Polyvictimization and the Continuum of Sexual Abuse at a college campus: Does Negative Peer
Support Increase the Likelihood of Multiple Victimizations?*
Walter S. DeKeseredy
Anna Deane Carlson Endowed Chair of Social Sciences,
Director of the Research Center on Violence, and
Professor of Sociology
West Virginia University
Martin D. Schwartz
George Washington University
Professor of Sociology
Research Center on Violence
West Virginia University
Doctoral Student in Public Policy and Administration
George Washington University
Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice
Fairmont State University
In Press with The British Journal of Criminology
*The authors would like to thank Dottie M. Hays-Barzizza, Joseph F. Donnermeyer, William F.
Flack Jr., Marianne Hester, Peter Kraska, Adam Pritchard, James Ptacek, Callie Rennison, and
Claire Renzetti for their assistance. Please send all correspondence to Walter DeKeseredy.
Although there is now a large literature on physical and sexual assaults at institutions of higher
education, this paper expands that knowledge by looking at Kelly’s continuum of sexual violence
and the concept of polyvictimization. On a campus where 44.9 percent of the women reported
stalking, and 61.4 percent sexual harassment, this paper looks at women who were the victims of
repeated or diverse types of abuse, ranging from obscene phone calls to stalking to harassment to
penetrative sexual assault. Women who suffered multiple abuses are studied using data from the
Campus Quality of Life Survey conducted at a large residential college in the South Atlantic part
of the U.S. Negative peer support, and especially having friends that are abusive, was found to
increase the likelihood of multiple victimization.
Keywords: college, continuum of sexual abuse, polyvictimization, negative peer support
Polyvictimization and the Continuum of Sexual Abuse at a college campus: Does Negative Peer
Support Increase the Likelihood of Multiple Victimizations?
Although important gaps in our knowledge remain, the extensive literature that has
developed on violence against women at institutions of higher learning has shown that these
victimizations can take many forms. It is not only completed and attempted penetrative rape that
plague campuses, but a wide variety of acts ranging from stalking to physical violence to
unwanted touching to various forms of sexual harassment. This spectrum has been described in a
variety of ways in the literature, from Kelly’s (1987, 1988) “continuum of violence,” to Hamby
and Grych’s (2013) ‘web of violence,” to notion of polyvictimization (Hamby et al., 2018;
There are differences but what these concepts share is the belief that all of these injurious
behaviors are serious and can have long-term effects on those who experience them. Behaviors
commonly assumed to be “minor” may in fact have major and long-term consequences. Further,
there is a recognition that these intrusions don’t exist in isolation; rather, repeated exposure to
them has a cumulative effect. What these acts have in common is that all are means of “abuse,
intimidation, coercion, intrusion, threat and force” used mainly in attempts to control women
(Kelly, 1988, 76).
Operationally, in law and in the work of most researchers a range of abuses is specified
from rather minor to very major. Typically, physical abuse is measured on a scale of seriousness
from verbal violence or insults, to slaps or pushes up to shooting or stabbing. Sexual assault is
measured from the presumably minor unwanted touching in steps up to penetrative rape.
However, in any of the conceptions discussed here, no harm is automatically considered less
hurtful than another. Kelly (1987) explains that women’s experiences to a continuum of violence
“shade into and out of a given category such as sexual harassment, which includes looks,
gestures and remarks as well as acts which may be defined as assault or rape” (48). The
conclusion that Hamby et al. (2018) reach is that it is a mistake for a researcher or a therapist to
react to a single intrusion out of the broader context. Thus, while it might seem that an individual
is overreacting to a single event that legally is a minor offense, they argue the importance of
investigating the cumulative effect of multiple abuses, harassments, and humiliations to
understand properly the full range of reactions by victimized people.
The main objective of this paper is to apply these ideas to research on campus sexual and
physical abuse, stalking and sexual harassment, using recent data from the Campus Quality of
Life Survey (CQLS) administered at a large residential university in the South Atlantic region of
the U.S. Further, we examine the concept of negative peer support, which refers to “strong
support that is hostile to women or is intimate partner violence espousing” (Hart, 2009, 3). In
line with Ptacek’s (2016) rendition of Kelly’s continuum, we replace the term violence with
abuse because, as he points out, it better describes the range of victimization experiences than
“violence,” which prioritizes physical pain.
