Unveiling the Fear of Sexual Assault on College Campuses

Rape is considered by some to be a shadow crime, meaning that it exists in the shadow of other aggressive acts, including violence, control, verbal abuse, and assault. College women in particular are at heightened risk of being raped for a number of reasons. Although not all women engage in risky behavior, a large number of college women consume alcohol or drugs that lower their inhibitions and defenses.

College women are often also in an unfamiliar environment, and they may be unaware of how to navigate situations with strangers. The fear of rape differs for each context—specifically, stranger rape versus date rape. It is thought that most women fear rape because of the shadow effect; thus, one could hypothesize that women fear rape because they fear being victimized in any way. But if the opposite is true, and the fear of crime is caused by the fear of rape, what causes the fear of rape?

That was the question asked by Douglas W. Pryor, PhD, of the Department of Sociology, Anthropology, and Criminal Justice at Towson University in Maryland. Pryor used data from over 1,900 college women to evaluate how prior sexual assault, prior victimization, social networks, socioeconomic status, and other factors influenced their fear of being raped. He was surprised to find that the majority of women were more afraid of stranger rape than date rape, even though the latter far outnumber the former. Another interesting finding was that being the victim of a sexual assault in the past did not increase the women’s fear directly.

Pryor instead found that how women perceived themselves had the largest impact on their fear. In particular, the women who perceived themselves as being helpless and weak were more fearful of being raped. Those who felt they were invulnerable and could defend themselves easily if attacked had the lowest levels of rape fear.

Pryor said, “To interpret this through a classical social psychological lens, the clustered perceptions women acquire about rape appear to have a self-fulfilling fear effect.” Although gender, prior trauma, and the stigma of rape did not directly increase fear, they acted as secondary influences by magnifying already existing fears in some women. Pryor also found that the younger women in the study were more fearful of being raped than the older women. This suggests that perhaps a shift in risky behavior and risky social networks to more controlled behavior and stable relationships diminishes a woman’s fear as she matures.

Clearly, these results show a range of issues that can lead to fear of rape. But equally as transparent is the lack of fear women have for stranger and acquaintance rape. Pryor hopes that these results shed light on the need for greater awareness of this danger for college women.

Pryor, Douglas W., PhD, and Marion R. Hughes PhD. (2013). Fear of rape among college women: A social psychological analysis. Violence and Victims 28.3 (2013): 443-65. ProQuest. Web.

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  • Hannah

    September 1st, 2013 at 5:20 AM

    The greatest danger that I see is that young women and friends I know are afraid of being atatcked by a stranger but don’t think anything at all about thendnagers of date rape. This is so prevalent for women my age though that we have to start giving this serious thought,

  • bell

    September 1st, 2013 at 11:18 AM

    whether rape is a shadow crime or not the effect it has over the victim cannot be put in words.and if the fear of rape can cause such a problem it is only imperative that youngsters start to take precautions against it.having fun with friends is not a bad thing at all but letting your guard down is.there are always areas in which each of us can improve.and if improving in one particular area can give huge benefits,like protection against rape then why not?!

  • MRG

    September 3rd, 2013 at 3:53 AM

    Is there that much fear? I see so much irresponsible behavior in this community that it makes me wonder if they take these dangers and threats seriously.

  • Shelly

    September 5th, 2013 at 9:02 AM

    I truly believe that we must stop “programming” young women to see themselves as helpless. On e way we do this is by allowing them to say and think of themselves as “victims”. We and they are NOT victims most of the time. Young Women have the power to stop verbal and emotional abuse and to stop others from treating them badly. Do not call yourselves a victim–you are a target and you can stop being a target by practicing a few principles of self-respect. I blogged about that study.

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