hopelessness among those with preexisting stressors, according to Educational Leadership (2011). Among young teens, both the perpetrators and targets of cyberbullying are more likely than their peers to attempt suicide, the same study found.
  • Censorship Online harassment appears to curtail free speech. One in four Americans censor themselves online out of fear of online harassment, Hack Harassment reports.

Not all online harassers have antisocial traits such as lacking empathy. Even ordinary people (who don’t have personality issues) can be induced to troll in certain circumstances, researchers from Cornell University, New York, found. Here’s what can drive us to trolling:

  • We’re in a bad mood (this helps explain why trolling intensifies late at night and on Mondays).
  • We’re participating in a thread or conversation that started with a “troll comment” or in which trolling is already underway (the more trolling is happening already, the more likely we will troll too).

In the online environment, we can choose to be anonymous, a factor that lowers the behavioral bar. That can make it easier for even those of us who are generally well- intentioned to dish out sarcasm or insults, and disconnect from others’ feelings. In our survey, many students acknowledged that they’d done this and regretted it.

The research paints a predictably unflattering picture of some habitual online harassers. Perpetrators may be motivated by the following:

  • A perceived way to stay popular Harassing others online may make the perpetrator feel powerful, and may be their response to low self-esteem, according to Delete Cyberbullying, a project aimed at parents and grade-school students.
  • A sense of failure or threat In a 2010 study, men who harassed women players during a video game appeared to be less skilled at the game than their peers, according to a 2010 study in PLOS One.
  • Low empathy In a 2014 study of college students, lower empathy toward others was associated with a higher likelihood of cyberbullying, according to Computers in Human Behavior.
  • Other personality disorder traits Persistent trolling is associated with narcissism, a willingness to inflict harm, and a willingness to manipulate and deceive others, according to a 2014 study in Personality and Individual Differences.
  • Anger toward victims Online stalking tends to be associated with the perpetrators’ distress and anger toward their targets (though personality issues can be a factor), a 2000 study in Aggression and Violent Behavior suggests.

8 ways to build better online spaces

1. Set a respectful and considerate tone and standard

The majority of our online presence is communal. Every contribution we make adds to the overall tone of the online space. Kindness is contagious. By engaging respectfully with others, you reinforce the expectation that others do the same.

2. Practice engaging constructively on difficult or contentious topics

Disagreeing with a friend’s opinion or disputing someone’s argument is all well and good—depending on how we go about it. For a guide to constructive arguing and how to influence someone’s opinion, see Tame the tension: Science-backed ways to talk it out in this issue of SH101.

3. Apologize when it’s merited, even if your slight was unintentional

If you hear that you have hurt someone, apologize. Communicating digitally can sometimes obscure the very real three-dimensional people who are reading and hearing our words. It’s important to remember that, even in the midst of heated or highly charged conversations. If the platform allows you to delete, retract, or qualify a contentious comment, do so.

4. Ask for clarification if you need it

If you don’t know why what you said was hurtful, you can ask for clarification. To the best of your ability, do so with respect and compassion. You could say something like, “I’m sorry that I upset you with my comment. Could you tell me why that word is hurtful? I want to be sure I don’t make the same mistake again.”

5. Stay chill when you feel misunderstood

Resist calling people out personally with inflammatory and divisive terms. If you think a comment has racist or sexist implications, try assuming those were unintentional and pointing them out gently. By the same token, if you see yourself as a fair person and someone says that your comment was discriminatory, try to resist getting defensive. We are all coming from our own complex places. If you’ve asked for clarification and didn’t get it, reiterate that your intention was positive, and let it go.

6. Use the reporting tools

Platforms and sites rely on their users to report abusive or disrespectful behavior that violates community standards. You can help create a safer environment by reporting harassment and abuse when you see or experience it.

7. Use your moderator powers for good

If you’re the administrator or moderator of an online group, forum, or list, take initiative to set the tone for positive, respectful interactions. You can do so by:

  • Establishing community standards or guidelines (pinning a post about rules to the top of a page helps reduce trolling, according to a 2016 experiment by r/science, a Reddit community)
  • Creating a clear reporting structure for harassment or abuse
  • Reaching out for help and support if you run into trouble
  • Being open to feedback from your community and others

8. Support people and platforms doing good work

In recent years, the tech industry has been taking a more active approach to preventing and addressing cyberbullying and harassment. There are several great initiatives you can learn from and support, including:

Facebook’s Bullying Prevention Hub
This online resource, developed in partnership with the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, offers information on and strategies for addressing cyberbullying. It includes detailed and practical conversation starters and step-by-step plans for students, parents, and educators looking to address a bullying incident, whether they are speaking with the person being bullied or the person inflicting the bullying. This resource also offers concrete strategies for proactively preventing online harassment and cyberbullying.

Hack Harassment
This coalition, led by Intel, Vox Media, and Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation, aims to build a more inclusive and supportive online community. You can get involved and commit to building that more inclusive and supportive online community through the Hack Harassment website. There, you can sign up to be a Campus Ambassador, host a #HackHarassment hackathon, or apply for a grant to fund your own harassment-hacking project.

6 steps to intervening constructively

People who are harassed online tend to turn to trusted friends, teachers, and family members for help, according to a 2012 study in the Journal of School Violence. Receiving support, both online and off, can have a tremendously positive impact on how someone copes with and responds to online harassment. Here’s how to go about it:

1. Think about what you can potentially accomplish

“Your goal might be to approach a friend involved in a bullying incident, but you don’t know how to approach them or what to say. Or you might choose to report something that you see online that seems unsafe for one of the people involved,” says Dr. Robin Stern, associate director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence at Yale University, Connecticut.

2. Reach out and offer support

You can reach out directly to the person experiencing harassment. Express your alarm at what’s happened and ask what you can do to help. Bear in mind that responding with emojis or “likes” can sometimes be misleading.

3.Add positive comments to a negative thread

If you see insults or attacks online—for example, against a writer discussing sexual violence—consider contributing some positive words. Offering encouragement and support is a simple way to mitigate the effect of online harassment. Manners (good and bad) are contagious. Modeling civility and constructive commentary online can potentially dissuade others from trolling, according to a 2017 study by researchers at Cornell University. That said…

4. Ask before you act on someone else’s behalf

If you want to confront the aggressor or request an apology on behalf of the person who’s been wronged, this is not a decision to make alone. Work with the targeted person and respect their wishes about how to proceed. They might prefer to not confront the aggressor, or to report the issue to the relevant site directly. Except for situations of acute danger, do not take action on their behalf if you have not been asked to do so.

5. Check in with your own feelings

“It is important to reflect on your own feelings before talking with someone affected by a bullying incident because you want to make sure that you are in a place where you can have that conversation,” says Dr. Stern. “If you yourself are emotionally activated, which is understandable and may well be the case, then you won’t be able to have that conversation from a place of calm. If you lower your own emotional activation, you are going to be able to more effectively help the person in the interaction regulate their own emotions.”

6. Seek support, off-line and on

“It is important to talk it through with someone you trust and who you believe is wise about this sort of thing. You might turn to a trusted peer or RA or dean who can help you think about how to approach the incident, depending on your goal,” says Dr. Stern. Tell someone you trust and who is in a position to help. Alternatively, you might report the incident to the site or platform, group administrator, or moderator. If someone is being harmed, about to be harmed, or threatening harm, take that seriously and get help immediately.

Most online platforms give you tools to curate what content you see and with whom you interact online. Explore the options available to you and decide what you share online and who can see it. These approaches can help:

Take advantage of customization tools

Online platforms frequently give you control over the level of connection you want to have with someone. You can choose to block content or people whose content you don’t want to see. On some platforms, this decision can be separate from whether you remain friends with those users (e.g., on Facebook you can unfollow a person’s posts without unfriending the person).

Pick your friends

There is a lot to be said for trying to work through differences with people who hold varying opinions and making sure we’re exposed to viewpoints that are not the same as ours. However, if you are experiencing harassment from a user online, especially someone you don’t know or don’t have a strong relationship with off-line, you can choose to prevent that user from contacting you.

Protect your privacy

Review your privacy settings on all social media. You have control over who sees your posts and what online activity is viewable to others.

Consider making online magic

Several free software options and plugins allow you to make more customized and creative choices about what you see online. For example, Sweary mary is a Chrome Extension that replaces swear words with witty alternatives.

Be aware that not all sites are created equal

Some platforms do a better job than others of giving their users the tools and support they need to have a safe and fulfilling online experience. As an informed user, you can decide which sites you want to trust with your time and information, and which you’d rather pass on.

Slideshow link - "Students share: What's going down online"


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Strauss, V. (2014, September 28). Why college freshmen need to take Emotions 101. Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2014/09/28/why-college-freshmen-need-to-take-emotions-101/?utm_term=.dcc2f10743e5

Student Health 101 survey, January 2017.

