One in five college women report being sexually assaulted (National Sexual Violence Resource Center, 2015) with college being the time when men are more likely to commit a sexual assault (Burgess, 2007). Victimization detracts from their college experience, leading to poor academic performance or less institutional commitment. College women who are victims of sexual assault are also at a higher risk of participating in risky sexual behavior. To reduce the prevalence of sexual assault at universities, it is important to develop effective prevention programs that can target and change attitudes and beliefs that contribute to the continued perpetuation of sexual violence on college campuses. Although there are multiple studies that examine the perspectives of sexual assault among college students, specifically rape myths, the majority of that research is quantitative and does not provide an in depth understanding of their beliefs and the potential factors that contribute to those beliefs. The purpose of this study was to provide an in depth analysis of the attitudes and beliefs about sexual assault among college students.
Twenty-five female and 20 male college students participated in semi-structured focus groups or interviews. Open coding was used to gain an understanding of their beliefs concerning sexual assault. Results demonstrated that students possess multiple and often contradictory beliefs about sexual assault and issues that contribute to those beliefs that can be addressed and changed using sexual assault prevention. Three of those broad themes included barriers to talking about sexual assault, social and cultural norms that contribute to sexual assault and how college students communicate their sexual needs and desires, including consent. This research reveals that researchers and advocates do not have a complete understanding of perspectives of sexual assault among college students. Prevention programs may have been developed based on incomplete information and assumptions about what college students believe. Therefore, this study provides information that can be used to develop intervention programs that specifically target the most relevant ideas about sexual assault that are most relevant to the experiences of college students.