THE CONTINUUM OF SEXUAL ABUSE AND POLYVICTIMIZATION
The claim that behaviors that are commonly considered less serious or even minor can
have life-altering effects is not brand-new. As far back as 1916, The Provincetown (Mass.)
Players were producing Susan Glaspell’s “Trifles” (Glaspell, 1920), which later became famous
as the short story “A Jury of Her Peers.” This work showed how, although there was no evidence
that she was ever physically harmed or the victim of any illegal act, Minnie Wright can be seen
as a sympathetic character who was moved to lethal retaliation after her husband took many
steps to isolate her and regularly kill her every joy in life. As with our current topic, if one
looked at any single provocation of Mrs. Wright, she would seem to have tremendously
overreacted. Only by looking at years of systemic terrorism in her household do her reactions
seem coherent, logical, and worthy of sympathy. Similarly, one of the major stimuli to the
development of victimization surveys in the 1960s and 1970s was a concern about fear of crime,
and a wonder at why so many women were afraid of public places out of proportion to their
statistical chances of victimization (Alvi et al., 2001). While criminologists calculated the
chances of being raped or murdered, local residents were additionally reacting to a broad variety
of dangers, humiliations and terrifying ill-treatments in public areas.
Thus, the vitality of these constructs lies in highlighting the commonalities and
cumulative effect of seemingly distinct abusive behaviors (McGlynn, Rackley, and Houghton,
2017). As suggested above, typically criminal law, researchers, and general “common sense”
creates a hierarchy of abuse that presumes automatically that some forms of physical and sexual
violence are more problematic and victimizing than others. For example, all forms of physical
abuse and touching are commonly considered to be more serious than any non-physical forms of
victimization. Our concern here is that this obscures the reality that behaviors such as stalking,
cyber-stalking, sexual harassment, and some social media attacks are seen by many women as
more terrifying than some acts that the law defines as assaults (Ptacek, 2016). Non-physical
forms of abuse, especially sexual harassment, are much more common in many women’s lives
than is intimate partner violence (Kelly, 2012), with studies showing that catcalls, harassment,
and unwanted sexual attention can have important long-term psychological effects starting even
before girls become teenagers (Castillo, 2018). It is this common experience that many theorists
have begun to think can partially account for differing reactions of women to victimization.
Hamby et al. (2018) argues that to properly understand women’s responses it is often necessary
to understand a history since childhood of a wide range of frightening and traumatic experiences.
After thousands of studies, Wolfe (2018, 833) argues, the “truth” seems clear: “acts of abuse and
violence are rarely singular, isolated events.”
While there is an extensive literature on polyvictimization, a concept that simply means
looking at all of the various victimization that one person has suffered, virtually all of it is
concerned with the effect of childhood trauma and victimization on currently distressed children
or adolescents. Even when it is college-aged adults who are being studied, the concern in the
literature is the effect of childhood multiple victimizations on current behavior. For example,
Alexander, Americo and Harrelson (2018) recently found that polyvictimization was the best
predictor of what they termed as risky sexual behavior among college women, while both Holt et
al. (2017) and Espelage, Hong and Mebane (2016) found childhood polyvictimization related to
current psychological functioning among college students.
However, the exception in this literature is in elder abuse, where Hamby et al. (2016)
recommend that new studies use the polyvictimization concept to develop a broader
understanding of the abused elderly. In other words, it is possible to use polyvictimization to
study the problems of adults, without reference to early childhood trauma. Such
polyvictimization among adults has been found in the U.S. (Ramsey-Klawsnik, 2017), Portugal
(Gil et al., 2015), and China (Chan, 2017).