Wells, M., & Mitchell, K. J. (2013). Patterns of internet use and risk of online victimization for youth with and without disabilities. Journal of Special Education, 48(3), 204–213.

Zalaquett, C. P., & Chatters, S. J. (2014). Cyberbullying in college: Frequency, characteristics, and practical implications. Sage Open, 4(1).

What to say when your friend’s been sexually assaulted

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No one wants to think that our friends or acquaintances might have been sexually assaulted or abused. Yet statistics suggest that we all know survivors, whether or not we’re aware of it. Sexual assault and abuse survivors who receive positive social support are less likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, or substance abuse issues, research shows. “When a survivor of sexual violence chooses to disclose to a friend, this friend can help set the tone for the recovery process,” says Kelly Addington, founder of One Student, an advocacy organization addressing sexual assault in student communities. “Focusing on the survivor and how you can support them is much better than focusing on the attack.”
Get empowered infographic


I believe you

It means a lot that you trusted me with this

You did not cause this

May I look for some resources that might help?

If you need someone to come with you, I will

I’m here for you

Tell me as much or as little as you want

I’ll support whatever you choose to do

How do you want me to act when I see [the perpetrator]?

The decision about what to do next is yours

It wasn’t your fault

What can I do to support you?

What would help you feel empowered and safe?

I won’t share this unless you ask me to*

*Or, if you are a mandated reporter, discuss up front the implications for confidentiality.

I’m sorry this happened to you

How are you doing?

Want to hang out or do something fun?

Yes, it’s still coercion or assault: Relationship abuse and what to do about it

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Romantic relationships can be a great source of joy and fulfillment. But when a relationship is unhealthy or abusive, it can cause major harm. Relationship abuse is characterized by a pattern of control, disrespect, and emotional manipulation. Sometimes that pattern involves sexual or physical assault or coercion.

“My boyfriend refused to listen to my explicit ‘Nos’ or even ‘It hurts,’” wrote an undergraduate in New Hampshire. “At the time, I didn’t realize it was considered sexual assault. I thought that because we were dating, that wasn’t a thing.”

When sexual assault or coercion happens within the context of a relationship, it is still sexual assault or coercion. Most likely it isn’t an isolated incident but instead part of a pattern of abusive behaviors. “After I broke up with him, I started to realize how abusive the relationship was and how badly it impacted my self-esteem and grades,” the student said (in a recent survey by SH101). “It took a long time for me to realize that this problem did not have to define my time in college.”

Abuse can be emotional or physical

Sexual assault or coercion within relationships is only one category of abusive relationship behavior. It is common for abuse to be entirely or largely emotional, not physical. That said, studies suggest that sexual violence by partners is not rare. Like all unmistakable signs of abuse, it tends to happen out of sight. We are more likely to witness the “small things”—incidents of disrespectful or belittling behavior by one partner to another. These may signal that abuse is happening, or will happen in future.

We can look out for each otherTwo girls talking

Most of the steps for supporting a friend are actions that people appreciate whether or not they are experiencing abuse. Being an active bystander is about the things we do every day to look out for our friends and communities. In short: Know the warning signs of relationship abuse, and if you’re not sure, check in anyway.

Why does this matter so much? Unconditional support via social networks is vital to coping with relationship abuse, research shows. Supportive friends may be especially important for people of color, who tend to receive less backup than white women (Women’s Studies International Forum, 2004).

Abuse does not target any one type of person

Research has traditionally focused on abuse experienced by women in heterosexual relationships. Male and LBGTQ survivors have been overlooked until relatively recently. Men and women may experience emotional abuse at similar rates, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2014). “Anyone can be in an abusive relationship: female/male, gay/straight, any ethnic or cultural background, any physical size, ability, or strength,” says Dr. Rachel Pain, a professor of human geography at Durham University in the UK, who studies relationship abuse. “We all have a strong tendency to think it would never happen to us, but abusive partners are not abusive when we meet them.”

Common signs of abuse

You don’t have to be sure that this is abuse, but it’s helpful to know the signs. Abusive behaviors form a pattern of control, disrespect, and emotional manipulation. Click for info and examples.

Isolating the other person from friends and family
In a healthy relationship, each person talks to and communicates with their friends as they’d like. Abusive behaviors include preventing a partner from spending time alone with friends or family, or constantly calling or texting to keep tabs on a partner. “If he starts to notice that your family and friends are concerned about your relationship, he may be looking to keep you away from them,” says Dana Cuomo, coordinator of victim advocacy services at the University of Washington. (Because of this dynamic, don’t give up on your friend if they stop calling you—be there for them and stay supportive.)

Checking the other person’s phone, email, or social media without permission (or pressuring them for access)
In a relationship, each partner is entitled to privacy. Violating that privacy is a major warning sign.

Intruding on another person’s private communications may also be a means of changing or influencing their decisions and opportunities. “Maybe you get a job interview, but your partner deletes the email so that you never know about it,” says Casey Corcoran, a program director of Futures Without Violence, an advocacy organization working to end violence against women and children.

Red flags include:

  • Checking a partner’s emails, texts, social media, and so on without their permission
  • Obsessively keeping tabs on the partner via texting, calling, or social media
  • Monitoring where a partner goes, whom they see, or what they do
  • Making personal decisions on behalf of a partner, or pressurizing them in their decisions, such as who to hang out with, or where to study or work

Using social status or peer pressure to manipulate the other person
Abusive partners may use the threat of social pressure, gossip, or lies to manipulate their partners. Often, they’ll also claim to be the authority on how men or women, or romantic or sexual partners, are supposed to behave. This is a way of justifying their own behaviors or condemning their partner’s.

Leveraging their power as “gatekeeper” to a social community
Some partners provide an important link to a social community (e.g., a group of friends, a club or organization based around a shared interest or identity, or an academic or professional group). Abusive partners may try and use that community link as a way to pressure their partner to stay in the relationship. Abusers may similarly use financial resources or pressure to control their partner.

Example  “If a partner who’s abusive is someone’s main link to an LGBTQ community, or maybe was that person’s first same-gender partner, that relationship can be very much tied up in their sexual identity,” says Gabe Murchison, senior research manager at the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBTQ advocacy organization. “They may be especially afraid to end that relationship, and they may feel they’ll lose a concrete part of their LGBTQ identity by ending it.”

Making belittling comments and put-downs
Calling a partner names, making them feel small or ashamed, or humiliating them are common warning signs. No one should use shame to control their partner.

Getting angry suddenly
“This can be a sign of a bigger issue, especially if your partner becomes physically or emotionally abusive when they ‘lose it,’” says Corcoran.

Example  You can’t ever be sure you’re saying the right thing. It seems like anything might set your partner off. “You may feel as though you are on a roller coaster all the time,” says Corcoran. “One minute everything is fine, and the next he’s yelling.” In these cases, you feel like you can’t relax because you don’t know what to expect.

Being possessive and jealous
Warning signs include suddenly becoming jealous or angry, or making false accusations of infidelity.

Example  You’re at the bar and run into someone you’ve been intimate with before. When your partner finds out, they get very upset. “This happens when the abuser sees you as their property,” says Cuomo. “It is part of the pattern of power and control in abusive relationships in which you aren’t allowed to make choices about your own life.”

Those choices may include what you wear. They may be thinking that “if you’re wearing something sexy or flirty, you’ll draw the attention of another person, and that will be your fault,” says Cuomo. “It is very manipulative because it isn’t your fault at all; it’s because they don’t trust you not to act on another person’s advances.”

Making over-the-top gestures
Expensive gifts at the beginning of a relationship, or a rush to spend a ton of time together, can be red flags. Overcompensating is a distraction tactic—maybe she doesn’t want you looking too closely at other aspects of the relationship—and can also be used as leverage.

Extravagant gestures can also be part of the pattern of abuse and making up, which is common in abusive relationships. For example, “He might get so angry that he hits you during a fight. Then later he brings you a bouquet of flowers,” says Corcoran.

These episodes of kindness and hope can position the targeted person to deny the fear and anger that they feel toward the abuser, research indicates (Feminism & Psychology, 2011). “This is the time when the abuser tries to regain control,” says Cuomo. “The cycle has three stages: The tension builds, it turns into a fight, and then they apologize and say they’ll never do it again.”

Engaging in “gaslighting”
“Gaslighting” (the term references a 1938 play) is when an abusive partner manipulates the other by trying to make them doubt their own reality, experiences, and emotional health. The abusive partner might say, “It’s in your head,” or “It didn’t happen like that.” They may trivialize their partner’s emotions or pretend not to understand what they are talking about.

Using physical violence, the threat of violence, or fear
This can mean anything from destroying possessions—phones, glasses, tables, or other property—to physically harming a partner. Sometimes violence will be used or threatened in connection to sex. Some abusers threaten self-harm as a kind of manipulation.

