Aline Jesus Rafi and Stacy Harmon

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ABSTRACT: The socio-ecological model of prevention focuses on how one’s social environment supports rape-enabling attitudes. We propose that an analysis of students’ narratives, as related to their personal opinions about sexual assault prevention, may provide a different perspective on their attitudes, and insight for the formulation of strategic prevention messages and programs. Our findings suggest that student narratives about sexual violence often blame the victims. We explore these topics by drawing comparisons between the frames for discussing domestic violence in various print media identified by Nancy Berns (2004) and the framing of sexual violence in student newspapers in our sample. 


The incidence and prevalence of sexual assault on college campuses are contentious topics among students, faculty, staff, administrators, and researchers. According to Tjaden and Thoennes (2000, 13), in the United States, one in six women and one in 33 men report an incident of sexual assault during their lifetimes. Not only are the primary victims directly harmed, but friends, family, and the community as a whole are also affected by these acts of violence. Moreover, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) (2010, par. 3), the vast majority of existing prevention programs do not employ a socio-ecological model of prevention that is believed to decrease the incidence and prevalence of these crimes. Accordingly, reviewing the ways students discuss sexual violence provides compelling evidence of needed interventions and may guide college and universities in targeting their approaches and messages.

When discussing targeted approaches and messages, the CDC emphasizes the importance of the socio-ecological model of prevention. This prevention framework goes beyond micro-level interventions by addressing how one’s environment, immediate peers, and the community at large play a role in supporting rape-enabling attitudes (Casey and Lindhorst 2009; Banyard, Moynihan, and Plante 2007; McMahon 2000). For this reason, it encourages intervention approaches that target the interplay of social interaction at the individual, relationship, community, and societal levels. For instance, sexual violence prevention programs that incorporate social norms messages and bystander intervention approaches aim to reach students individually through information dissemination, and to influence their relationships by encouraging that they educate others and disrupt ideas and actions that encourage violence in their daily interactions. These individual actions and interventions would, in turn, lead to broader community and societal change. In this sense, the socio-ecological model should be understood as an umbrella-like approach that requires a myriad of tactics that can reach people at different levels of human interaction.

Effective prevention strategies are critical on college and university campuses to address high rates of victimization and to provide students with a safe educational environment. Among college students, studies have suggested lifetime sexual assault victimization rates for women that range anywhere from 20 to 50 percent (Foubert and Newberry 2006; Choate 2003; Banyard et al. 2007; Earle 1996). To make matters worse, in their study of sex crime offenders, Lisak and Miller (2002, 80) found that campus perpetrators are usually serial offenders who commit on average six attempted or completed rapes. Because the vast majority of assaults are never reported (Lisak 2004, 19), understanding and addressing the full extent of this problem is far from simple. Looking to students’ narratives in the form of student-written newspaper articles can provide colleges and universities with another source of data to inform their sexual assault awareness and prevention programs.

Sexual Assault Awareness Programs

Although college campuses are increasing their offerings of prevention education programs, knowing what works and evaluating the usefulness of these programs continues to be a challenge (Hawkins et al. 2009; Casey and Lindhorst 2009). Furthermore, while prevention programs and research tend to explore students’ attitudes within fixed educational contexts and with specific survey questionnaires and experiments (see Banyard et al. 2007; Foubert, Tatum, and Donahue 2006; Foubert and Cremedy 2007; Klaw et al. 2005), we propose that an analysis of  student-written newspaper articles as related to their perceptions and personal opinions about sexual assault prevention may serve to provide a different perspective on their attitudes. This student perspective might then provide much-needed insight for the formulation of strategic prevention messages and education programs that are campus specific. At the same time, students’ narratives may also serve as a way to evaluate whether a campus’ current sexual assault prevention initiatives have been successful. 

Approaches to rape prevention education up to this point include programs that work to lower women’s likelihood of victimization; programs that dispel rape myths and students’ acceptance of these myths; and programs that take a bystander-intervention approach. Various studies have evaluated these approaches in high schools (Kernsmith and Hernandez-Jozefowicz 2011), colleges and universities (Breitenbecher and Scarce 1999; Foubert 2000; Foubert and Cremedy 2007; Gidycz et al. 2001; Moynihan et al. 2010; Rothman and Silverman 2007; Talbot, Neill, and Rankin 2010), and among military personnel (Rau et al. 2010; Rau et al. 2011).  In a review of studies that evaluated sexual assault prevention programs, Anderson and Whiston (2005) found that the area most affected by these programs is rape knowledge, followed by some change in respondents’ attitudes toward rape. Evaluations of programs have also revealed differences in outcomes by sex and history of sexual assault (Breitenbecher and Scarce 1999, 467-469; Hanson and Gidycz 1993, 1049), especially, when it focuses on specific types of students, such as athletes and fraternity members (Foubert 2000; Moynihan et al. 2010). 