Thus, our interest in this paper is to similarly investigate the phenomenon of
polyvictimization of college women, to see whether some victims suffer from multiple behaviors
located on the continuum of sexual abuse, to try to expand the understanding of the indignities
suffered by college women. We know that on college campuses (among many other places)
women commonly try to avoid going into public places alone. It isn’t only the penetrative
assaults and attempts documented in numerous studies that can cause such behavior, but also the
cumulative traumatizing effect of obscene phone calls, flashing, “cat calls,” image-based sexual
abuse” (the public sharing of private sexual images), and other non-physical abuse. As
mentioned, scholars have often wondered why it is that many women were fearful when they had
no history of major victimization. However, “at the time women are being followed/flashed
at/harassed they do not know how the event will end. It is only in retrospect that such events can
be defined as ‘minor’” (Kelly and Radford, 1987, 242). Of course, all of these traumatic
experiences are added to any experienced physical and sexual violations to create an individual’s
Even in intimate relationships, non-physical types of victimization can be just as, if not
more, injurious as physical violence (Adams, et al., 2008; DeKeseredy, Dragiewicz, and
Schwartz, 2017). For example, Follingstad et al. (1990) found that 72 percent of their abused
female interviewees reported that psychological abuse had a more severe effect on them than did
physical abuse. Practitioners regularly hear stories about how bruises, cuts and even broken
bones are not the worst part of being attacked by an intimate partner. After a time, the external
bruises usually heal or go away. The problem for some women, such as this rural Ohio resident
interviewed by DeKeseredy and Schwartz (2009) is that the consequences of psychological
abuse can last a lifetime:
And years ago, years ago when I still only had one child, he told me he knew that I
wanted out of the relationship and he said, “If I can’t have you, I’m gonna make it so
nobody can have you.” And I didn’t understand what he was talking about. And it was
many, many years later that I realized he meant psychologically. He was going to destroy
me psychologically so that I wouldn’t be fit to enter into another relationship. And it’s
basically true; I have not had any other relationship. I’m afraid to go into a relationship. I
don’t trust men in general. So basically, I live a solitary life, not by choice, but because I
am afraid I’m going to end up in a relationship like that again (84).
Unfortunately, around the world the criminal justice system is concerned mainly with
physical violence. Most people believe in the common sense ancient “stitch rule”: violent crimes
involve physical injury, and the level of victimization can be measured by the level of injury,
such as the number of stitches. This approach, however, does not consider the lived realities of
many victims. Prioritizing physical harms over experiences such as the woman quoted above
diverts attention from the invisible chains of coercive control that trap women in abusive
relationships (Fontes, 2015; Ptacek, 2016). Coercive control involves nonphysical behaviors that
are often subtle, are hard to detect and prove, and seem more forgivable to many people. Its
primary objective, however, is to restrict a woman’s liberties (Tanha et al., 2010). Common
examples are stalking, threatening looks, criticisms and “microregulating a partner’s behavior”
(Kernsmith, 2008; Stark, 2007, 229).
Kirkwood (1993) describes this as “the web of emotional abuse” (60), where, like a
spider’s web, a number of factors (fear, degradation, objectification, deprivation, overburden of
responsibility, and distortion of subjective reality) are all intertwined so that the whole is more
powerful than the sum of the parts. She reports that “the insidious nature of emotional abuse is
that it is experienced as a subtle, nearly invisible process through which the fundamental
components of its impact are ingrained in women” (60-61).
Outside of intimate relationships, the recent #MeToo movement has emphasized a similar
situation. The revelations of #MeToo illustrate how behaviors that may not be against the
criminal law, or are marginally criminal, can destroy women’s careers, self-confidence, or
promotion prospects (Garber, 2018).
In sum, the continuum of sexual abuse and the concept of polyvictimization focus
attention on the cumulative effect of a broad range of highly injurious interrelated behaviors that
women experience, many of which are both exempt from the coverage or scope of criminal law
and simultaneously trivialized or minimized by the general public and the media (McGlynn et
al., 2017). Researchers have devoted extensive energy to analyzing the long-term effects of
specific instances of sexual harassment, sexual violence, stalking, intimate partner violence and
other harms, or they may analyze repeated patterns of one of these, such as violence against a
partner. However, for many women, these forms of abuse “seep into one another” (Ptacek, 2016,
128; Wolfe, 2018).