Making someone nervous or uncomfortable can be a deliberate power tactic. “In unhealthy relationships, your partner does things that are meant to make you fearful,” says Corcoran.

Example  There’s no excuse for driving recklessly, especially with someone else in the car. If it’s intended to frighten the other person, this is abusive.

Pressuring or forcing sex
This includes sexual pressure, coercion, or force. It is common in physically abusive relationships, research shows. For example, in a 2005 study, two out of three women who’d been physically assaulted by a partner had also been sexually assaulted or coerced by that partner (Department of Justice).

Red flags include:

  • Threatening or using alcohol or drugs to pressure a partner to have sex
  • Ignoring a partner’s lack of interest in sex or even their explicit “nos” to sexual activity
  • Demanding sex in return for a gift
  • Refusing to use condoms or other kinds of birth control

Example  “When your partner doesn’t respect your decisions around sex, she may try to manipulate or blame you,” says Corcoran. “Why do we need to use a condom? Is it because you are sleeping with someone else?”

8 steps to supporting a friend in an abusive relationship

Couple in close gripsPeople experiencing abusive encounters and relationships tend to tell a friend, studies show. If you are that friend, you can make a difference. If you are experiencing abuse, these steps can help outline what seeking support may look like.

1   Be there and listen

This sounds simple, and it goes a long way. Abusive relationships often function by isolating the abused person from their support network, especially friends and family. Being present for your friend can be powerful in and of itself, counteracting the isolation they experience.

When people reach out for support, it’s usually to a friend. For example, in a small study of college women who had experienced unwanted sexual contact, three out of four had disclosed the assault or abuse—the vast majority to a friend, according to Feminism & Psychology (2012).

Listening has many benefits. In a classic study of abuse survivors, people said they had valued the opportunity to talk and vent about their experiences, to receive comfort and emotional support, and to observe their friends’ anger toward abusers (Feminism & Psychology, 1993).

Be aware of factors and feelings that may make it harder for someone to disclose. Frequently, people in unhealthy relationships minimize the abuse they are experiencing (“It’s no big deal”); this may be especially likely if the abuse does not involve extreme physical or sexual violence. Some are concerned that others won’t understand and/or may respond in unhelpful ways. Some may be held back by embarrassment or shame, or fear for their safety if they tell anyone.

Self-blame is another powerful obstacle. In a 2015 study, people who had experienced sexual violence and understood it was not their fault were more likely to disclose it than were those who blamed themselves (Violence Against Women).

2  Be open to individual experiences

Stay attuned to your friend’s needs, regardless of whether or not their relationship conforms to what you’ve heard before about abuse. Be alert to common misconceptions about what abusive relationships look like and who they happen to.

While abusive relationships have similarities—the pattern of controlling behavior, for example—no two are the same.

Keep in mind:

  • Abuse can take place in relationships of all types.
  • Abuse can take place in relationships involving people of any sexual orientation and/or gender combination.
  • Abuse can happen to anyone. Men can be abused in relationships. Outwardly strong, assertive people can be abused in relationships. Experts on relationship abuse can be abused in relationships.

How professionals moved past victim blaming
Professionals’ understanding of relationship abuse has shifted in recent decades. “In the mid-20th century, psychiatrists believed that only certain types of women ‘fell into’ abusive relationships,” says Dr. Pain. “Now it’s widely recognized that they were mistaking the symptoms of being abused (especially the mental health effects) for factors that predisposed certain people to being abused. This was a kind of medically sanctioned victim blaming that meant hefty challenges for the women’s movement and others trying to end relationship abuse. It also left men and LGBT victims out of the picture until relatively recently.”

3  Be clear that your friend is not to blame

Part of your role is to emphasize that the abuser is responsible for the abuse. Aggressors try to shift the blame: “I wouldn’t have to shout if you listened the first time”; “It wouldn’t be like this if I could trust you.” Self-blame is a common and powerful obstacle to disclosing abuse and seeking help.

4  Show your support

Ask: “What can I do to help?” The answer may be something seemingly small, like having breakfast with your friend regularly or walking them to class. Maybe you can help schedule an appointment with a doctor or counselor. In any case, follow your friend’s lead on how to help. Avoid saying anything that might trivialize your friend’s experience.

5  Remind yourself that your friend is in charge

Abusive relationships often involve repeated violations of a person’s autonomy. It is crucial that you not replicate that dynamic when you offer help. Your friend is (and should remain in) the driver’s seat. The decision of what to do and when is theirs.

6  Resist advising your friend to leave the relationship

Dumping the abuser may seem like a no-brainer. But many people find this advice unhelpful, in part because it can come across as victim blaming. Consider asking for guidance: “I’m not here to tell you to leave. That said, if you ever want to leave, I’ll support you. I’ll have your back, whatever your decision.”

It may seem baffling that someone does not immediately walk away from an abusive relationship. Researchers have found that the dynamics of abuse, and the decision to stay or leave, are highly complicated (Behavior and Social Issues, 2005).

People’s reasons for staying in abusive relationships are often rational and considered (for example, relating to safety, children, and finances), studies show. Individuals’ sense of belonging is important in deciding how to respond to abuse. For nonwhite people, the decision to leave a family or community can be especially seismic, research suggests (Women’s Studies International Forum, 2004). Researchers now understand that leaving an abusive relationship is a process and may take multiple attempts (Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 2003).

Is it ever helpful to advise someone to leave?
Here’s the caveat: Some people report that the advice to leave an abusive relationship was helpful. This difference appears to depend on where each individual is at, research suggests. In a 2011 study, some women who had already considered leaving or had made preparations for leaving found it helpful to be advised to leave (Feminism & Psychology). For those who had not considered leaving, the same advice was unhelpful. Check in with your friend and ask what kind of support they need.

7  Suggest helpful resources

Suggest additional sources of support that might help your friend. These may be on campus, in the community, or online. Whatever you suggest, the decision on how to proceed belongs to your friend.

Researching the available support resources is a quick and practical way to help a friend. For example:

  • On campus: Your friend could consider discussing the situation with a counselor, the Title IX coordinator, a trusted dean, or an RA. Most campus staff and faculty have reporting obligations that require them to share any reports of violence or abuse with the Title IX coordinator. You may want to ask staff or faculty about this before disclosing.
  • In the community: Your friend may be interested in discussing their experiences with a rape or sexual assault crisis center, or other victim advocacy organization.
  • Online: Your friend may find it helpful to talk with an advocate via an anonymous, confidential hotline or online chat service. This may be a general relationship abuse resource or one that supports a specific community (e.g., LGBTQ). For resources, see Find out more today.

When is it OK to take the decision to seek further help out of their hands?
Only if someone is experiencing an acute threat or might harm themselves or others. In that case, talk to a campus counselor, the campus safety office, or Title IX staff.

Girl with hands in face8  Seek out support for yourself too

Supporting a friend through an abusive relationship can take a toll on you. Seek support whenever you need it from friends, family, mentors, or professionals. Relationship abuse hotlines are for you too (see Find out more today). Respect your friend’s privacy throughout.

Why it’s important to reach out

You may have noticed similarities between abusive relationships and abuse or misconduct in other contexts. You can likely tell when someone is experiencing pressure, disrespect, or unwanted attention. This makes your job as an active bystander that much easier.

What to do when you’re not sure this is abuse—and why their relationship is your business
Recognizing troubling dynamics within established relationships is not much different from recognizing such dynamics elsewhere. Whether the interaction involves a couple, acquaintances, or strangers, you can likely tell when someone is experiencing pressure, disrespect, or unwanted attention.

What if I’m not sure this is abuse?
You might be thinking of a friend whose relationship is not entirely respectful or fulfilling. Low-level disregard and disrespect are not the same as a pattern of controlling behaviors. Still, we should be wary. Everyone deserves to have their boundaries and desires respected. As a good friend, you would still be concerned for your friend, their well-being, and their happiness. These skills and strategies—listening, being present, showing support—are still useful in these contexts.

And what if it’s actually abusive?
The negative consequences of relationship abuse are far-reaching, both for individuals, communities, and society. These examples may surprise you:

Mass shootings
“Many high-profile mass shooters are also domestic abusers, and most ‘mass shootings’ are actually domestic violence incidents,” reported Vox, following the shooting at Fort Lauderdale airport in January. Researchers are exploring the parallels between relationship abuse and acts of terror. “While the two forms of violence are different in important ways, they are similar in the way that they work: largely, through fear,” says Dr. Rachel Pain, who co-directs the Centre for Social Justice and Community Action at Durham University, UK. “The physical incidents of violence are only part of the story; the threat of violence is used to exert control. And the fear that creates—either for the individual, children, or for a wider community—is one of the most important effects.”

