Originally posted 5/14/2015 

Recent months have seen a dramatic increase in media and government attention to gender-based violence, particularly sexual assault. Unfortunately, that attention has largely focused on a relatively elite group of young women – those enrolled in 4-year colleges. Much of the discussion has focused on the prevalence of a so-called “rape culture” in such settings, characterized by widespread tolerance of sexual violence. This essay presents evidence that sexualized violence and tolerance of such violence are actually more prevalent among youths who are not enrolled in college.

In 2008, we began a study – the Relationship Dynamics and Social Life (RDSL) study – to observe the intimate relationships of a population-representative sample of 1,003 18- and 19-year-old women who resided in a single county in Michigan. The study began with a 50-minute face-to-face interview, conducted by professional interviewers at the University of Michigan’s Survey Research Center. Ninety-five percent of the young women interviewed (for a total of 953) agreed to participate in a 2.5-year study where they completed short, weekly online interviews reporting about their intimate relationship experiences. The primary aim of the study was to observe the types of intimate relationships that produced early and/or unintended pregnancies. Ninety percent of the women reported having some form of partnership during the study. Because we hypothesized that violence would predict early pregnancy, we collected weekly data from the women involved about experiences with intimate partner violence (IPV).

Image by smile_kerry via Flickr CC
Image by smile_kerry via Flickr CC

Each week, we asked the young women, “Did you and [Partner Name] fight or have any arguments” during the period since the last journal. Respondents who answered yes were then asked about three specific types of conflict: 1) whether the partner swore at the respondent, called her names or insulted her (disrespect), 2) whether the partner threatened her with violence (threats), and/or 3) whether the partner pushed, hit, or threw something at her that could hurt (physical violence).

Only 29 percent of the women who reported their experiences with partners were enrolled in a 4-year college. Some were still in high school, some were enrolled in 2-year or vocational programs, and some of them were not enrolled in school at all, having either completed or dropped out of high school.

Approximately 40 percent of the young women reported experiencing disrespect in their relationships, but there were few differences among the college-enrolled and the non-college enrolled in this regard. When it comes to threats and physical violence, however, we found dramatic differences between the women enrolled in 4-year colleges and those not enrolled. While 7 percent of the women at 4-year colleges experienced threats in their intimate relationships, nearly twice as many – 13 percent – of the non-enrolled women experienced threats. Similarly, 14 percent of the students not enrolled at a 4-year-college reported one or more incidents of physical victimization, compared to 9 percent of the 4-year students. This is a difference of 56 percent.

Our study also included a series of questions about young women’s past history of IPV victimization. Fourteen percent of the college students reported being forced to have sex against their will at some time before age 20, not significantly less than the 15 percent of non-college students who did so. But the non-4-year-college-enrolled women had much higher past lifetime rates of IPV victimization than the 4-year-college-enrolled women – 21 percent (vs. 13 percent) for threats, and 26 percent (vs. 16 percent) for physical violence. They also reported seeing higher levels of violence among friends and family.

Image by Andy via Flickr CC
Image by Andy via Flickr CC

This greater exposure to physical and sexual violence was accompanied by greater tolerance for sexual violence. Both groups of women agreed with the idea that no woman deserves to be raped, disagreed that when women go out in sexy clothes they are “asking for trouble,” and disagreed that when things have gone “too far” it isn’t rape even when the woman says no. However, non-4-year-college women were more likely to agree that there is a point when a guy gets so aroused that he can’t stop himself, and that many women who claim rape probably initially agreed to have sex but later changed their minds. They were also more likely to believe that women who were hit by their boyfriends probably did something to deserve it. In an extreme example, one woman told us about her cousin who was raped by her brother.

Respondent: It wasn’t really her getting molested ’cause she was letting him do it. She never told.

Interviewer: Do you think it’s her fault ’cause she didn’t tell?

Respondent: No. ’Cause I’m pretty sure she was kind of scared. She was only 13.

  • RDSL respondent, not enrolled in school, graduated from high school

In another indication of differential tolerance for IPV, women who were not enrolled in 4-year colleges thought their parents and friends would react less negatively if they “found out that your partner pushed, hit, or threw something at you,” compared to the 4-year college women. Although both groups expected parents and friends to condemn the partner’s actions and to support them, the non-4-year-college-enrolled women expected their friends and family’s reactions to be about twice as supportive as the 4-year-college-enrolled.

In her essay, our colleague Elizabeth Armstrong argues that sexualized violence has not increased over time, contrary to alarmist accounts that paint it as rapidly rising. On the one hand, as Dr. Armstrong argues and our own research confirms – rates are unacceptably high. But our point here is that the care and consideration we are giving sexual assault on college campuses must be extended off campus. Clearly, IPV is not something that only happens to disadvantaged women. On the other hand, there appears to be a higher incidence of, and tolerance for, such violence among the disadvantaged than among the privileged.Women Both 4-year-college-enrolled and non 4-year-college-enrolled agree with the idea that no woman deserves to be raped.

Further, in our RDSL study, young women who experienced IPV had more frequent sex with their partners, used contraception less consistently, and got pregnant at higher rates. Violent men were different than the non-violent men – they tended to be older, to already have children with other women, and to be less educated. But, most importantly for pregnancy risk, the young women in our study perceived their violent partners as wanting them pregnant, significantly more so than the non-violent partners. One young woman in our study who told us about her violent boyfriend also told us that she did not want to tell him about her very recent miscarriage. We suspect that violent men demonstrate their control over their girlfriends by demanding sex and by discouraging effective birth control (e.g., oral contraceptive pills) in favor of male-controlled methods like condoms and withdrawal. Those methods are both harder to use effectively and more susceptible to last-minute sabotage by men who want their girlfriends pregnant.

Other researchers have linked IPV to headaches, back pain, sexually transmitted diseases, vaginal infections, pain, urinary tract infections, appetite loss, abdominal pain, and digestive problems, as well as more general health problems (see Campbell et al. 2002). Because disadvantaged young women experience more IPV than advantaged young women, and because these experiences contribute to poor health outcomes and further disadvantage, IPV contributes to perpetuating inequality. Knowing these patterns should motivate more attention to research and policy on this important topic.

This was part of the CCF Online Symposium on Intimate Partner Violence


Jacquelyn Campbell; Alison Snow Jones; Jacqueline Dienemann; Joan Kub; Janet Schollenberger; Patricia O’Campo; Andrea Carlson Gielen; Clifford Wynne. 2002. Arch Intern Med. 162(10):1157-1163.