There are also safety-related reasons for understanding violence in this manner. Quite
simply, narrow, legalistic definitions of abuse discourage women from seeking social support. If
an abused woman’s male partner’s behavior does not coincide with what researchers, criminal
justice officials, politicians, or the public refer to as abuse or violence, she may be left in a
“twilight zone” where she knows that she has been abused but others do not define it or
categorize it in a way that would allow her to seek help (DeKeseredy and Schwartz, 2013; Duffy
and Momirov, 1997). As stated by a rural Ohio sexual assault survivor interviewed by
DeKeseredy and Schwartz (2009), “I don’t sit around and share. I keep it to myself…. I’m not
one to sit around and talk about what’s happened” (49). Worse yet are the women who have
been taught what has happened to them was not abuse. Women who have been told or taught
that their victimization is not a crime are not likely to seek help for what has been termed
“unacknowledged rape.” Pitts and Schwartz (1997), for example, found that women who were
told that they did something wrong claimed never to have been raped, but identically situation
women who had the offender blamed did report themselves as rape victims. They point out that
this means that survivors not only must restrict their activities out of fear, but this reaction takes
away their right to be angry about it.
In this paper, we do not conceptualize victimization in a way that exactly replicates
models used by Kelly (1987) or Ptacek (2016). Just as they did not examine exactly the same
behaviors, our instrument was not designed to collect data on all the abusive experiences of
central interest to each of these scholars. For example, we did not measure incest, delusional
jealousy, or reproductive abuse. We do exactly converge with Kelly by including all types of
intimate partner violence because, as Kelly (2012) puts it, it “shades into and out of” the other
types of abusive behaviors we measured.
NEGATIVE PEER SUPPORT AND SEXUAL ABUSE
The other important theoretical position covered in this paper is negative peer support,
rooted in DeKeseredy and Schwartz’s male peer support theory, which was originally developed
to try to explain male-to-female sexual assault on college campuses in North America. Its central
argument was that while there are many influences behind male sexual aggression in a rape
culture, one of the most powerful is the practical and emotional support given by male peers. It
is a multi-factor theory that includes a variety of other influences, such as a familial and
courtship patriarchy that requires males to be dominant, a narrow conception of both male and
female roles, and an almost complete lack of punishment for male sexual aggression on college
Male peer support theory has been mainly used to theorize male heterosexual violence
against women. Over the past 30 years most studies in this field have focused on what
DeKeseredy (1988a) defines as male attachments to male peers and the resources they provide
that perpetuate and legitimate the physical, sexual, and psychological victimization of
heterosexual women. Research into male peer support theory, as documented in Schwartz and
DeKeseredy (1997) and DeKeseredy and Schwartz (2013), found that this peer support took two
forms: (1) pro-abuse informational support and (2) attachments to abusive peers. Informational
support is the various forms of advice and support that legitimates or even requires young men in
certain groups to engage in various forms of abuse of their female friends, intimates and dating
partners. Attachments simply means having friends who themselves engage in abusing women
psychologically, physically or sexually (DeKeseredy and Schwartz, 1998).
More recently, however, the notion of negative peer support attempts to recognize that
women live in the same culture and are often influenced by the same cultural factors. Negative
peer support has been adapted for studies of such phenomena as abuse in a campus LGBTQ
community done by DeKeseredy, Hall-Sanchez, Nolan, and Schwartz (2017) and a study of male
and female pro-abuse peer support for stalking, sexual assault, and intimate partner violence
(DeKeseredy, Nolan, Hall-Sanchez, and Messinger, 2018). Negative peer support was also
found to be associated with image-based sexual abuse and other technology-facilitated means of
abuse, such as social media-based stalking or harassment (DeKeseredy and Schwartz, 2016).