Economic impact
Relationship abuse accounts for enormous costs in healthcare services, lost productivity, missed work, homelessness, and the ripple effects of intergenerational trauma (the impact on children and teens who are exposed to relationship abuse in their families). In the US, the cost of relationship abuse exceeded $5.8 billion a year, in a 2003 study for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Students share: What we learned about relationship abuse

Here’s why social support matters

“Much of what he did was very subtle, but he also said things that were flattering but aimed to control me (‘We should get married;’ ‘We love each other so condoms aren’t necessary, besides I haven’t used one in years’). After I got away, he stalked me via phone and email for two years. To this day, when I see someone who looks like him I tense up.

“People in my community said I was making the whole thing up. That was the hardest thing in the world. They invited him to come into spaces where I normally would be, so I had to always be on guard. It might not be the most dramatic story, but it lingers. There are people who I don’t speak to because of how they dealt with those issues. There are places I still don’t feel comfortable because I associate them with that time in my life.”
—Graduate student, Canadian university

Talking to someone is huge

“It isn’t your fault. It can happen to anyone. It happened to me. It helps to talk to someone you trust when it first happens. I wish I had.”
—Fourth-year student, Ashford University (online)

“Victims of trauma and abuse have a tendency to blame themselves and downplay their experience because someone had it worse. It is important to realize that your pain and anger are valid.”
—Third-year undergraduate, Kwantlen Polytechnic University, British Columbia

“Being a friend to someone, especially a victim, is the best thing one can do. Knowing when to take a step back, when to ask for help from someone more experienced, and finding the proper resources is the best way to help someone. There is always someone who can help.”
—Second-year undergraduate, Suffolk University, Massachusetts

“Don’t be ashamed to report the abuse and be vocal. Your voice establishes others’ rights.”
—Third-year graduate student, University of Windsor, Ontario

Quality partners value mutual enthusiastic consent

“Some days I think I was sexually abused in my last relationship. I felt that he knew I didn’t want to but went ahead anyway, knowing I wouldn’t speak up or call him out on it. Other days I just think I’m over-thinking it. I’ve never spoken out about it because I’m not sure if it was my fault.”
—Second-year undergraduate, Florida International University

“A previous sexual encounter with someone is not an all-access pass which excuses forceful or threatening behavior.”
—First-year graduate student, Ashford University (online)

“Out of my 5+ relationships there have only been two partners that completely respected my boundaries and asked for consent.”
—Fourth-year undergraduate, University of Waterloo, Ontario

Recognizing abusive behaviors can be a process

“About two months into the relationship, I was beginning to notice how controlling and emotionally manipulative he was. I was drinking at his house with him and some friends. After I drank too much, he became angry. He wanted to have sex with me. I told him I felt sick, saying over and over again that I did not want to. He got on top of me anyway and I was too intoxicated to push him off. I stayed with him for six more months. There were several instances of him pushing me to do things and have sex with him. I regret that I pretended that what he did was OK. I have learned to never stay silent about sexual abuse and assault.”
—Second-year undergraduate, University of Central Arkansas

“Looking back on it, what my ex-boyfriend was doing was more subtle than coercion. He was very manipulative and I fell into the trap of wanting to please him all the time, which led to thinking I wanted to have sex with him, but after, I felt really icky. My subconscious was telling me to leave and that I didn’t want to have sex with him, but I ignored it. I don’t like thinking about it. I would tell anyone to listen to those thoughts and free yourself. It’s OK if you let down the other person. You have to protect yourself.”
—Fourth-year undergraduate, University of California, San Diego

Ending an abusive relationship can be a process, too

“I told the guy that I felt awful. Rather than comfort me [when I was sick], he took my hand and put it on his penis. I told him that was ridiculous and made it clear I did not want him to come to [my campus apartment] any more. He called me a bitch and told me I was making everything about myself. It took him weeks to understand I had dumped him. He kept telling me to ‘think about it,’ as if my breaking up with him was not real. I never allowed him to see me again. I don’t feel bad about dumping him in a text rather than making a scene in public or risking myself in my apartment.”
—First-year graduate student, Kutztown University of Pennsylvania

“A boyfriend forced me to have sex with him even after I had said no. He kept insisting and I was afraid of what would happen if I didn’t give in. So I just did what he wanted. It happened on a Sunday and I ended the relationship on Monday. It took months to get rid of him fully, and he still haunts my dreams now and then. I never filed charges or reported it. [I felt] no one would believe it was rape. I still feel violated, and this happened years ago.”
—Second-year undergraduate, Ashford University (online)

When intimacy feels like an obligation—red flag

“I have a friend who felt obligated to comply with his sexual demands because they were dating. We had to pull her out of the situation ourselves.”
—Third-year undergraduate, Collin College, Texas

“My boyfriend when I was younger had a bad temper and would hit walls or do really mean things. He was also fairly forceful in bed and made me feel guilty when I said no.”
—Second-year graduate student, University of Washington

“It is really frustrating to feel obligated to have sex with someone you love. When I am overwhelmed with tasks, my significant other does not recognize the hints I give him to back off. He had the audacity to act upset after I firmly said no, I would not interrupt my work to satisfy his urges. Later, after telling him I needed to sleep because I needed to be up in four hours, I finally just gave in. I love him, but it never feels good to be coerced into sex.”
—First-year student, Des Moines Area Community College, Iowa

Intimacy is not about pressure or proof

“We broke up over the course of a year, and we still had sex sometimes, as if we were still together. It was assumed that I was always comfortable with it, since they were the one wavering in our relationship and I was not. I wasn’t all right with it, though. I did want it to work out eventually, and felt that meant maintaining intimacy through everything.”
—Third-year undergraduate, University of Victoria, British Columbia

“When I was married, my husband made it clear that if he wanted it and I didn’t, his desire would rule, because it was my duty to meet his needs and any lack of desire was my problem. I quickly learned to dread sex. Now that we are divorced, I’m worried that I will continue to view it as a negative experience.”
—Third-year undergraduate, Metropolitan State University of Denver, Colorado

Trauma can be long-term—and support is available

Someone sitting down bent over, upset“My first relationship was when I was 14 years old. The boy was such a charmer and no one knew what was going on. The first three months he was sweet as can be, but then he changed. He said the reason our relationship was bad was because I wouldn’t have sex with him. He did some sexual things against my will that are too painful to go into detail about. Because of him, I believed I was stupid, unlovable, and ugly.

“One day he said that he was unhappy and it was my job to make him happy. So I said we were through. I lost friends because he said I lied and cried rape. I was bullied on social media. I have PTSD from the abuse. This past year I feel into a deep dark place. I wanted to kill myself. I realized I had been running from the pain and never dealt with it. I am on medicine now, and working with someone on my anxiety, PTSD, and depression. Everyday is a battle that I slowly am winning. I refuse to let the butthead continue hurting me. Those sexual assault videos always like to quote that ‘1 in 4’ statistic; what many don’t realize is for me that isn’t just a statistic, it’s my life.”
—Second-year graduate student, California State University, Stanislaus

Keep going and seek help—happiness is possible

“My first husband beat and raped me and went to prison for it. I got addicted to opiates shortly after and lost my home. It took me years to come to terms with it. The most helpful thing was my comfort animal.”
—Fourth-year undergraduate, Portland State University, Oregon

“I was in an emotionally abusive relationship. My sight was thwarted because I was in love; it was very confusing. I knew something was not right but couldn’t place my finger on it. After this relationship, my subsequent relationships were unbalanced. I had lost the potential for innocence and trust. It was not until the birth of my now year-old daughter, and extensive therapy, that I have achieved a harmonious relationship. I am ecstatic!”
—Second-year undergraduate, Berea College, Kentucky

In a recent survey by SH101, most stories of relationship abuse were reported by female students describing heterosexual relationships. This is the most common abuse dynamic, research shows. That said, relationship abuse can happen to anyone. This slideshow includes comments from students of varying genders and sexualities.

The frequency and health impact of sexual assault by partners
Abuse of all types can affect people in relationships of any sexual orientation or gender-identity. The research on sexual assault and coercion within relationships is limited. Existing studies focus primarily on women experiencing abuse in heterosexual relationships.

  • Sexual assault and coercion in relationships is not rare: In several studies of women who had been married or cohabiting, 8 to 23 percent reported having been sexually assaulted by an intimate partner, according to a 2003 review in Trauma, Violence, & Abuse. The study definitions of intimate partner and sexual assault varied.
  • Sexual violence may be relatively common in young people’s relationships: In a UK study involving teens, 31 percent of girls and 16 percent of boys reported some form of sexual coercion or assault (NSPCC, 2009).
  • Physical and sexual violence may go together: Many abusive relationships that involve physical violence involve sexual violence too, research shows (Department of Justice, 2005). Within relationships, the mental and physical health impact of sexual assault can be worse than the harms caused by physical violence, according to the same study. Sexual assaults by partners are more likely to cause physical injury than sexual assaults by strangers or acquaintances are (Partner Abuse, 2012).
  • Sexual assault by partners can cause serious physical and emotional harm: Women who have been sexually assaulted within relationships had more post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms, more pregnancies resulting from rape, more sexually transmitted infections, and more suicide attempts, compared to women who had been physically but not sexually assaulted by partners, according to the 2005 study for the Department of Justice.
  • Sexual assault by partners is a risk factor for drug use: In the 2005 study, 27 percent of the women began or increased their use of nicotine, alcohol, or illicit drugs (usually cocaine) after they were sexually assaulted by an intimate partner.
  • The sexual assault risk can vary according to circumstances: Women who are disabled, pregnant, or attempting to leave their abusers are at greatest risk for intimate partner rape, says the National Coalition Against Domestic Abuse.