Rape prevention programs focusing on women often do so with the intent of lowering the risk of victimization, but evaluations of such programs indicate mixed results. In one such study, Breitenbecher and Scarce (1999) evaluated the effectiveness of a sexual assault prevention program for women after seven months from the participation date. Their findings suggest that the program did increase knowledge about sexual assault but had no effect on ultimately decreasing one’s likelihood of victimization (Breitenbecher and Scarce 1999, 459). Results from this evaluation may indicate that a one-hour program is simply not enough to have an actual effect on rape and sexual assault.

At the same time, some programs have been shown to be effective in reducing the likelihood of sexual assault among women (Hanson and Gidycz 1993; Rothman and Silverman 2007). This finding, however, was only true for women who had not previously experienced sexual assault. Women who had experienced sexual assault before the prevention program were still more likely to experience another assault after the program. Additionally, students who were gay, bisexual, or lesbians had an increased risk of assault, as well as students who reported drinking alcohol (Rothman and Silverman 2007, 283).

Research has also explored the long-term effects of rape prevention programs in various contexts, especially among groups where sexual assault is more prevalent, including in fraternities and the military (Foubert 2000; Rau et al. 2010; Rau et al. 2011). Foubert’s (2000, 158) work suggests that fraternity brothers’ exposure to a one-hour rape prevention program has long-term effects of up to seven months. Participants’ responses indicate that seven months after participating in the program they report being less likely to rape and to believe in rape myths.  However, the program was not shown to have an effect on the participants’ reported sexually coercive behavior.  In other words, participants reported that they were less likely to commit rape and that they did not uphold rape myths to the extent that they did before the program, but their reported behavior before and after the program remained the same. While changes in rape myth acceptance are important, it would seem that this program should not be considered effective if it does not impact behaviour. 

As prevention programs have moved their focus from primarily women to both men and women participants, it is important to explore not only how the programs affect men’s likelihood of rape but also men’s attitudes toward the programs themselves in order to have the greatest impact. Rich et al. (2010, 273) found that many of the men they surveyed would not voluntarily choose to participate in a rape prevention program and only about one-third agreed with the necessity or value of such programs. A minority of men reported hostility toward participating in rape prevention programs, and Rich et al. suggest that while it cannot be concluded that these same men are more likely to rape or sexually assault, they “did see in their responses a subscription to multiple rape myths, a lack of empathy toward women, and a strong tendency to see themselves as victims” (2010, 274).  This particular study also reveals that many of the participants do not view rape as a crime that men are primarily responsible for preventing (Rich et al. 2010, 274-278).  Instead, responses indicate that these participants subscribe to victim-blaming ideologies that suggest women are able to prevent rape by avoiding certain behaviours. Other participants’ responses attempted to minimize men’s role in rape by suggesting that women also have the ability to be perpetrators of rape. Particularly interesting about this study is the use of open-ended questions that revealed the students’ endorsement of sexism and rape myth acceptance.  The students’ responses may provide evidence of rape myth acceptance and attitudes toward sexual assault and prevention programs that would otherwise be difficult to measure in inventories that do not allow participants to provide qualitative responses.

More recently, programs that focus on changing beliefs in rape myths have been more closely examined in order to determine whether the messages presented are accessible to students. McMahon and Farmer (2011, 73) suggest that the language used to describe and measure rape myths is outdated and so may not accurately reflect the presence of rape myths that have taken on new phrasing. They then suggest an updated version of the Illinois Rape Myth Acceptance Scale (IRMA) as a way to best identify beliefs in rape myths on college campuses.  Their updated measure is the result of focus groups of college students, who work as peer educators to prevent sexual assault, and so are familiar with the language that students are using to describe attitudes of rape myth acceptance. Using an updated version of the IRMA, McMahon (2010, 78) found that even college students, who have likely had some exposure to sexual assault awareness programs, still hold victim-blaming ideologies. Furthermore, while these college students report being moderately willing to intervene in instances of sexual violence, they are much less likely to intervene when others are using sexist language or making sexist jokes. This present study of newspaper articles aims to advance knowledge of sexual assault discourse on campuses by identifying current ways in which students talk about rape and convey attitudes of rape myth acceptance. Through an understanding of student narratives, colleges and universities may be able to revise and update rape prevention programs to disrupt detrimental myths that continue to support rape culture.

