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Gender-Based And Sexualized Violence In Higher Education

Research Overview

This page provides an overview of the international state of play on selected aspects from the research field gender-based and sexualized violence in higher education. For compiling this overview, we used current research literature from the social sciences. Most of the references link to sources in English. To get started, we like to spotlight four relevant journals that regularly publish research articles on gender-based violence (not only focusing on higher education).

The British “Journal of Gender-Based Violence” publishes articles three times a year that deal with the role of gender-based violence in relation to social structures, inequalities, and gendered norms. The journal “Sex Roles” publishes findings on gender differences from the social and behavioral sciences monthly, often relating to sexism or sexual harassment. The journal “Violence against Women” appears every month and publishes research on aspects concerning violence against women, and the “Journal of Interpersonal Violence” describes itself as a discussion forum for people who deal professionally with, among other things, the effects of violence.

In Germany, the issue of sexual harassment of women at universities has been off the academic agenda for a long time. In 1996, Bußmann and Lange compiled a book of original experience reports on harassment, including reports from other countries. 20 years later, the expert opinion of the Federal Anti-Discrimination Agency of 2015, represents another milestone for the topic in German higher education. Kocher and Porsche analyze the regulations applicable to universities, institutional standard procedures, and compare them with selected practices. The study points to the high backlog demand at universities, e.g. in prevention, intervention as well as sanctions, but also on the part of the legislators.

  • Bußmann/Lange (Eds.) (1996): Peinlich berührt: sexuelle Belästigung von Frauen an Hochschulen. München


Some studies rely on quantitative measurements in researching the incidence of gender-based and sexualized violence. Yet, with these research designs the question whether the number of reported cases of violence represent actually all plausible cases, or rather shows the probability of reporting acts of violence, considering whether the act is perceived as violence among the respondents or not, often remains unclear. Furthermore, a large number of statistical data insufficiently considers reporting intersectional entanglements of victimizations. A policy comparison between the USA, Europe and Germany on how sexual harassment is dealt with can be found in Zippel 2006.

With a perspective on social science survey studies, Fitzgerald et al. created the basis for recording and studying gender-based and sexualized violence (of women) in the early 1990s. Since then, the instruments, e.g. the “Sexual Experiences Questionnaire”, have been used and further developed worldwide.

In 2020 Bondestam and Lundqvist published a literature review on sexual harassment in higher education. The study was commissioned by the Swedish Research Council. The literature review includes topics like the incidence of sexual harassment in higher education, its effects, and the effectiveness of interventions implemented by higher education institutions.

Bondestam/Lundqvist (2020): Sexual harassment in higher education – a systematic review. In European Journal of Higher Education 24 (80), pp. 1–23

Frequency And Multiple Victimization

Other studies show the intersections between different forms of sexualized violence. For example, DeKeseredy et al. 2019 show that digital victimization and sexual assaults, such as those committed by an intimate partner, can occur jointly. In 2019 Fedina et al. were able to prove an accumulation of stalking experiences among cisgender women, genderfluid and sexual minorities in a study among students at eight US universities. 

Cantalupo and Kidder 2018 re-visited publicized cases of sexual misconduct by academic staff towards students in the U.S. The study showed that, on the one hand, non-consensual physical contact such as groping or coercion on the part of teachers was the cause in about half of the 300 cases evaluated and, on the other hand, that in just over half of the cases the perpetrators (academics) were accused of a whole series of sexual assaults, i.e. serial behavior.

The prevalence of sexual harassment has been indicated several times for medical students and doctors at university hospitals, with women being in the majority of students and doctors - but still particularly affected by sexual assault and harassment (Vargas et al. 2020). The study “Watch-Protect-Prevent” (2014-2016) on gender-based violence and sexual harassment in the field of medicine illuminates the situation at the Charité university hospital in Berlin.

Studies are also available on female physics students experiencing violence (Aycock et al. 2019), as well as on gender-based violence among international students (Forbes-Mewett/McCulloch 2016). It is assumed that in male-dominated occupational fields women are at higher risk of experiencing sexual harassment (Haas/Timmerman 2010). Women in leading positions in science and technology are not exempt from this pattern, as an interview study from Great Britain demonstrates (Howe-Walsh/Turnbull 2016).

As part of the broad-based study by the Association of American Universities (AAU), Kaasa et al. 2016 examined the characteristics and conditions of people who repeatedly experienced sexual assault and misconduct. The study shows that the group of people who have been repeatedly exposed to sexual assault comprises more risk factors than those cohorts that have not experienced this multiple times. An increased risk of multiple sexual assaults is prevalent, for example, among young students in the first years of their academic studies, women students and women with physical handicap status, and students who do not identify as heterosexual. Those affected by repeated or multiple assaults were more likely than those who were not affected to believe that the perpetrator(s) would take revenge if the incident was reported. People repeatedly exposed to sexual assault were also less likely to believe that other students and university officials would offer protection and assistance to survivors. 

Effects Of Gender-Based And Sexualized Violence On Survivors

Sexual harassment can have significant negative consequences for the well-being and health of the victimized persons. In the U.S., Aycock et al. asked women physics students about their experiences with sexual harassment. Negative impacts were also proven for allegedly minor cases of sexual harassment. The study found effects on job satisfaction, work performance and motivation, depressive disorders, and a general decline in well-being. A summary of individual and organizational effects is provided by the 2018 study of the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine of the USA.