Article sources

Hana Awwad and Evan Walker-Wells contributed to this article.

Casey Corcoran, program director, Futures Without Violence.

Dana Cuomo, coordinator of victim advocacy services, University of Washington.

Gabe Murchison, senior research manager, Human Rights Campaign.

Rachel Pain, PhD, professor, Department of Geography; co-director, Centre for Social Justice and Community Action; Durham University, UK.

Anderson, D. K., & Saunders, D. G. (2003). Leaving an abusive partner: An empirical review of predictors, the process of leaving, and psychological well-being. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 4(2), 163–191.

Barnett, O. W. (2000). Why battered women do not leave, part 1: External inhibiting factors within society. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 1(4), 343–372.

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Sexual violence in LGBTQ communities: How we can help prevent it

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Gabe Murchison is senior research manager at Human Rights Campaign, the largest LGBTQ advocacy organization in the US. He focuses on research that “helps us understand the unique challenges that LGBTQ people deal with and the resources we have for tackling them.”

Murchison has a master’s in public health from Yale University. As an undergraduate, he spent three years with Yale’s sexual violence prevention program, Communication and Consent Educators. His master’s thesis examines sexual assault risk factors affecting LGBTQ people and how to make our communities safer.

Why did you do this research?

“To prevent sexual violence, we have to understand how it happens, and while we know a bit about how sexual violence against straight, cisgender women tends to look, there’s very little research on violence against LGBTQ students. As a result, most prevention efforts are designed for straight, cisgender women. There’s very little research telling us whether they serve LGBTQ students equally or at all.

“Overall, our data suggests that LGBTQ students’ unwanted sexual experiences (coercion or assault) are similar to what we know about heterosexual, cisgender women’s. For instance, in the research we conducted, many of the perpetrators were friends, romantic partners, exes, or hookups, and coercion and alcohol incapacitation were more common tactics than physical force.

“However, students with more internalized homophobia were more likely to have experienced sexual assault and coercion, while students with a stronger sense of LGBTQ community were less likely to have had those experiences. We found that 82 percent of perpetrators were male—surprisingly, that number was similar regardless of the survivor’s gender.”

This list is adapted from the Glossary of Terms published by the Human Rights Campaign. Terminology relating to gender and sexual identity is variable (e.g., a non-cisgender person may identify as transgender, gender non-conforming, non-binary, queer, or genderqueer). Always respect individuals’ preferences.

Asexual The person does not experience sexual attraction or desire for other people.

Bisexual The person is emotionally, romantically, or sexually attracted to more than one sex, gender, or gender identity.

Cisgender A person’s gender identity aligns with the sex assigned to them at birth.

Gay The person is emotionally, romantically, or sexually attracted to people of the same gender.

Gender identity A person’s innermost concept of self as male, female, a blend of both, or neither; how individuals perceive themselves, and what they call themselves.

Gender non-conforming The person does not behave in a way that conforms to the traditional expectations of their gender, or their gender expression does not fit neatly into a category; also termed “non-binary.”

Genderqueer The person rejects static categories of gender and embraces a fluidity of gender identity (and often, though not always, sexual orientation); may see themselves as being both male and female, neither male nor female, or outside these categories.

Homophobia The fear and hatred of, or discomfort with, people who are attracted to those of the same sex.

Lesbian The woman is emotionally, romantically, or sexually attracted to other women.

LGBT An acronym for “lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender.”

Queer Fluid gender identity and/or sexual orientation; often used interchangeably with “LGBT.”

Transgender The person’s gender identity and/or expression is different from cultural expectations based on the sex they were assigned at birth; transgender people may identify as straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, etc.

Transphobia The fear and hatred of, or discomfort with, transgender people.

Full glossary HERE 

Gabe Murchison:Gabe Murchison

“I use transgender to refer to people who identify with a different gender than they were assigned at birth. I use gender non-conforming to refer to people who consistently and noticeably express themselves outside of the norms for their gender.

“Like anyone else, a transgender person could be gender-conforming or non-conforming after they transition. Some transgender men dress and act in stereotypically masculine ways, while others are more feminine than the average man, and the same is true of transgender women.

“There are also many transgender people who don’t identify exclusively as men or women, but as neither, or a combination of both. I use the umbrella term ‘non-binary’ for these identities, because they are outside of the male-female ‘gender binary.’

“Many health researchers use the umbrella term ‘gender minorities’ to describe transgender and gender non-conforming people. In the study we’re discussing, I didn’t ask participants about being gender non-conforming, so I can only talk about transgender students’ experiences.  Other research has found that LGBTQ youth who are gender non-conforming have different experiences than those who are gender-conforming—for instance, they are more likely to be bullied in school. Whether being gender non-conforming affects the likelihood of experiencing sexual violence is an important question for future research.”

Gabe Murchison:Gabe Murchison
“Living in a culture that stigmatizes one or more of your identities—your race, status, sexual orientation, or many others—can affect your health negatively. One way is through internalized stigma: when you come to consciously or unconsciously believe the negative cultural ideas about yourself. Internalized homophobia is internalized stigma about being lesbian, gay, bisexual, or queer.

“Absorbing negative beliefs about one’s LGBTQ identity can cause a range of problems, like making someone more prone to depression or anxiety, or affecting their sexuality and relationships.

“For instance, it appears that some abusers take advantage of internalized homophobia to control their partners. When we were planning our research, we thought that sexual aggressors could do something similar, and there was some qualitative research (interviews with LGBTQ people about their unwanted sexual experiences) backing that up.

“It’s important to note that internalized stigma is not something to be ashamed of. It’s an almost unavoidable consequence of having any stigmatized identity, but most people find positive ways to cope with it.”

For research references, see Sources.

Internalized transphobia may occur at a higher rate than internalized homophobia, research suggests. In a 2016 study, transgender participants reported higher rates of discrimination, depression symptoms, and suicide attempts than cisgender LGB participants. Among transgender people, depression symptoms were associated with a lack of self-acceptance around identity, researchers wrote (Transgender Health).

Transgender, gender nonconforming, and genderqueer people experience pressure from multiple sources. “According to research, stressors include being bullied at school and work, reduced access to housing, loss of friends and family, physical violence, harassment and assault, and reduced medical access,” says Joleen Nevers, sexuality educator at the University of Connecticut.

Gabe Murchison:Gabe Murchison
“Trans students report facing more discrimination on campus than their cisgender LGBQ peers. Trans students deal with a number of challenges that don’t affect cisgender LGB students, like difficulty accessing housing and restrooms that match their gender. School policies may have a serious impact: Transgender people denied access to these facilities are more likely to have attempted suicide.

“On average, trans students also seem to have a weaker sense of community on campus, even though they’re equally involved in groups and leadership activities.”

For research references, see Sources.

Gabe Murchison:Gabe Murchison
“We surveyed about 700 LGBQ college students at hundreds of colleges and universities, using questions that measured their levels of internalized homophobia and their sense of LGBTQ community on campus. We also asked them about some things that are related to sexual violence risk among heterosexual women, including how many romantic and sexual partners they’d had during college. Finally, we asked them about different types of unwanted sexual experiences they may have had, and about how and with whom those experiences happened. We used this data to look at three big questions:

  1. “First, is sexual violence against LGBTQ undergraduates basically similar to what heterosexual, cisgender women tend to experience? While those women’s experiences vary, common themes include assault while incapacitated by alcohol or drugs; assault or coercion by a dating partner; and initially consensual hookups that end in assault. I guessed that LGBTQ students would report similar experiences, but many people assume that ‘hate crime’ attacks play a big role, so it was an open question.
  2. “Second, do LGBTQ students have unique experiences that affect their risk of sexual violence?
  3. “Third, we knew very little about gender: Do LBQ women tend to be assaulted by men, women, or both? What about GBQ men? And what about people with a non-binary gender? That would help us understand whether this violence tends to take place within LGBTQ relationships or communities, or whether it’s mostly perpetrated by heterosexuals.”


How different is trans students’ experience?

“Technically, our study was about sexual orientation, not gender. However, many transgender students are also LGBQ. In my sample and another recent study by the Asssociation of American Universities, transgender students experienced the highest rates of sexual assault and coercion.