Media Portrayal of Violence

Research on the media’s portrayal of violence suggests that murder is covered much more frequently, even though it is not as common as rape (Heath, Gordon, and LeBailly 1981, 50).  While rape committed by acquaintances is much more common, it is underreported in the media (Heath, Gordon, and LeBailly 1981, 50). Compared to other reports of crime, the reporting of rape has been found to leave out crucial information, such as where the crime occurred and whether there was the use of a weapon (Heath, Gordon, and LeBailly 1981, 50-51). Previous studies of newspaper headlines and articles regarding rape also suggest that rape myths are not uncommon in this particular medium (Franiuk, Seefelt, and Vandello 2008; O’Hara 2012; Sampert 2010). 

Sampert’s study of English-Canadian newspapers (2010, 304) suggests that the most prevalent myth found in articles is that rape is about male lust, and therefore fails to acknowledge that rape is an attack. Other identified myths include: women lie about rape, and innocent men get accused; racial/ethnic minorities commit rape and sexual assault, not white Canadian men; married men and men of good social standing do not rape; and that women are responsible for sexual assault (Sampert 2010, 307-327). In addition to these myths, it is also not uncommon for newspapers to describe rapes as “alleged,” casting some doubt as to whether a crime occurred (O’Hara 2012). O’Hara’s (2012) analysis found that even in reports of the gang rape of an 11-year-old girl, it was the actions of the victim that were more often the focus of scrutiny in the article, rather than those of the rapists. Ultimately, the rape myths that newspapers perpetuate may have implications for our broader understanding of the context in which rape and sexual assault occur. 

The media’s portrayal of sexual violence is particularly important because of the effect that it has on attitudes toward victims and sexual assault. Various media have been associated with acceptance of rape myths, including television programs, video games, and newspaper headlines and articles (Franiuk et al 2008; Franiuk, Seefelt, and Vandello 2008; Kahlor and Eastin 2011; Kahlor and Morrison 2007; Simpson Beck et al 2012).  More specifically, Franiuk, Seefelt, and Vandello (2008, 298-299) explored the effect newspaper headlines have on students and found that when exposed to headlines that endorse rape myths, students are more likely to hold rape-supporting attitudes. The ways that students talk about rape in their own university student newspapers not only reflects the attitudes of individual students at a particular campus but may also have a larger effect on the student body reading the paper. 

Nancy Berns’s (2004) work has explored the way various media sources write about and frame the social problem of domestic violence. Analyzing popular magazines and journals, Berns found that the frame an author uses to discuss domestic violence is related to the medium in which it appears. For instance, women’s magazines, men’s magazines, conservative political magazines, and liberal political magazines use different frames when writing about domestic violence. Berns argues that women’s magazines use four frames of responsibility, which suggest who or what is responsible for domestic violence: 1) individuals; 2) institutions; 3) cultural and structural factors; and 4) “an integrated analysis focusing on the interaction among individual, institutional, cultural and structural factors” (Berns 2004, 56). Men’s magazines and conservative political magazines were more likely to use an anti-feminist frame. According to Berns (2004), these articles “define the problem as the battered women movement’s construction of the problem,” rather than focusing on the experiences of victims or perpetrators, as she most commonly found to be the case in women’s magazines (105).  Articles about domestic violence that appeared in liberal political magazines used a social justice frame, which goes beyond the individual in order to explore the social and political factors that influence domestic violence.  The social justice framework, as well as the frames Berns identified in women’s magazines that focus on institutions or cultural and structural factors, are similar to the principles of the socio-ecological approach to sexual assault prevention because they look beyond the individual in order to explain why domestic violence occurs. Through analyzing students’ newspaper articles about sexual violence, we identified characteristics of Berns’s frameworks, which we believe are indicative of individual students’ perspectives about rape, but may also represent and influence campus-wide attitudes toward sexual assault. We believe that students’ articles about rape that focus on cultural and structural factors may reflect a broader acceptance of the socio-ecological model on campus, while also further promoting that model to newspaper readers.



The sample for this study consists of student-written articles dated from 2000 to 2013. The total sample includes 157 articles. We initially collected 56 articles, as part of a smaller project focused on universities in one state in the southern United States. That initial sample included nine universities located in urban, suburban, and rural areas, as well as one private institution and one historically Black university. We expanded this sample by selecting university newspapers based on the Princeton Review of the best college newspapers of 2012 list (Reimold 2012). We selected the top ten newspapers, which included two papers that tied for fifth place and one newspaper that had already been included in our original sample.The final sample resulted in 19 newspapers from universities all over the U.S, all of which can be accessed online (Table 1). 


