In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Gender-Based Violence on University Campuses

  • Introduction
  • International Definitions
  • Campus Organizations Definitions
  • Systemic Gaps
  • Minoritized Students
  • Prevention
  • Prevention Programming
  • Support for Survivors
  • Perpetration
  • Interventions for People Who Caused Harm
  • Structural Factors
  • Inadequacy of Response Options due to System/Structure: Underresourced
  • Restorative/Transformative Justice

Education Gender-Based Violence on University Campuses
M. Candace Christensen, Adrienne Baldwin-White, Sheila M. McMahon
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 October 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 October 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756810-0309


Gender-based violence (GBV) is a public health concern. GBV includes stalking, sexual assault, intimate partner/dating violence, and sexual harassment. Globally, between 4 percent and 17 percent of college women and 7 percent and 8 percent of college men report experiencing sexual violence. Although we do not know the true magnitude of sexual assault, defined as any nonconsensual sexual act, studies have demonstrated that in the United States between 20 percent and 26.4 percent of undergraduate females have been sexually assaulted, and between 6 percent and 8 percent of undergraduate males. In the United States, between 6 percent and 39 percent of college students report experiencing stalking, a course of conduct directed at a specific person that would cause a reasonable person to fear for their safety or suffer emotional distress. Approximately 40 percent of college students report experiencing some form of dating violence. Dating violence/intimate partner violence is a pattern of coercive and abusive tactics employed by one person in a relationship to gain power and control over another. Finally, sexual harassment constitutes unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature. Forty-one percent of college students experience sexual harassment. One contributing factor to the high rates of GBV on college campuses could be the development and social changes occurring during emerging adulthood. They are learning to develop relationships in a new environment, while simultaneously figuring out who they are and what they want in a partner. In addition, college students are often beginning college with inadequate sex and consent education. Without the proper tools to maintain healthy relationships, college students are at an increased risk of experiencing relationship-related and sexual violence. GBV has multiple negative effects, including depression, anxiety, posttraumatic stress, increased risk of substance use, and disordered eating. Despite the stereotype of the college student being a white middle- or upper-class cisgender straight man, universities have many vulnerable students with marginalized identities. These students are also at a greater risk of experiencing GBV, and subsequent mental health issues. Addressing GBV requires an intersectional approach with a focus on primary prevention. Innovations in programming have not led to a reduction in rates of GBV. In addition, programming has typically been based on the experiences of straight cisgender White women. Therefore many communities are excluded from programming. Intersectionality considers the social positions of individuals and communities in relation to how much sociopolitical power they have, as well as the role this plays in preventing and responding to GBV. Marginalized groups are not only at increased risk because of their marginalized status, but also because their unique needs and norms are not addressed in programming.

International Definitions

There are different schools of thought about how to define GBV. While some international bodies equate GBV with violence against women and girls, others provide a more complex and nuanced definition of GBV, consistent with the understanding of gender as on a spectrum. Using a critical intersectional lens, this article seeks to highlight definitions of GBV that reflect the complex, contextual, and power differentials that constitute the conditions for GBV to occur. The United Nations 2001–2022 equates gender-based violence (GBV) with violence against women. The World Health Organization WHO 2022 uses the UN’s description of GBV to define violence against women. However, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) 2001–2022, an agency of the UN, offers a slightly more nuanced definition of GBV, which is harm perpetrated by one person against another due to their gender identity or expression. Moreover, they identify gender inequality, abuse of power, and harmful social norms as the cause of the violence. The agency does include the caveat of saying that they work with male survivors and people who embody diverse sexual orientations and gender identities, but the focus is primarily on GBV as it impacts women and girls. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention CDC 2022 has an expansive definition of gender-based violence (GBV), defining it as violence perpetuated against a person due to their sex, gender identity/expression, or perceived adherence to social gender norms. They assert that gender-based violence is grounded in power relations due to gender inequities. A report from the Canadian Centre for Justice and Community Safety Statistics offers an expansive definition of GBV that recognizes the fluidity of gender identities and the complex clashes between one’s experience of gender and societal expectations or stereotypes (Perreault 2020). As Kim 2021 asserts, growing understandings of gender as fluid and of gendered power relations have compelled scholars and practitioners to understand that gender-based violence has the potential to be directed at anyone who is Femme (a feminine gender expression and identity) and who is gender-nonconforming. Thus GBV is a multifaceted phenomenon because it entails a range of harmful behaviors, and the range of actual gender identities and forms of expression may not be mirrored in international definitions, policies, and practices.

  • Borgogna, N. C., E. C. Lathan, and S. L. Aita. 2022. Sexual and gender minority victimization: Base rates of assault in college students across sexual and gender identities. Journal of Interpersonal Violence 38.7–8: 5613–5637.

    This study describes the prevalence rates of sexual assault among a large sample of sexual and gender-minority adults in the United States.

  • CDC: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 17 November 2022. Ending gender-based violence globally. In CDC, Global Health, CDC Global Topics. Washington, DC.

    This webpage defines gender-based violence and provides resources to learn more about preventing and responding to the violence.

  • Kim, M. E. 2021. Shifting the lens: An implementation study of a community-based and social network intervention to gender-based violence. Violence Against Women 27.2: 222–254.

    DOI: 10.1177/1077801219889176

    This study evaluates the implementation of the Creative Interventions model across nine organizations.

  • McMahon, S., and R. Seabrook. 2020. Reasons for nondisclosure of campus sexual violence by sexual and racial/ethnic minority women. Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice 57.4: 417–431.

    DOI: 10.1080/19496591.2019.1662798

    This study evaluates why sexual and ethnic minority women do not disclose experiences with campus sexual violence. The sample included 5,911 participants.

  • Perreault, S. 2020. Gender-based violence: Unwanted sexual behaviours in Canada’s territories, 2018. Juristat: Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics 1:3–26.

    This report, published in Canada’s national assessment of crimes, clearly defines GBV and provides statistical data on prevalence and incidence of GBV in Canada based on this definition and with the acknowledgement that individuals may experience GBV-based harms that do not meet the legal threshold for criminal behavior.

  • United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner. 1996–2022. Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women. New York: United Nations General Assembly Resolution 48/104.

    This website contains the United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women, adopted in 1993.

  • UNHCR. 2001–2022. Gender-based violence. In UNHCR: The UN Refugee Agency. New York: United Nations.

    This webpage provides information as to how the UNHCR defines gender-based violence.

  • World Health Organization. 2022. Supporting elimination of gender-based violence. Washington, DC: WHO.

    This webpage provides a brief introduction to how WHO defines gender-based violence, and it provides links to resources related to the topic.

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