“Trans students report facing more discrimination on campus than non-trans LGBQ peers. Some students are even targeted for sexual assault because they are trans. On average, trans students also seem to have a weaker sense of community on campus. We don’t know how transgender stigma on campus relates to sexual assault and coercion, but given the high rates of both discrimination and sexual violence, the question deserves more attention.”

How can we support LGBTQ students?

“We researched how feeling that you belong to a community affects the incidence of sexual assault. A strong sense of LGBTQ community is beneficial, potentially because it helps people deal with internalized homophobia and transphobia.

“The peer education program I worked with in college is based on the idea that changing how students think about sexuality, sexual pressure, and even ‘going out’ can make sexually aggressive behavior harder to get away with and help all students feel more empowered.”


“Campus programming sets the tone for LGBTQ students and straight, cisgender students,” says Gabe Murchison. The following approaches can help build an inclusive community, he says:

  • Health services should use inclusive language—like “students who need a Pap test” instead of “women who need a Pap test,” since some transgender students will need that service as well.
  • All programming should include LGBTQ students among its examples.
  • Health, sexuality, and sexual violence workshops should feature characters with gender-neutral names and point out that both consensual sex and sexual violence can occur in any gender combination.

Gabe Murchison:Gabe Murchison
“It’s important to have friends who support your sexual orientation or the fact that you’re transgender—but that doesn’t mean they have to be LGBTQ. Many LGBTQ students make their closest friends through athletics, Greek life, arts, religious organizations, or housing assignments. For some, most or all of those friends are straight and cisgender.

“Since LGBTQ people are just as diverse as any other group, it’s very likely that you’ll meet like-minded LGBTQ friends throughout your life, even if you don’t fit in with the LGBTQ students you’ve met on campus.”

Gabe Murchison:Gabe Murchison
“There are not a ton of data on LGBTQ undergraduates specifically. From what exists, it appears that:

  • “Gay, bi, and queer men are at higher risk than other men (but still at lower risk than women).
  • “Lesbian, bi, and queer women seem to be at similar or slightly higher risk compared to other women.
  • “Transgender students, particularly those with non-binary gender identities (not exclusively male or female), seem to be at higher risk than cisgender students.”

For research references, see Sources.

“‘Queer’ is how respondents self-identified. Thirteen percent of my sample described their sexual orientation as queer. The term has been adopted by the major US advocacy organizations and is used in some (not all) research on this population.”

What cultural problems did you identify in your peer work?

“Some students who wanted to make friends with other LGBTQ people felt like the only way to do that was to be part of a hookup scene. That led to them having consensual sex they didn’t really want and sometimes made them targets for coercion. Also, some people talked about experiencing sexual aggression when they were newly out and thinking maybe that was normal or acceptable among LGBTQ people—because they didn’t yet have many LGBTQ friends to discuss it with.”

How did you aim to build a safer culture?

Create nonsexual spaces and conversations
“We decided that building a stronger sense of community could help. First, we got LGBTQ student leaders on board to help change the way people in their circles talked about hooking up, and also to be intentionally welcoming to younger students. Second, we started hosting LGBTQ events that were not at all sexualized—like a fantastic pie-baking event that’s become an annual tradition. Third, we made sure that the more sexualized spaces were still low-pressure. For example, after an LGBTQ dance, we showed Mean Girls until 3 a.m. People loved it, and it showed that you can go out and dance without ending the night in someone’s bed.”

How can all students reach out to LGBTQ peers?

Check in with friends and younger students
“Checking in is really valuable. If someone is in an intense relationship and you’re not sure if it’s good-intense or bad-intense, you can ask some open-ended questions like, ‘How are things with Ryan?’ Even if everything is fine, they’ll feel supported. Reaching out to younger or newly out students can be especially effective. They may be particularly vulnerable to sexual assault, or just plain loneliness.”

Pay attention to who seems left out
“Some students don’t participate in the LGBTQ community because they feel excluded—most visible LGBTQ social groups might be mostly white, mostly a particular gender, mostly secular. Also, not all LGBTQ communities are great at supporting transgender, non-binary, or bisexual students. Set an example by learning more about being bi- and trans-inclusive, and asking your friends to do the same.”

Gabe Murchison:Gabe Murchison
“Do your best not to assume someone is heterosexual or cisgender. My college had a dance where first-year students set up dates for the people they live with. Some people made a point of asking each suitemate about their gender preferences for the date. For some LGBQ people, that was the first time they felt comfortable coming out to the people they lived with.

“Be an advocate. Student affairs staff often take students’ opinions seriously. These staff can affect the decision-making process on issues that affect LGBTQ students, like funding an LGBTQ center or creating mixed-gender housing options. If you know LGBTQ students on your campus are advocating for this type of goal, you can write or talk to student affairs staff and explain why you feel it’s important.

“Speak up. If an LGBTQ person (or anyone else) hears stigmatizing comments all the time, they may be too afraid or frustrated to address them. Try to respectfully but firmly shoot down any anti-LGBTQ remarks you hear.”

Slideshow - Students talk: The social and sexual pressures of being LGBTQ+

Get help or find out more

Sexual assault is never the fault of the survivor. Become familiar with your campus and community resources. Campus resources for survivors of coercion and/or sexual assault include the counseling center, student health center, women’s center, and sexual assault center. Community resources include rape or sexual assault crisis centers and hotlines.

LGBTQ hotline and meetup groups: Trevor Project

How to support a male friend: 1in6

Help for survivors: National Sexual Assault Hotline and Online Hotline

Guide for male survivors of childhood sexual abuse: Colorado State University

Find local services and other resources: NotAlone.gov

Student activists who are survivors of sexual violence: Know Your IX

National campus safety organization: Clery Center for Security on Campus

Sexual violence resources: National Sexual Violence Resource Center


Article sources

Gabe Murchison, senior research manager, Human Rights Campaign. Murchison’s master’s thesis (not yet published) was advised by Melanie Boyd, PhD, assistant dean of student affairs at Yale University, and John Pachankis, PhD, associate professor of epidemiology at Yale School of Public Health.

Joleen Nevers, MA Ed, CHES, AASECT Certified Secondary Education, sexuality educator, health education coordinator, University of Connecticut.

Association of American Universities. (2015). AAU Campus Survey of Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct. Retrieved from https://www.aau.edu/Climate-Survey.aspx?id=16525

Bockting, W. O., Miner, M. H., Swinburne Romine, R. E., Hamilton, A., et al. (2013). Stigma, mental health, and resilience in an online sample of the US transgender population. American Journal of Public Health, 103(5), 943–951. Retrieved from https://ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/abs/10.2105/AJPH.2013.301241

Braun, V., Schmidt, J., Gavey, N., & Fenaughty, J. (2009). Sexual coercion among gay and bisexual men in Aotearoa/New Zealand. Journal of Homosexuality, 56(3), 336-360

Centers for Disease Control. (2010). National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey: An overview of 2010 findings on victimization by sexual orientation. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/cdc_nisvs_victimization_final-a.pdf

D’Augelli, A. R., Grossman, A. H., & Starks, M. T. (2006). Childhood gender atypicality, victimization, and PTSD among lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 21(11), 1462–1482.

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Edwards, K. M., Sylaska, K. M., Barry, J. E., Moynihan, M. M., et al. (2015). Physical dating violence, sexual violence, and unwanted pursuit victimization: A comparison of incidence rates among sexual-minority and heterosexual college students. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 30(4), 580-600.

Grant, J. M., Mottet, L. A., & Tanis, J. (2011). Injustice at every turn: A report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey. Washington: National Center for Transgender Equality and National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. Retrieved from https://www.thetaskforce.org/static_html/downloads/reports/reports/ntds_full.pdf

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Quiz: What’s your bystander style?

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Bystander intervention is about the small things we all do for our friends and communities. When we see that someone is experiencing unwanted attention or pressure, we have a variety of ways we can check in: anything from a simple hello to a more creative disruption.

The best interventions happen early on—right when we notice that something is off, and well before a situation escalates. These interventions are easy, subtle, and safe. They help build a community that doesn’t tolerate casual disrespect and disregard, and prevent pressure and disrespect from escalating to coercion and violence.

How you choose to help others depends partly on your personality. To identify your own bystander style—direct, distraction, or stealth—check out each scenario. Keep track of your preferred responses and use them to score your answers.

1. At a house party, you notice someone from your physics class pulling a very drunk person into the bedroom where everyone dumped their coats. Do you…?

A.  Point this out to the host.
B.  Catch up with your classmate and offer to help with finding the drunk person’s friends or getting medical attention.
C.  Follow them into the room, ask if they’ve seen your coat, and describe it at length.

2. One of your classmates makes a rape joke. Some people laugh, while others look uncomfortable. The professor nods along. Do you….?

A.  Make a sympathetic face at the uncomfortable classmates and check in with them later.
B.  Roll your eyes and say, “Oh yeah, sexual violence is hilarious. But back to our discussion…”
C.  Talk to the professor after class and tell them the joke made you and others uncomfortable.

