The Blog

Beyond Sexual Assault

As the country begins to give greater attention to the problem of sexual assault, it is my hope that we will also validate the experiences of young women who have suffered from other forms of abuse.
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As of this month, the number of colleges and universities under investigation for mishandling sexual assault cases has risen to eighty-five, reigniting efforts to combat violence against young women. In response to these gross violations of Title IX, the White House has launched the "It's On Us" campaign, an initiative intended to reduce the prevalence of sexual assault on campuses and raise awareness about the issue. In addition to its popular social media campaign, the White House is collaborating with colleges to develop more effective sexual assault prevention and response programs.

It is refreshing to see both national leaders and young people working together to address sexual assault, a tragedy that affects one in five women in college. Indeed, an issue of this scope and gravity cannot be fully addressed until we have developed a collective consciousness that it is worthy of our attention. However, the national conversation about sexual assault fails to give sufficient attention to another form of violence against women that is only too common on college campuses: domestic violence.

Often portrayed as a private family matter, many people think of domestic violence as a problem that occurs within marriages, not in a college setting. However, the fact is that women ages 20 to 24 are at the greatest risk of experiencing domestic violence. The most common perpetrator of violence against women is an intimate partner, complicating many popular narratives of campus rape.

By focusing only on sexual assault, we ignore the many different forms of violence that can present themselves in young women's lives. As I describe in my book, Ending Domestic Violence Captivity: A Guide to Economic Freedom, domestic violence is not only physical or sexual. Abusive behavior can be psychological, verbal, or even economic. Through my experiences working with survivors of domestic violence, many of whom are young women, I have realized that

Overlapping and intermittent combinations of abusive behaviors work together to deprive the victim of the power to leave the relationship-- and even the power to think about living independently as a realistic option. It is the cumulative impact of several kinds of dehumanizing mistreatment, physical and non-physical, that allows an abuser to assert control over the victim, and eventually deprive her of power and freedom to separate from him (112).

While many women want to leave their abuser, seeking help is not a simple process in such an isolated environment.

A common line is that no one would believe her story, especially after she remained with him for so long. The abuser may tell the victim that if she communicates with her family or friends, he will punish her physically, or by withholding money or other resources. He may threaten her with bodily injury if she sees a counselor or attends a support group (98).

It can be even more challenging to escape domestic violence in a college setting, where few people are aware of its occurrence or learn to recognize the signs. This is particularly troubling when one considers the profound impact that domestic violence can have on a young woman's life. Victims of intimate partner violence are at a greater risk for abuse from a future partner; thus, experiences during the college years can perpetuate a cycle of violence in the future. College is a time of potential and great excitement when students build plans for their futures. Those futures should not include abusive partners.

As the country begins to give greater attention to the problem of sexual assault, it is my hope that we will also validate the experiences of young women who have suffered from other forms of abuse. While the "It's On Us" campaign is an excellent beginning, lawmakers and educational institutions have a responsibility to broaden the definition of violence against women and prevent all forms of abuse on college campuses.

Ending Domestic Violence Captivity: A Guide to Economic Freedom (Volcano Press)
Centers for Disease Control