When colleges betray students after sexual assault

U. OREGON (US) — A study of female college students finds that those who felt betrayed by an institution they trusted after reporting a sexual assault suffered more from anxiety and other post-traumatic effects.

Of the 345 female university students involved in the study, almost 68 percent (233) of them had experienced at least one unwanted sexual experience in their lifetime. Of those, 46 percent also experienced “betrayal” by the institution involved.

Researchers at the University of Oregon created a questionnaire to measure the participant’s experience based on the reaction from the institution, such as: experience seemed like no big deal; experience seemed more likely; not taking proactive steps; making it difficult to report an experience; covering up the experience, responding inadequately; and punishing the victim in some way. Victims responded to each item using a seven-point scale.

The final analysis shows that those who experienced institutional betrayal suffered the most in four post-trauma measurement categories, including anxiety and dissociation.


“Our work on institutional betrayal has coincided with increased public awareness of the harm inflicted by unresponsive institutions surrounding traumatic events,” says Jennifer Freyd, professor of psychology at the University of Oregon.

“In describing the form and effects of this type of betrayal, we hope to eventually turn the dialogue toward opportunities for institutions to protect and nurture their members.”

Published in the Journal of Traumatic Stress, the study takes the focus beyond emotional, physical, and sexual abuse in one-on-one situations to include the idea that victimization within institutions that individuals trust adds a layer of trauma through the betrayal.

Because the study surveyed the participants’ lifetime, not all of the incidents occurred while at college, and many were no longer affiliated with the specific institutions where the betrayals occurred.

“Our results suggest that organizations need to widen the scope of their institutional actions and policies to both prevent and respond to sexual assaults,” Freyd says. “This is a national problem. The findings at this one university reach well beyond it, and, we believe, are consistent with what would be found at universities across the country.”

Originally, the study pool included 514 male and female students, who were unaware of the project’s topic. The subject matter was disguised to avoid students’ self-selecting into the research. Only experiences of the women, whose average age was 19.67, were included in the analysis.

The unwanted sexual experiences noted in the study were drawn from a 12-point scale in which higher scores involved verbal, physical, and alcohol/drug coercion. Also included were unwanted sexual experiences without overt coercion but that involved sexual partners whose insistence or arousal led to the women feeling unable to prevent intercourse. On average, women reported three instances of unwanted sexual experiences.

Those reporting a sense of institutional betrayal were found to have more severe post-traumatic symptoms of sexual abuse trauma, such as anxiety, sexual dysfunction, and dissociation.

Source: University of Oregon