3. At an impromptu res hall party, you notice a guy looking uncomfortable about someone who is getting close and grinding on him. Do you…?

A.  Dance toward them and invite some friends to join the circle.
B.  “Accidentally” spill your drink on the handsy dancer.
C.  Sidle up to the iPod, interrupt the hip-hop playlist, blast the Game of Thrones theme song, and look as surprised as everyone else.

4. At morning practice, one of your teammates seems distracted. When you ask if everything is OK, your teammate shrugs and says, “Yeah, I just had a weird hookup last night.” Do you…?

A.  Say, “Weird how? Do you want to talk about it?” Suggest contacting your school’s counseling center, if that seems appropriate.
B.  Text your teammate’s best friend and suggest they get lunch together and check in.
C.  Make yourself available that day for Frisbee or a run with your teammate in case they want to talk.

5. Your roommate recently started dating Riley, who seems OK but is around an awful lot. Tonight, Riley came over while your roommate was out and hung around waiting. When your roommate finally got home, Riley said, “You’re back late. We should get to bed,” and disappeared into the bedroom. Your roommate stayed in the living room, making no moves to follow Riley. Do you…?

A.  Explain loudly that you’re having a personal crisis and need to talk to your roommate about it immediately.
B.  Ask your roommate to help you return some library books before midnight and use the walk over to check in about their relationship.
C.  Make a mental note to get some professional input on how to talk to your roommate about this new relationship, the next time you’re alone.

6. During a small get-together, your friend Alex, who’s been drinking a lot, gets a text from an ex: wanna come over? Alex hasn’t expressed any interest in getting back together with this ex, so you are surprised when Alex gets up to head over. Do you…?

A.  “Accidentally” spill water all over the floor. Ask Alex to help clean up and strike up a conversation about the text.
B.  Offer to walk Alex over, with another mutual friend; you’ll talk it through on the way.
C.  Hide Alex’s shoes, wait for Alex to notice they’re missing, and exclaim “That’s a sign! Why don’t you stay here?”

7. You and a couple of other Orientation Leaders are having lunch with a group of first-years. Everyone is bantering about their favorite football teams. Quinn is mostly silent and eventually says, “I’m not into sports much.” Jamie laughs and says, “What are you, gay?” Do you…?

A.  Say, “Thank you, Quinn! I’m so happy to have an ally at last in this football-fixated world. Perspective is everything.”
B.  Say, “We don’t say ‘gay’ disparagingly here,” and promptly change the subject.
C.  Check in with Quinn after lunch and ask one of the other Orientation Leaders to have a chat with Jamie.

Your score: What type of bystander are you?

Score your responses according to the table below. Note: There are no right or wrong answers, no better or worse answers. This quiz is about finding your bystander style.

Answer scores

What your score says about you

Score 17–21 This much is clear—you’re a direct interventionist

You’re comfortable changing the trajectory when something’s wrong—by being caring and upfront. Sometimes you call people out, knowing this is OK; you’re doing what seems right.

Score 12–16 What’s going on over there, distraction artist?

You’re great at subtly making space for others and changing the tone of an interaction. You’re skilled at getting silly or creative, and finding elegant ways to shift the mood and message.

Score 7–11 You’re a stealth operator (fine, we’ll keep that quiet)

You’re most comfortable working with other people, finding help, and following up. When you see something concerning, you’re building a team to tackle it or thinking about how you can help.

In the end, it doesn’t matter how you intervene as long as you do something. Checking in early enables you to keep things subtle and avoid putting yourself or others at risk. Creating and maintaining a healthy campus community means being aware of what’s happening around us, and saying and/or doing something when we see a situation that just doesn’t look or feel right.

Student app review: Circle of 6
Taylor Rugg

Fourth-year double major: writing & rhetoric and war, warfare, & the soldier experience at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, New York

“There are times when we just need to phone a lifeline, whether that’s a friend, a family member, or even campus security. If you find yourself (or someone else) in an uncomfortable situation, this app can send an alert to up to six designated friends or family at the touch of a button.”


Help is only a button away—whether you (or a friend) are in a sketchy situation and need assistance, if you’re walking somewhere and feel uncomfortable, or if you witness a situation that appears dangerous or unsafe.
5 out of 5 stars


If you’re looking for an entertaining new game or social platform, this isn’t for that.
0 out of 5 stars


Your circle is notified when they’re added, so they’re aware that they’re an emergency contact. And contacting them is super easy—the prompts are already made!
0 out of 5 stars

Get the app:

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[survey_plugin] Article sources

This quiz incorporates an earlier quiz created by Lee Scriggins, MSW, community substance abuse prevention coordinator at Boulder County Department of Public Health (formerly health communications and program manager at the University of Colorado Boulder), and Teresa Wroe, director of education and prevention/deputy Title IX coordinator at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Banyard, V. L., Plante, E. G., & Moynihan, M. M. (2004). Bystander education: Bringing a broader community perspective to sexual violence prevention. Journal of Community Psychology, 32(1) 61–79.

Bennett, S., Banyard, V. L., & Garnhart, L. (2014). To act or not to act, that is the question? Barriers and facilitators of bystander intervention. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 29(3), 476–496.

Burn, S. M. (2009). A situational model of sexual assault prevention through bystander intervention. Sex Roles, 60(11–12), 779–792.

Casey, E. A., & Ohler, K. (2011). Being a positive bystander: Male anti-violence allies’ experiences of “stepping up.” Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 27(1), 62–83.

Coker, A. L., Cook-Craig, P. G., Williams, C. M., Fisher, B. S ., et al. (2011). Evaluation of Green Dot: An active bystander intervention to reduce sexual violence on college campuses. Violence Against Women, 17(6), 1–20.

Gidycz, C. A., Orchowski, L. M., & Berkowitz, A. D. (2011). Preventing sexual aggression among college men: An evaluation of a social norms and bystander intervention program. Violence Against Women,17(6), 720–742.

Levine, M., & Crowther, S. (2008). The responsive bystander: How social group membership and group size can encourage as well as inhibit bystander intervention. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95(6), 1429–1439.

Levine, M., Prosser, A., Evans, D., & Reicherj, S. (2005). Identity and emergency intervention: How social group membership and inclusiveness of group boundaries shapes helping behavior. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 31(4), 443–453.

Lonnquist, J. E., Leikas, S., Paunonen, S., Nissinen, V., et al. (2006). Conformism moderates the relations between values, anticipated regret, and behavior. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 32(11), 1469–1481.

McMahon, S. (2010). Rape myth beliefs and bystander attitudes among incoming college students. Journal of American College Health, 59(1), 3–11.

Pact5. (2013). Bystander intervention/training. Pact5.org. Retrieved from https://pact5.org/resources/prevention-and-readiness/everyone-is-a-bystander/

Step Up! program. (2014). Sexual assault. University of Arizona. Retrieved from https://stepupprogram.org/topics/sexual-assault/

Tabachnick, J. (2008). Engaging bystanders in sexual violence prevention. Enola, PA: National Sexual Violence Resource Center.

Why is everyone talking about sexual assault on campus?

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The evidence is clear: Sexual assault and coercion are common on campuses, and have been for decades. Why have we taken so long to see it?

In part, because most sexual assault does not look as we might expect it to. We may struggle with the notion of our classmate as a sexual predator, or alcohol as a weapon. Acts of sexual violence and coercion can be camouflaged by the college party scene and our own beliefs about sexual behavior. Many campus survivors resist the terms “sexual assault,” “rape,” and “victim,” even while describing experiences that meet those definitions.

In a random survey of more than 1,000 current or recent students, 25 percent of women and 7 percent of men reported at least one nonconsensual sexual experience in college, according to the Washington Post and Kaiser Family Foundation in 2015. Disabled, gay, bisexual, and transgender people face a higher-than-average risk, a White House report concluded in 2014.

Whatever we call sexual assault, it can have serious, long-term consequences for survivors’ academic success and physical and emotional health. That’s why colleges and the federal government are working to establish safer campuses for all.

Is it true that most men are not violent?

Most men are not violent, sexually or otherwise, says Corey Ingram, MSW, coordinator of the Sexual Assault Violence Intervention & Prevention program at the University of South Carolina.

According to Ingram’s analysis of multiple studies, it is likely that

  • 92–94 percent of men do not commit sexual assault.
  • 82–87 percent of men do not commit acts of interpersonal violence.

Many male students are speaking up and taking action to interrupt sexual violence, and many others want to learn how. Male advocates are active in organizations such as Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP) and Men Can Stop Rape, and on some campuses.

What attitudes and beliefs play a role?

Sexual assault within specific communities is often associated with:

  • Social norms that make it harder to speak up in defense of oneself or others; e.g., a double sexual standard that judges people differently for sexual activity.
  • A party culture that links alcohol with expectations of sex.