Newspaper University Sample Size
The Daily Collegian Penn State University 8
The Daily Tarheel University of North Carolina 20
Yale Daily News Yale University 10
The Brown Daily Herald Brown University 9
The Badger Herald University of Wisconsin-Madison 8
The Daily Cardinal University of Wisconsin-Madison 9
The University Daily Kansan Kansas University 8
The Diamondback University of Maryland 9
The Independent Florida Alligator University of Florida 10
The Daily Nexus University of California Santa Barbara 10
The Red & Black University of Georgia 13
The Emory Wheel Emory University 10
The West Georgian University of West Georgia 10
The Signal Georgia State University 7
The Sentinel Kennesaw State University 5
Georgia College Colonnade  Georgia College & State University 5
The Spectator Valdosta State University 3
The Technique The Georgia Institute of Technology 2
Tiger’s Roar Savannah State University 1


Table 1: University Newspapers and Relevant Articles Collected The first 11 are listed in their order of appearance on the Princeton Review 2012 List.  The remaining are from the original smaller sample described in the methods section.

Sampling Strategy

We selected articles from the nineteen school newspapers in our sample by searching their databases with the terms “rape” and “sexual assault.” Because we were interested in unsolicited student narratives, the sample includes pieces that incorporate aspects of personal opinions, reactions, activist frameworks, and informative content about rape and sexual assault. For this reason, the mere mention of an incident of rape or sexual violence was insufficient to qualify an article for inclusion in our sample. Articles that were limited to the objective reporting of criminal incidents were disqualified from the data set. Additionally, only those articles that could be clearly identified as written by students or student groups were included in the compilation. Consequently, any articles that were credited to professors or university staff members did not fit the sample criteria and were not integrated as part of the set. We continued to search for articles that fit our criteria from each newspaper until one of the following had been met: we had exhausted the total search results; found a total of ten applicable articles; or had searched through up to ten pages (or about 200 articles) of results. All of the school newspapers recruited from the Princeton Review list resulted in at least eight articles per school; some of the smaller schools from the original sample, however, had only one or two articles that matched our sampling criteria.  


We used an analysis strategy in line with Grounded Theory Method. Open-coding is the first step in the analytical process (LaRossa 2005, 841). Through the initial open-coding process, we explored the content present in the articles as we generated questions, comparisons, and tagged indicators in the texts to appropriate emerging concepts. Following this method, we began to notice similarities emerging between our coding of articles and themes from Berns’s work on media portrayal of domestic violence. 

Based on this similarity, we focused our coding to allow for a comparison of the discussion of rape in our sample to Berns’s analysis of articles written about domestic violence.  Through axial coding, we identified connections between Berns’s frames found in students’ articles and other indicators, such as the violence prevention strategies that students discussed.  In our selective coding process, we focused on students’ writing strategies that typically made use of one or more of four themes—individuals involved in rape (the [potential] victim or perpetrator); community or campus-wide approaches to prevent rape; the broader cultural ideologies that contribute to rape; and the role of institutions (most often the university) in rape cases. Some articles addressed more than one theme, and this was noted. The next section will discuss our findings within each of the frames we identified: individual, anti-feminist, and community, institutional, and cultural frames.   


The Individual Frame

The individual frame approaches sexual assault through the perspective of the people involved. Student articles that included interviewing a student who had been a victim or had been accused of committing sexual assault would fall under this frame. In our analysis, we identified students’ articles that used an individual frame and further specified whether their focus was on the victim or the perpetrator. Overall, when students used an individual frame, more of the focus was on victims or potential victims than on perpetrators. Victim-focused stories were not always about individuals who had experienced sexual violence but also included articles that were aimed at future potential victims. When the intended audience of a story was potential victims, authors almost always addressed women students. In these articles, writers would warn women about the potential dangers of rape and sexual assault on campus. Typically, these stories included strategies to educate readers by citing statistics, quoting advice from law enforcement officers or school administrators, or promoting safe behaviours for socializing on or off campus. 