While much of the abuse of women on college campuses has been changing in form in recent
years, with the invention of new technologies that can be turned into a weapon of abuse, scholars
have found that peer support remains a major force in such abuse. Indeed, these studies have
provided evidence to support the claim that “peer support for sexual violence emerges as a
particularly challenging and troubling feature of sexual violence in the digital age” (Powell and
Henry, 2017, 5). There has been some support for the claim that behaviors such as stalking are
either learned in peer groups, or else such behavior is facilitated by social interactions with group
members (Fox, Nobles and Akers, 2011).
Conspicuously absent from this literature is research on similar support for the sexual
harassment and stalking of college women. In fact, studies of any type of stalking on U.S.
campuses are in short supply (Wood et al., 2017) and work on peer support for sexual harassment
has, to date, been limited to high school and middle school settings (Agnich, Hong, and Peguero,
2018; Klein, 2012; Miller, 2008). The study reported on here includes measures of negative peer
support and a key goal of this survey was to determine whether two indicators of this factor –
pro-abuse informational support and attachments to abusive peers - are correlated with stalking
and sexual harassment among female college students as they are with their physical and sexual
assault experiences. This includes both male and female peers.
A problem in this field has been, as Kelly (2012) observed, “the underlying
argumentation of the continuum is more difficult to integrate into quantitative research” (xxi). In
an attempt to overcome this problem, our data are derived from a Web questionnaire of 30,470
students attending a South Atlantic U.S. university in Spring, 2016. Nearly 20 percent of the
student population (5,718) completed the Campus Quality of Life Survey (CQLS). This self-
selected sample is for the most part representative of the total campus population in terms of
race, class rank, and age (see Table 1). Furthermore, abuse survivors were not more likely to
participate than non-survivors (Pritchard, DeKeseredy, Nolan, and Hall-Sanchez, in press). For
this study, we are only using the responses of women.
Table 1 About Here
Email invitations to participate in the survey were sent to all undergraduate, graduate
and professional school students, providing a link to the consent form and the instrument,
which was administered using Qualtrics software. After confirming that they were 18 and a
current student, participants were informed that all information given would be anonymous,
that their responses could not be tracked, and that they could skip questions or stop taking the
survey at any time.
In addition to the e-mail invitations, a variety of measures were taken to promote
participation, including an electronic message from the University President sent to all students;
advertisements on various university web sites; posters hung throughout the campus;
encouragement from a variety of campus locations, including resource centers, athletics
officials, fraternities and sororities, other student organizations, and a variety of faculty members
In addition, every form of publicity mentioned the opportunity to be randomly selected to
receive one of twenty $50 VISA gift cards. Financial incentives have been clearly shown to
improve the response rate and the quality of responses (James and Bolstein 1990), and more
recently lotteries have been widely used in Web surveys to elicit higher response rates than other
forms of incentives (Couper and Bosnjak, 2010; Pedersen and Nielsen, 2016). Regardless of
whether they elected to continue, all participants were provided with information on free
professional support from counseling services, which was repeated on every survey page with
Reminders were sent out each week for three weeks after the initial invitation. Although
Couper and Bosnjak (2010) suggest that most of the nonresponse takes place in the first waves,
that was less of a problem here, as nearly 2,500 students completed the survey within five days
of the first email invitation.
Four series of questions were created to measure victimization. These questions
investigate experiences with sexual assault, stalking, sexual harassment and intimate partner
violence. These questions do not necessarily conform to any particular jurisdiction’s legal code,
but rather, as seen below, are carefully tailored from prior research efforts.
Stalking is defined here as “the willful, repeated, and malicious following, harassing, or
threatening of another person” (Melton, 2007, 4). It was operationalized using the eight items
listed in Table 2, which cover many known stalking tactics, including privacy invasion, cyber
harassment, and a variety of unwanted unwanted acts, such as privacy invasion, gifting,
surveillance, and repeated communications. These items were derived from the Centers For
Disease Control and Prevention’s National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey
(NISVS) (Black et al., 2011) (Cronbach’s alpha = .74). They were introduced with this question:
“How many times have one or more people done the following things to you since you enrolled
at XXX?” The response categories are “None,” “1-2,” “3-5,” “6-8,” and “More than 8.” As with
other measures, this survey used ordinal response variables to elicit a better response rate from
student participants (James and Bolstein 1990).