On and off campus, certain groups, organizations, and communities are associated with harassment and exploitation, including sexual violence. “What we may notice is a harsh group culture that accepts mockery even when it becomes harmful, and targets people who are seen as lower status, like women, people of color, LGBTQ people, and disabled people,” says Lee Scriggins, an expert in sexual assault education at the University of Colorado, Boulder. In isolation, any single instance may seem insignificant, but it is part of a continuum of coercion that starts with sexual comments and judgments.

On campuses, sexual assault has been associated with some fraternities and athletics teams. However, similar group dynamics manifest in other communities within and beyond college. Such groups may be social, political, athletic, or professional, and tend to share the following characteristics, says Scriggins:

  • High-status organizations with strong internal hierarchies
  • Strong group identity and boundaries (the sense of insider and outsider)
  • Higher than average similarity among members
  • A feeling of being somewhat apart from society and embattled
  • Secret traditions
  • Bonding through drinking

How does alcohol come into it?

Alcohol does not cause sexual assault; perpetrators do. Nevertheless, on campuses, alcohol use and sexual assault are closely connected. Here’s why:

  • Alcohol can be a weapon: Campus sexual aggressors may deliberately get their targets drunk; intoxicated victims may be less able to evade assault and easier to blame, according to Dr. David Lisak.
  • People who drink use more aggression: The amount of alcohol that perpetrators consume is related to how much aggression they use and to the type of sexual assault they commit, a study in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence (2003) suggests.
  • Alcohol clouds social awareness: Consuming alcohol may make it harder to pick up on signs of threat and risk, researchers say (Journal of Family Violence, 2007).

And here are the numbers:

  • Every year, 97,000 students aged 18–24 are victims of alcohol-related sexual assault, suggests a 2009 study in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.
  • Every year, more than 100,000 students aged 18–24 may be too intoxicated to know whether or not they consented to sex (CDC, 2002).
  • Rape is more common on campuses that have higher rates of heavy drinking, according to a 2004 study of 119 schools (Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs).
  • Most incapacitated sexual assaults of students occur at parties, according to the National Institute of Justice (2008).

For more on alcohol and sexual assault, see Student Health 101, October 2015.

How do campus social dynamics contribute?

“Self-blame and victim-blaming, including by women of other women, are surprisingly prevalent on campuses,” says Tara Schuster, coordinator of health promotion at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, New York.

In part, this reflects a mistaken belief that many accusations of sexual assault are false. “David Lisak’s research shows that only about 2–10 percent of all reported rapes are fabricated. Students (men and women alike) often think this number is much higher,” says Schuster.

  • Among college students, demeaning attitudes toward women are associated with rape myths and sexual aggression, according to a 2004 study in Violence Against Women.
  • In a study involving 205 college athletes, most said they did not accept rape myths, yet many participants misunderstood consent, believed in “accidental” and fabricated rape, and thought that women provoke rape (Affilia: Journal of Women and Social Work, 2007).
  • The negative judgment of women for being sexually active helps explain why perpetrators target first-year students, who are seen as “fresh” and “clean,” according to a 2012 analysis in the Journal of College and Character.

Is sexual assault deliberate?

Sexual assaults on campus are deliberate and planned, according to Dr. David Lisak, a clinical psychologist and forensic consultant whose research has been pivotal in understanding sexual violence on and off campus. These acts are not “misunderstandings.”

  • Perpetrators target vulnerable students; for example, those who are younger and new to college, less experienced with alcohol, and eager to fit in, Dr. Lisak found.
  • Perpetrators target people they know; In 85–90 percent of sexual assaults reported by college women, the survivor knew the attacker; about half occurred on a date, according to the National Institute of Justice (2008).

The perp mindset
Certain attitudes are more common among sexual aggressors than in the general population:

  • Reduced empathy toward others (Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 1995)
  • Hostility toward women and a belief in rape myths (e.g., that victims are to blame) (Violence Against Women, 2004; Journal of Family Violence, 2004).

Stereotypically “male” attitudes and behaviors, including toughness and violence (Sex Abuse, 1996).

How much of a difference can I make?

We are all part of this community and we all experience opportunities to do and say the right thing. Most of us want to help others. Nevertheless, sometimes we may feel conflicted: Is this really my business? Will it be awkward if I say something and it turns out he doesn’t need my help after all?

Bystander intervention training aims to empower us to act on our helping instincts. We probably can’t change perpetrators’ motives, but we can create an environment in which it’s harder for them to act on their aggressive intentions and easier for us to hold them accountable.

Active bystanders do any or all of the following:

  • Check our own ideas and assumptions, so that we are not part of the problem.
  • Resist behaviors that support sexual violence, such as demeaning language and victim-blaming.
  • Disrupt risky situations that may precede an assault; intervention may be indirect (e.g., turning the lights on to expose and disrupt a potentially threatening scenario) or direct (e.g., telling an aggressor to back off, or offering the targeted person an easy out).
  • Support a survivor following an assault.

Students who are trained in bystander intervention are more confident in their ability to prevent assault, research shows.

How many perpetrators are involved?

In the last 15 years, research has shown that most sexual assaults on campuses are carried out by a relatively small number of aggressors. This is similar to other settings, such as in the US Navy.

For example, in a groundbreaking study involving 1,900 male university students, 120 men (1 in 16) self-reported actions that met the legal definition of rape or attempted rape (Violence and Victims, 2002):

  • Most of the 120 were repeat rapists.
  • The repeat rapists averaged six rapes each.
  • Four percent of the men were responsible for more than 400 attempted or completed rapes.
  • Most of the aggressors used alcohol to intoxicate or incapacitate their victims.
  • Most of the 120 had committed other acts of violence, such as battery or child abuse.

Most studies focus on male perpetrators of sexual assault and abuse. Less commonly, women can be perpetrators: Reliable data are scarce, in part because many male survivors are embarrassed about or ashamed of acknowledging that they have been assaulted.

What we think about when we think about sex

The 4-step bystander self-intervention

The risk of judgment makes it harder for survivors of sexual assault to speak up and more difficult for us to hold sexual aggressors accountable. We may not always be aware that our own comments and behaviors can reinforce barriers to addressing sexual violence. Here’s how to think about our own thinking. By Jaclyn Friedman, author of What You Really Really Want: The Smart Girl’s Shame-Free Guide to Sex and Safety (Seal Press, 2011).

1. Check your influences on your ideas about sexuality

“What messages have you learned about sex and what was the motive behind them? You can take control of your relationship with those influences,” says Jaclyn Friedman, sexual assualt survivor and author of What You Really Really Want: The Smart Girl’s Shame-Free Guide to Sex and Safety (Seal Press, 2011). 

Our ideas about sexuality have been shaped by family and peers, religious institutions, schools, media and popular culture, and other sources.

Re-evaluating these influences includes checking your assumptions about what everyone else is doing. “College students do a lot less hooking up than everyone thinks. You may be trying to aspire to a norm that’s not a norm at all. Do what works for you,” says Friedman. Three out of four college students said they had zero or one sexual partner in the last 12 months, according to the American College Health Association—National College Health Assessment survey (spring 2014).

2. Stop judging other people’s sexuality – and your own

“As long as you’re not hurting anyone else or invading their autonomy, there are no right or wrong ways to go about your sex life,” says Friedman.

“It’s liberating to stop judging other people because their sex life is different from yours. The insidious thing about those judgments, even if we don’t say them out loud, is that they reinforce to us that we deserve to be judged as well. It’s harming us too.”

The risk of judgment and sexual shaming makes it harder for survivors of sexual assault to speak up, and more difficult to hold sexual predators accountable.

3. Value quality over quantity

“Shift to the idea of sex as a collaborative, creative experience with another person. Then we start taking responsibility for our partner having a good time. This is the backbone of enthusiastic consent,” says Friedman.

“Let go of the idea that sex is an accomplishment, something to collect, a commodity that we trade in, something one person gives up and the other person gets.”

What this looks like
“When a friend says, ‘I just had sex with so-and-so,’ the response shouldn’t be, ‘That’s awesome!’ The response should be, ‘How was it?’ Sex is not an inherent good.”

4. Understand enthusiastic consent

“If we as a campus culture adopt enthusiastic consent as a cultural value, and the idea of sex as a pleasurable, creative concept, then the rapists among us become obvious. The rest of us are going to stop making excuses for the rapists,” says Friedman.

Why this matters   
At the Steubenville, Ohio, rape trial in 2013, two high school athletes were found guilty of sexually assaulting a 16-year-old girl who was incapacitated by alcohol. 

“At the trial, a bystander said he didn’t intervene because he didn’t know that was what rape looked like,” says Friedman. “Why not? Because sex is seen as a commodified exchange in which the woman lies there and guys do stuff to her. If the bystander had understood sex as an engaged, collaborative experience for all parties, that incident would have looked like rape to him.”

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