It was quite common for students using the victim-focused individual frame to write about the victim’s responsibility in preventing and challenging sexual violence. Risk-reduction advice ranged from refusing drinks from strangers, watching one’s drink, avoiding communal drinks, going out in groups, having a designated ride home, looking inside one’s car before getting in, wearing modest clothing, taking self-defense classes, using pepper spray, to showing confidence. We believe that this conception of responsibility was not always intentionally victim-blaming on the writer’s part, but it did include the belief that sexual violence can be stopped if potential victims, particularly women, are aware of their vulnerability and learn to practice safe behaviours and avoidance tactics. Specific ways we saw this frame used include the writing by a student in 2005 who proclaimed that “ladies are the weaker of the two sexes and need to arm themselves accordingly” (Morgan, par 13). In 2010, Varner (par. 9) wrote that “women have to be constantly vigilant […], especially while wearing skimpy outfits, getting inebriated, then walking home alone at 3 a.m through a deserted parking lot,” and again in 2010, women were warned “to accept the risks that come with being surrounded by alcohol and hormones” (Bush, par. 6). Because these ideas are so ubiquitous, we posit that students offer them as advice or reasonable precautions to take with little contemplation or awareness of the victim-blaming messages they are actually sending. Despite what is likely meant to be helpful, students using this frame in their school newspapers are ultimately perpetuating the message that women are accountable for sexual violence, not perpetrators.

Another common strategy offered to combat sexual violence that fell under a victim-focused individual frame was through direct response. Indicators for response included recommended actions that survivors were encouraged to take after an assault in order to either prevent future attacks or to remedy their situations. The importance of and necessity to report sexual violence were especially common. In an interview from 2009, the Badger Herald published a survivor’s account in which she stated that if she knew who had assaulted her, “they would be going to jail, [she’d] press charges, [she would] have a police investigation going on” (Brewster & Bargnes, par. 25). This statement emphasizes the victim’s responsibility to report and press charges, but while reporting is important, the survivor’s statement also demonstrates a lack of understanding of the complexities and challenges of the criminal justice system. Other examples of direct response advice in students’ articles included offering information on local and national resources and encouraging students to go to hospitals for the collection of forensic evidence.

Other student writers acknowledged that individuals committing violence are often overlooked and so chose to emphasize the perpetrator’s role in committing crimes, along with the need for interventions that are meant to restrain their behaviours. Perpetrators are condemned for purposefully using predatory drugs to target women, and their actions are framed in terms of deviant behaviours and by a lack of morals. As a female student wrote in 2000, “sick men routinely target women as their victims” (Fink, par. 3). Later in 2013, another student explained, “Society should make it clear that rape is not the victim’s fault. It is the rapist’s. No means no. If she says no, resists or hesitates, men have to respect that” (Ayaz 2013, par. 17). In 2010, another article emphasized the importance of “recognizing that rapists […] deserve the reprimands” (Holbrook, par. 10). While these are important messages, the emphasis on personal deviance fails to acknowledge the invisible presence of potential assailants among one’s peers. This particular frame was much less commonly found compared to the victim-focused individual perspective or the community, cultural, and institutional frames. 

The Anti-Feminist Frame

Another frame that emerged that is similar to the individual frame is one that focuses on the victim or perpetrator, but through what Berns describes as an anti-feminist approach. Some of the ways one might see the anti-feminist approach portrayed are through narratives blaming the victim, shifting focus to men as victims of violence or men as wrongly accused of being perpetrators, or attacking the ways the problem of sexual violence is constructed, investigated, prosecuted, or portrayed in media.  Of the different frames found in our sample, the anti-feminist approach was by far the least common. Despite this, we believe it is important to call attention to it because it helps to highlight areas that sexual assault prevention programs and educators may want to address in the future. These articles made use of the anti-feminist frame in several different ways, including by criticizing sexual assault programs, questioning statistics, identifying that men can be victims of women who “cry rape,” and suggesting that the system is set up to believe women victims over accused men perpetrators. 

Two different articles pointed out what they believed to be some of the problems with sexual assault programs on campus. One writer, in an article written in 2013, explained that a campaign to raise awareness is unlikely to work and instead “will constantly remind female students of their supposed vulnerability and powerlessness—while at the same time wagging a finger at male students, reminding us of our potential violence and criminality” (Garshfield, par. 7). A 2009 article suggested that sexual assault programs rely on and perpetuate exaggerated numbers of sexual violence (like the one in four statistic) as a way to make money (Smith).  After spending much of the article attempting to convince readers that the commonly cited statistic that one in four women will be raped in their lifetime is wrong, the author explained that one of the reasons these numbers are intentionally inflated is because “entrepreneurs are making money off college girls’ fear and insecurity—fears that these very organizations help to propagate” (Smith 2009, 8). 