Sexual harassment is “unwanted offensive sexual attention” (Morgan, 2008, 661). The
five items listed in Table 2 (Cronbach’s alpha = .85) are derived from the Kentucky Campus
Attitudes Toward Safety (C.A.T.S.) Survey administered by that school’s Center for Research on
Violence Against Women. The response categories are “Never (0 times),” Once (1 time),”
“Sometimes (2-5 times),” “Often (6+ times),” and “Choose not to answer.” These items were
introduced as follows: “Since you stared at XXXX, how often has someone (NOT someone you
are dating or a spouse/partner) done any of the following to you?”
Intimate Partner Violence (IPV)
The eight items in this measure are derived from the University of Kentucky’s C.A.T.S.
Survey (Cronbach’s alpha = .83). These were introduced with the preamble below and the
response categories are “Never (0 times),” “Once (1 time),” “Sometimes (2-5 times),” “Often (6+
times),” and “Choose not to answer”:
We are particularly interested in learning about your intimate or romantic
relationships. Since you started at XXX, how many times has someone you were
dating or a spouse/partner done the following physical thing to you that were NOT
done in a joking or playful manner.
The five items in the sexual assault section of Table 2 are modified versions of items in Koss
et al.’s (2007) lengthy Revised Sexual Experiences Survey (Cronbach’s alpha = .80). Students
were asked about unwanted sexual experiences since enrolling at this university, with response
categories of “yes” and “no.”
Negative Peer Support Measures
Peers’ Pro-Abuse Informational Support
This type of negative peer support refers to guidance and advice that influences people to
sexually, physically, and psychologically abuse their dating partners (DeKeseredy and Schwartz,
1998). This was measured with seven slightly modified items from those developed by
DeKeseredy (1988b) (Cronbach’s alpha = .80). These were introduced using a preamble that
includes a statement included in the Administrator-Researcher Campus Climate Collaborative’s
(ARC3) (2015) Survey’s introduction to peer norms measures, and the participants were asked to
answer either “yes” or “no”:
The next questions are about the information your current friends may have given you
concerning how to deal with problems in intimate or romantic relationships. When the
word date is used, please think of anyone with whom you have or have had a romantic or
sexual relationship – short or long term. To the best of your knowledge, did any of your
friends tell you that …
Attachments to Abusive Peers
A slightly modified version of an index developed by DeKeseredy and Schwartz (1998)
was used to operationalize this form of negative peer support. The response categories were
none, 1 or 2, 3 to 5, 6 to 10, more than 10, and don’t know (Cronbach’s alpha = .81).
To the best of your knowledge, how many of your friends:
have ever made physically forceful attempts at sexual activity with dates which
were disagreeable and offensive enough that the dates responded in an offended
manner such as crying, fighting, screaming or pleading?
have ever used physical force, such as hitting or beating, to resolve conflicts with
Insult their dates, swear at them, and/or withhold affection?
It is unclear how many women in the study received negative peer support from only
men, only women, or a combination of both. DeKeseredy, Hall-Sanchez and Nolan’s (2017)
analysis of CQLS data and Gwartney-Gibbs and Stockard’s (1989) study uncovered evidence of
mixed-sex negative peer support that contributed to female college students’ sexual
victimization. As these researchers discovered, it is also necessary to focus on patriarchal
practices and discourses that occur in mixed-sex college peer groups. Indeed, some women in
such friendship networks may contribute to their male friends’ belief that their hurtful behaviors
and sexist attitudes are acceptable parts of campus life (Gwartney-Gibbs and Stockard, 1989).
Some studies in the field have claimed that women can be hostilely sexist toward other women
(Glick and Fiske, 1996; Sibley, Overall, and Duckitt, 2007). Consider, too, that Schwartz and
Pitts (1995) found that college women who report having male friends who they know get
women drunk or high in order to have sex with them are themselves more likely to report a
sexual assault victimization. A major goal, then, of this study is to determine whether the
probability of mixed-sex negative peer support discovered by earlier studies exists here also.
