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This piece was originally published in 2015. It was updated in 2023.
When you think about the type of violence that occurs on college campuses, sexual assault often comes to mind. Colleges combat this by displaying their blue light boxes, an emergency intercom or phone system that allows students to connect with emergency help. Campuses often hold seminars to educate students, especially first-year students, about how to keep themselves safe. They teach students about consent.
But do they also warn them that the most common age range for intimate partner abuse victims is 18 to 24? The risk of being targeted by an abuser is high during college-age years, and starting this discussion is crucial. Not only do students need to know the risk, they also need to know how to get out if they find themselves trapped with an abusive partner. Staying with an abuser increases a survivor's risk of homicide—and half of all women and girls who are murdered are killed by a current or former partner.
Stories like these drive home the importance:
Zhifan Dong, a 19-year-old University of Utah student from China, was killed by her boyfriend in 2022 despite reporting threats to her school.
Natalia Cox, 21, a senior at Huston-Tillotson University in Austin, Texas, was murdered in 2021 by a man she had accompanied on two dates.
Gina Bryant, 25, a University of Michigan–Flint nursing student, was reportedly killed by her boyfriend in a murder-suicide in 2023.
According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, almost one in three college women has been the victim of dating abuse, and 43 percent report being subjected to violent or abusive dating behaviors by a partner, such as physical, sexual, digital or verbal abuse.
“It happens a lot. And the difficulty of escaping this kind of relationship is hard—at any age,” says Becky Redetzke Field, victim witness advocate for the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office in Minnesota.
Spotting Abuse Is Crucial For College Students
Unfortunately, young people often don’t recognize abusive behavior. In fact, 57 percent of college students say it’s difficult to identify dating abuse. Abuse often starts subtly, so victims don’t realize they’re in a situation that could escalate toward violence.
And even when it’s recognized, survivors don’t know where to turn, and friends don’t know what to do. While more than half of college women know a friend who has experienced violence or abuse in a relationship, 58 percent say they don’t know how to help.
In addition, students who have experienced abuse when they were younger may find that it continues. Redetzke Field says, “Violence in high school relationships carries over to college. And if violence is present in a person’s first relationship, it can present larger barriers to trying to figure out how to have a healthy relationship after that. Even more so, if it’s a first sexual relationship … that’s such a defining experience for a young person. They may wonder, ‘How do I have healthy sex with someone? How do I have a healthy relationship with someone?’”
Plus, many college students are living away from home for the first time. So, they may feel isolated since they don’t have the in-person support from their family and peer group they had when they were younger.
Along with fear of the abuser, college students may be afraid that their parents will find out about their relationship, their friends won’t support them or their school won’t understand, according to Healing Abuse Working for Change.
It’s Important to Talk About Abuse with Someone Supportive
College students report not knowing where to turn for help. Of students who experienced dating abuse, 38 percent said they didn’t know what resources were available to help them, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
Disclosing the abuse to someone who will listen without judgment is crucial to healing. Redetzke Field says, “Whether it’s an advocate, the courts, friends, a healthcare worker—as long as that trusted person responds in an appropriate way, that’s the determining factor. A lot of survivors tell someone and are then blamed or shamed by that confidant, which shuts them down.”
If you’re a college student facing domestic violence and you don’t know where to turn, try your school’s health center. Many colleges have counseling and support services for students who are victims of domestic violence. For example, The Aurora Center for Advocacy & Education at University of Minnesota provides a safe place for its students, faculty, staff, alumni and family members who are victims or those concerned about sexual assault, domestic violence or stalking.
Your school’s health center may also be able to connect you with local domestic violence shelters and resources. You can also find resources in your area with our Get Help search.
Taking Steps to Reduce Domestic Violence in College Students
Making the issue of domestic violence on college campuses visible and requiring colleges to report statistics is a first step.
Under the Clery Act, which was amended in 2013 as part of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), colleges and universities that receive federal funding have to issue a yearly report to students and employees. The report must include statistics on campus crime, including domestic violence and dating violence, that happened in the past three years. The report must also outline what the school is doing to improve campus safety. Holding your own college accountable for this report can protect students campus-wide and beyond.
Education is also essential. The Office of Violence Against Women’s campus grant program gave more than $10.6 million to colleges and universities in 2022 to help prevent and respond to domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking. Programs that teach college students about dating violence and domestic violence are valuable. But educating students on what consent looks like and minimizing dating violence is crucial.
California passed a “Yes means yes” law in 2014 requiring consent for sexual activity. Since then, more than 800 U.S. colleges and universities have added affirmative consent to their student codes of conduct, and several states, including Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois and New York, require their higher education institutions to have affirmative consent policies.
The Training Institute on Strangulation Prevention, a program of Alliance for HOPE International, is also raising awareness about “choking” during sex as well—another just-as-dangerous form of strangulation. It is a rapidly growing type of power and control conduct with potentially lethal consequences, often perpetrated by male partners during sex even without any conversation. Watch the Institute’s newest Public Service Announcement on strangulation during consensual sex.
Connect with Help
If you’re a college student experiencing dating violence, or even if you’re not sure if you’re experiencing abuse, reach out for assistance and answers. You can start with the Am I Being Abused? toolkit, and then reach out for confidential help from Domesticshelters.org or the National Domestic Violence Hotline (800-799-SAFE), which offers phone, text or chat support.
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