Since the establishment of a working group in 2015 to study forms and incidents of gender-based violence in universities, gender equality practice and research in this field have been considered as two faces of one coin in the UK. The anthology edited by Anitha and Lewis 2018 gives an impression of the current activities. In her expertise, Cantalupo 2014 summarizes the legal literature and  findings of empirical surveys of US universities and points out that universities that voluntarily conducted empirical surveys on sexual assault on campus have an advantage over those universities that did not conduct such surveys (see also the page on survey studies).

How does the phenomenon of sexual harassment in the workplace relate to the prevailing working climate? Do factors relating to the working environment allow early uncovering of the probability of sexual harassment? In 2019, Tenbrunsel et al. point to numerous contextual factors in academic institutions, e.g. power imbalances, short term employment contracts, or role model failure, which can lead to organizational blindness about the problem. These factors also play a key role in dealing with cases of gender-based violence and sexual harassment. Fisher et al. refer to forms of sexualized violence in which the victimized person can no longer defend herself /himself /themselves. And Jordan et al. 2018 draw attention to the diversity of reactions among students with regard to sexist and heteronormative views.

A 2019 interview study commissioned by the Dutch network of female professors (LNVH) evaluates professional experiences such as bullying and harassment, including sexual harassment, of female academics. It also looks at related university contextual factors and professional and personal consequences for victimized people.

More background factors relate to the prevailing corporate culture, etiquette and the accepted ways of doing things. Where sexism and gender stereotypes are normalized and women are reified (Cogoni et al. 2018), a high (hidden) number of cases of gender-based and sexualized violence can be assumed (Whitley and Page 2015; Leon-Ramirez et al. 2018). McLaughlin et al. argue that women in leadership positions also become targets of sexual harassment because of their gender if they are perceived as a threat to men’s claims of authority.

At US universities Iverson 2016 and Phipps 2018 in the UK challenge the role of universities in protecting students from sexual harassment and gender-based violence. The papers address regulatory shortcomings as well as the universities’ own interests in answering to the hazardous loss of reputation after cases of sexual harassment become public. An inventory of university responses against sexual harassment in universities of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia is presented in the Gender Report of the Women’s & Gender Research Network NRW.

In a study on the effects of intervention programs (2019) in US universities Mahoney et al. point to further need for action. They examined intervention measures for victimized persons, sexually assaulted persons, and bystanders in these situations. Interventions for perpetrators can be helpful to make the campus safer, yet the authors of the study call for a consistent testing of the effectiveness of standard procedures in place at universities. They also support preventive measures that consider specific situations, in which sexual misconduct occurs frequently.

A further subject for research in this area is training courses on violence prevention for men (see Tolman et al. 2019). Peacock and Barker contribute to the knowledge in this field with an evaluation of cross-national interventions which focused on masculine role perceptions and gender-based social practices that re-produce masculinity. Similar approaches can also be found in training courses used at universities.

We have compiled tools and resources for prevention and intervention for you on this page.

A frequently used tool to prevent the normalization of sexual harassment in the workplace is training, particularly for human resources managers, which help to inform and raise awareness about the issue. In this context, a study by Goldberg et al. from 2019 examined the correlation between the degree of tolerance towards sexual harassment within organizations, knowledge of reporting procedures, and myth-based attitudes towards sexual harassment (see also the page on survey studies). The study shows that the level of tolerance of sexual harassment in organizations is strongly correlated with knowledge about reporting procedures, but that attitudes among human resource managers are unlikely to be changed by awareness trainings. Greenhalgh-Spencer 2019 also calls for more engaging with the content and forms of knowledge transfer as well as centering trainings on practical application contexts, i.e. in the case of online harassment.

A systematic meta-analysis by Hensman Kettrey and Marx (2019) reviews data from 15 studies (N= 6104) in which the consequences of prevention programs against sexual assault at universities. The authors examine the programs effects with regard to the self-efficacy value of bystanders, the intention to intervene, and the actual interference of bystanders. A comparison between the programs suggests that the programs that target first-year students have the best effects. Banyard et al. and Bennett et al. laid the groundwork in 2014 to study this type of prevention program. Hoxmeier et al., on the other hand, investigated reasons why students who witnessed cases of sexual harassment did not intervene.

We have compiled tools and resources for prevention and intervention for you on this page.

One of the most important reasons why cases of gender-based and sexualized violence are not reported is the normalization of violent behaviors and language. A study at Danish universities showed that, in contrast to women students and international students, male Danish students were the least likely to be victimized by sexual harassment. Also, they are the ones least likely to perceive cases of sexual harassment as such. Guschke et al. as well as Howlett call on to the universities in take more responsibility for shared social values to make the university a safe space. Fisher et al. investigated satisfaction rates with the support services – similar to the work of Sanders 2019, which deals with the experiences with the standard reporting procedure at the university.

Hart presents additional reasons why sexual harassment cases are often not reported to bodies internal to the organization, in an experimental study of 2019. In this experiment, study participants were asked to assess work performance on the basis of women’s performance records and make suggestions for promotion. The fictitious personnel records indicated that some women were affected by sexual harassment and whether they had reported the incident by themselves. In the experiment, self-reporting of sexual harassment cases resulted in penalizing these women by proposing them less frequently for promotion. The self-reporting thus led to an additional discrimination through social sanctioning (and less opportunities).

The phenomenon Pass the harasser” can be observed if universities remain silent about cases of gender-based violence on campus and try to get rid of the perpetrators quickly. In these cases, perpetrators often escape from the sanctions for misconduct. The next employer remains unaware of the happenings and therefore no precautions or preventative measures are taken.

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Further publications on gender-based and sexualized violence can be found in our literature database Lit@CEWS.