Another aspect of the anti-feminist frame we found in our sample was the demonstration that men can also be victims, often by being wrongly accused or held responsible when he otherwise should not be. For example, one student asked, “And what if both the man and woman are drunk? Do they simultaneously rape each other? If the woman is not responsible for her actions while drunk, why should the man be?” (Garshfield 2013, par. 9). Another student wrote that “there are two sides to every story,” and in referring to a highly publicized case at the time asked readers, “What if [the victim] wasn’t actually raped, and she really is harassing her ex-boyfriend?” (Collins 2013, par.6).  In a 2010 article, the writer suggested that the district attorney in a case involving a star athlete referred to the “accuser as a ‘victim,’ which suggests that [he] believes [the athlete] is guilty” (Yu, par. 10). Similarly, the articles identified what they believed to be problems in the way that sexual violence is defined by society—including the ideas that sexual violence is more of a miscommunication, “consensual sex while drunk” (Garshfield 2013, par. 9), or a problem of next-day regrets and false reporting. Campus sexual assault prevention programs would benefit from continuing to challenge rape myths and victim-blaming attitudes, as well as discussing the ways in which sexual scripts and gender roles impact relationships negatively by engendering rape culture. While it is unlikely that prevention programs can change every attendee’s mind, they can help prevent the spread of these ideas by arming students with the ability to think more critically if and when they see articles like the ones described above.

Community, Cultural, and Institutional Frames

Community Frame

We identified frames that moved beyond the individual, and that looked toward other explanations for sexual violence as falling into either a focus on the roles of community, culture, or institutions. When students used a community focus, they often wrote about campus events, programs, or strategies aimed at reducing sexual violence. What distinguished this frame from articles that focused on the individual is that the authors proposed that sexual violence affected everyone, and the entire campus, or even the larger community as a whole, needed to work together to solve the problem. One student emphasized this idea when she suggested that campus would be safer if everyone looked out for each other: “If we can get just six people taking care of each other, taking care of their friends, how many instances of sexual assault would that prevent?” (Donavan 2013, par. 14). Some students suggested the importance of identifying the problem, with one student explaining: “Not only rape but the whole spectrum of sexual assault does occur here, and being frank about this fact is the essential first step toward crafting a safer community” (Meropol 2012, par. 1). Going further, another student suggested that ignoring the problem hurts more than just the individuals who experience sexual violence: “They [victims] have a right to be heard and believed. And keeping silent about it on any level actually harms the whole community” (Dulaney 2013, par. 18). 

When proposing solutions to ending sexual assault on campus, writers using a community frame highlighted the need for cooperation between various individuals, organizations, and community members. Sometimes these solutions could be more general, including a suggestion from 2013 that “everyone needs to be on the same page in terms of fixing the problem” (Beatty, par. 20), or more specifically, like the description of a new campus group aimed at addressing sexual assault: “Its membership includes a wide range of voices and perspectives—including faculty, community members, students, administrators and even law enforcement officials—and many members have experience working directly with sexual assault issues” (“Sexual Assault Task Force” 2013, par. 6). These articles also commonly advocated for the importance of community members getting involved or looking out for each other, or what might be called the bystander approach.  One student described how to intervene on an individual level by writing “Personally, I think everybody needs to call out individuals who do or say sexist things (or racist things, or homophobic things, or transphobic things—really, all the ignorant things)” (Gwynn 2013, par. 7). Similarly, in 2000, a male student addressed the need to challenge his “peers for their sexist beliefs” (Sentell, par. 3), and in an article from 2010 another student encouraged his peers to intervene in situations where “someone [was] pumping alcohol into a girl, messing with drinks, or leading a girl away from the public’s eye” (Bush, par. 6). Other articles mentioned the bystander approach by name when discussing various campus events or workshops, as in a 2013 article that described an interviewee as saying “she hopes the [Sexual Violence Awareness] week will teach students about bystander intervention, which is when people are in situations where they can stop sexual violence” (Shapiro 2013, par. 42).  

Cultural Frame

Articles that pointed to larger societal attitudes, often those about gender and sexuality, fell under the cultural frame. These articles discussed ideas that moved beyond the action of individuals’ roles in sexual violence. One piece touched on this idea when quoting a student who said,“‘Everyone involved—the perpetrators, the victims—they’re people,’ [the interviewee] said, ‘and it’s coming from somewhere in our culture that can be changed if we all stand up together’” (Koh 2013, par. 58). Similarly, another student urged, “When dreadful things happen, a more helpful response would be to ask why these ideologies exist at all, rather than wondering what the victim was wearing or what time it was” (Edwards 2013, par. 12). These instances suggest that students have learned that focusing on the role of the individual is not the best approach to solving the problem of sexual violence, and instead are calling into question the ways that values and norms perpetuate violence on college campuses. 