Table 2 About Here
Before analysis, dichotomous composite variables for sexual assault, intimate partner
violence, stalking, and sexual harassment were created. A “1” was recorded for respondents who
indicated that they had been the victim of any type of behavior in each respective category, and a
“0” was recorded for those who reported no victimization. Similarly, dichotomous composite
variables (0,1) were created for pro-abuse informational support and attachments to abusive
Both the continuum and the concept of polyvictimization suggest that there are a variety
of abusive behaviors that touch many female students’ lives. The data here support this
Since enrolled at this university, 33.6 percent (n = 995) of the women in the sample
experienced one or more of the sexual assaults listed in Table 2. This figure is higher than the
frequently stated “one in four” estimate. This is not a measure of penetrative sexual assault
(rape), as the most commonly reported event was experiencing unwanted sexual contact.
However, 10 percent of the women experienced someone putting their penis, fingers, or other
objects into their vaginas without their consent. This behavior, which is part of the definition of
rape in most jurisdictions, is higher than many other prevalence estimates for completed rape
among college students (Fedina, Holmes, and Backes, 2016; Richards, 2016). It is, however,
similar to the 9 percent rape incidence generated at the same university by the Campus Crime
Victimization Survey in 2009 (Weiss, 2013). All of these figures are for completed penetrative
sexual assault, but it is important to note that 15.7 percent of the females in our sample reported
that someone tried to have oral, anal, or vaginal sex without their consent, but was not
successful. If one wished to follow the lead of the U.S. government’s official crime statistic, the
Uniform Crime Report, and mix together completed and attempted vaginal, anal and oral
penetrative sexual assault, the equivalent figure here would be 25.7 percent. Of course, this
includes students who reported in both categories. The number of individuals who reported one
or more completed or attempted penetrative sexual assault is 565, or 19.1 percent of the 2,960
women who completed the sexual assault survey.
Intimate Partner Violence
Nearly one in five (18.2%, n = 551) women in the sample reported experiencing one or
more types of intimate partner violence (IPV). This figure is consistent with estimates uncovered
at other colleges across the United States (DeKeseredy and Schwartz, 2013; Powers and
Kaukinen, 2017). Individual violent behaviors were reported at rates from 2.5 percent to 13
percent, with items less commonly associated with physical injury having the higher rates. Of
course, as stated by proponents of the continuum, the problem with rank-ordering violent
behaviors in a linear fashion is the automatic assumption that more common behaviors are less
likely to result in injuries. Without even taking into consideration the potential psychological
damage from regularly being terrorized with threats, pushing or shoving, what seems in a survey
to be minor may in fact be major. For instance, a shove can lead to a fall and major head trauma;
a slap can break teeth and draw blood (DeKeseredy and Hinch, 1991; Dobash and Dobash, 1988;
Smith, 1987). Here the extent of injury is not clear, but respondents were explicitly asked to
avoid reporting acts that were done in a joking or playful manner. Further, as explained earlier,
although the law and “common sense” suggest that greater physical trauma as defined medically
is the more serious outcome, many women have insisted that the psychological strain of
polyvictimization or multiple victimization may be more long-lasting and can be experienced as
a greater harm.
Stalking measures are not common in campus climate surveys (Wood et al., 2017). This
study provides some insight into the extent of some of the most fear-inducing behaviors. Once
again, fear on campus can result from an accumulation of victimizations, even when none of
them involve penetrative sex or serious physical injury. Here, forty-five percent of the women in
the sample experienced at least one of the eight behaviors queried in the survey.
Most of the highest rates of stalking are found in the categories involving technology,
although there are different levels of sophistication. For example, Navarro (2016) divides such
stalking into low- and high-technology. Low-technology methods do not require that the stalker
obtain particularly sophisticated technological knowledge, and presumably for that reason the
use of such methods is more wide-spread and common. Low technology stalking covered here
might include using technology that almost all students already have (smartphones, laptops,
tablets, desktops) to send harassing or threatening electronic messages or mail. Most common is
to use social media to leave unwanted comments online or to spread false rumors. However, a
sizeable portion (13.8%) of female students were spied upon with a listening device, camera, or
GPS, which are defined by Navarro (2016) as high-tech methods of stalking, although it might
be noted that basic listening and recording spy devices are very cheaply and easily available
today from sites such as Amazon, hidden in items such as bottles, mirrors, clocks and radios.