Some of the cultural values that students challenged were more specific to the environment of the college campus, such as when a student in 2013 explained, “Consent is further complicated by the party scene, where alcohol plays a dominant role” (Koh, par. 42). These students suggest that the college campus is a unique environment where sexual violence is more likely to occur because of the combination of alcohol, parties, and uninformed students. It is not only that students go to parties with alcohol, but they are not always aware of how to interact in these situations, or that consent is a necessity. This was described by one student quoted as saying, “There are some misconceptions about what sex should look like in college in general. Especially when drinking is involved, there needs to be some clarification” (Saglow 2013, 3). Another student writer paraphrased a campus activist who explained that “there is a cultural ignorance surrounding sexual assault” (Harvey 2013, par. 29). These students acknowledged that sexual violence on campuses is a problem and that it goes beyond the poor choices of a few individuals. 

Other students pointed to gender inequality or patriarchy as responsible for creating a tolerance of violence against women. In an article discussing a rape case in India, the writer drew a connection between violence and masculinity as problematic all over the world by quoting another student who said in 2013, “America, as well as many other countries, remain dominated by notions of masculinity and unequal treatment of women” (quoted in Kramer, par. 10).  Achieving gender equality was seen as necessary to end violence, as when one student wrote, “The first step is to get everyone to recognize that respecting a woman is respecting all parts of her—how she dresses, how she talks, how she thinks and everything else. You just can’t pick and choose. When that changes, we will be one step closer to shutting down rape culture” (Romas 2013, par. 7).

Institutional Frame

Students taking an institutional approach looked at who should be held accountable for solving (or sometimes exacerbating) the problem of sexual violence on campus. Not surprisingly, the institution that students pointed to most often was the university. In many of these instances, preventing violence was less about changing the behaviours of individuals or larger cultural values, but making sure that the systems in place to address violence after it happened were able to respond accordingly. Student writers made connections to current events when discussing how universities handle rape accusations, such as one article that explained:

In early March, President Obama signed an updated version of the Violence Against Women Act. A newly added law, the Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act, requires universities to inform students who have been sexually assaulted of their rights, as well as where to seek legal help and psychological resources. (Hricik 2013, par. 18)

Another article discussed a recent request by some students and student organizations for the university to ban Facebook pages that they believed contained sexually explicit material that perpetuated rape culture (Quiambao & Jooharian 2013). In other instances, students wrote to call attention to what they perceived as universities’ failure to address the problem of rape on campuses adequately (McCabe & Vest 2013).

Considering the increased media attention and government response and investigation into allegations that universities mishandle campus rape cases, it is no surprise that students have also picked up on this problem and are critical of their university’s response. Some articles focused on individual students’ negative experiences with college administration when reporting rape, such as a 2009 article that stated, “the victim alleges [an assistant dean] and the university were of no help to her in the months following her assault” (Brewster, par. 32). Another suggested that not only do universities mishandle these cases, but they have an interest in trying to keep them hidden:

Of course, it’s no surprise that universities make an effort to cover up scandals, especially ones concerning sexual violence. The cost of one rape victim’s transfer out of the college is far smaller than negative national attention, especially for highly ranked schools. (“Victims are Punished in Rape Culture” 2013, par. 9)

In a sense, it might seem that this frame was less about prevention and more about reaction, and in many instances, like those above, this was the case. However, there are also clear examples where students have written about how institutions impact social norms and values. For these students, it is important to recognize the leading role of institutions to help create cultural ideologies and bring community members together. This idea was expressed in statements like: “But, what us Americans can take away from this event is that a country’s attitude toward rape tends to be shown in how that country creates laws to protect its victims” (Flannery 2013, par. 4) and:“A culture in anything starts from the top. The leader allows and disallows certain beliefs and actions to occur within his or her own unit” (Jones 2004, par. 10). These students seemed to believe that administrative action on the part of the university was necessary, even if it was not the best way, to end campus sexual assaults. While most articles using the institutional framework were critical of their schools, some continued to stress how important university action is and even commended their university for the reforms they had started to make, including a student who wrote in 2012, “Administrative discussion is not mere institutional cant. Even if it progresses rheumatically, [the university] is not failing us. Administrative action is the best chance we have” (Powers, par. 17), and another who in 2013 explained, “The university’s willingness to forge ahead on the issue and revamp its legislation is commendable, and it comes as a sharp contrast to other institutions’ handling of sexual assault allegations” (“Battle Against Sexual Assault,” 4). As these examples suggest, student narratives provide important current cultural perspectives which higher education administration can utilize as a platform for the development and dissemination of sexual assault support services and prevention initiatives.

Discussion and Conclusion

Our analysis of student newspaper articles suggests that current events, the media’s more recent attention to sexual assault on campuses, and the trend among sexual violence educators to focus on a socio-ecological model of prevention are clearly impacting students’ attitudes. However, there are still clear examples of risk-reduction advice taking the form of cautionary tales and avoidance strategies. This focus is emphasized by both women and men students, but is also supported by the quotes and interviews students acquired from other students, staff, and administrators, and aligns best with Berns’s description of the individual frame. 

Unlike articles that focus on the role of the individual to prevent violence, articles that use a community, cultural, or institutional frame take more of a primary prevention approach. The goal of primary prevention is to address sexual violence at different levels of human interaction by challenging rape-supporting attitudes and by engaging students in bystander intervention (Casey and Lindhorst 2009; Banyard et al. 2007; Banyard, Plante, and Moynihan 2004). Thus, rather than providing resources to potential survivors, or teaching avoidance skills (like those articles using an individual or sometimes institutional frame), a primary prevention approach aims to reduce the incidence of sexual violence before it occurs by directing its educational and interventionist focus toward community members and potential perpetrators. While many articles talk about the notion of primary prevention as an ideal solution, some writers were unable to provide actual examples of what primary prevention strategies should look like, particularly when using more of a community frame. This suggests an apparent gap in students’ knowledge that sexual violence prevention programs on campuses could address.  

When students were able to identify primary prevention strategies more specifically, they often focused on bystander intervention. Our analysis suggests that students, who are writing for their school newspapers, as well as many of the students interviewed, are getting some exposure to the messages that campus sexual assault prevention programs support, and these ideas are then being disseminated in students’ writing. What is not always clear is where students are picking up these messages. Students may be learning from prevention programs provided by the university, on-campus events, or even from classes that discuss topics like gender inequality and sexual violence. Future research could benefit from exploring other possible ways that students learn about gender-based violence on college campuses. 


This study is limited in that our findings are not generalizable to all U.S college campuses. For this reason, the information presented in this paper does not necessarily represent the overall culture and beliefs of the average college student. While we attempted to diversify the sample to include a myriad of voices and perspectives, it is important to acknowledge that not every possible student’s opinions are represented. The attitudes expressed in student newspapers are biased toward students who are likely more engaged on their college campuses and who have stronger opinions about sexual assault. Future research should find other ways to gauge the attitudes and beliefs of students who are less likely to contribute to their student newspaper.  Follow-up studies could also attempt to measure what kinds of effects campus newspapers have on other students and community members.  

Implications of Universities

Student media narratives provide a rich source of common messages and attitudes on college campuses. Based on the existing content in the media of a university, campus staff and administrators can follow current trends among the student body, and strategize ways in which prevention messages can be disseminated. The development of a common language to be shared among campus staff, administrators, and student leaders can standardize appropriate messages, and discourage certain content that can be perceived as victim-blaming.

Regardless of students’ preconceived attitudes vis-à-vis the causes and prevention of sexual violence, the process of writing opinions and articles has specific motives and provides strategies that students believe to be helpful and useful. In this regard, we propose that the roles of campus educators are to both recruit and nurture students presenting positive attitudes, but also to challenge unhelpful and victim-blaming strategies. While it is unrealistic to expect that campus staff would be able to respond to all incorrect and damaging information students distribute among themselves, this is a role in which we believe peer educators can be of assistance. Because student newspapers provide a democratic forum where students can share their opinions, student editorials and articles are a good source of information for sexual assault prevention educators, and other interested parties to keep track of the campus climate. Even if they do not correspond to generalizable attitudes, student articles can provide feedback for existing initiatives and ideas for future programs and targeted messages. Student articles may also provide a sample of leaders from which to draw membership for student organizations that address sexual violence. Furthermore, by understanding the development process of student-authored narratives, schools and educators may also be better equipped to understand the potential contexts in which their quotes can be used. As such, campus-led initiatives must be careful to emphasize certain prevention messages per the campus’ desired learning objectives and educational outcomes. While the accepted norms about sexual violence prevention have yet to change completely, students are talking and writing about sexual violence, and at the campuses from which the sample were drawn, the issue is certainly not invisible.

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Aline Jesus Rafi earned her Ph.D. in Sociology from Georgia State University. Dr. Jesus Rafi has over 15 years of experience working with survivors of sexual violence in various settings. She is currently a Board Member of Arte Sana, a Latinx-led nonprofit in the United States committed to engaging marginalized communities as agents of change.

Stacy Harmon earned her Ph.D. in Sociology from Georgia State University. She is currently working on a systematic review project through the CDC Foundation. Her research interests include health, gender, and sexuality.

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