At the same time, non-technology stalking techniques remain common on campus. Such
strategies were known to previous generations, including a stalker showing up constantly where
not wanted (the origin of the word “stalking”), or leaving presents, threatening objects, or notes
to find, sometimes accomplished by illegal entry. Here, the item that asked if a woman had been
victimized by a stalker showing up at work or home was chosen by 558 women, or 18.2 percent
of the sample.
What is particularly interesting is that while traditional non-technology methods remain
popular among stalkers, the newer technological means of stalking were experienced by many
more students. Given the limited amount of baseline information from the past, it is difficult to
understand whether technology and social media has expanded the total amount of stalking
victimization, or whether traditional stalkers are now just using newer technologies. Either way,
the amount of stalking victimization on this campus is very high, with 44.9 percent of the total
female sample claiming at least one of the various forms of stalking victimization.
It isn’t only stalking however, but also sexual harassment that is rampant at this site. A
majority (61.4%) of the respondents experienced one or more of the behaviors listed in this table,
and this estimate parallels those uncovered at other institutions of higher learning (Agnich,
Hong, and Peguero, 2018). No item was reported by fewer than 13.4 percent, and that “low”
point was for someone exposing their genitals to a woman. Second, more than one out of every
three female students experienced at least three of the five harms and 52.6 percent (n = 1,600)
were targeted by someone who made unwanted sexual comments.
Relating Polyvictimization to Negative Peer Support
This type of negative peer support refers to guidance and advice that influences people to
sexually, physically, or psychologically abuse their dating partners (DeKeseredy and Schwartz,
1998). This was measured with an index of seven slightly modified items developed by
DeKeseredy (1988b) that bear a fairly high internal consistency (Cronbach = .77).
Respondents were given “yes/no” options.
Abusive Peer Attachment
The survey’s three highly related questions (Cronbach = .81) pertaining to students’
attachments to abusive friends’ stems from a slightly modified version of DeKeseredy and
Schwartz (1998)’s tool to operationalize this form of negative peer support. These three
questions focus on physical, verbal, and emotional abuse webs.
Table 3 About Here
Table 3 shows how many of those women who reported each of the types of stalking,
intimate partner violence or sexual harassment stated that they had been so victimized 3 or more
times. Since sexual assault was measured in this instrument as a yes/no variable, it was not
included in this table. Thus, for example, of the 688 women who reported incidents of
cyberbullying, as seen in Table 2, 268 (39%) reported more than 2 victimizations. Overall, of the
1375 women who reported any stalking victimization, 768 (55.9%) reported 3 or more
victimizations. It also shows that 18.8 percent of the stalking polyvictimized women reported
receiving pro-abuse information. Slightly smaller numbers of women polyvictimized by
harassment (17.5%) and partner violence (15.9%) were exposed to such information.
While these numbers are strong enough to support a claim of a relationship, there is a
much stronger tie between polyvictimization survivors and attachment to abusive peers.
Percentages here range from 48.6 percent for survivors of intimate partner violence
polyvictimization to 58.3 percent for female student survivors of sexual harassment
It is unclear how many women in the study received negative peer support from only
men, only women, or a combination of both. However, DeKeseredy, Hall-Sanchez and Nolan’s
(2017) analysis of campus data and Gwartney-Gibbs and Stockard’s (1989) study found evidence
of mixed-sex negative peer support that contributes to female college students’ sexual
Probit Model of Polyvictimization
Finally, this study attempts to measure the exposure effect of negative peer support on
polyvictimization likelihoods. By doing a probit analysis, we can see this effect within our data
by constructing a simple model where polyvictimization is dichotomized and set as the
dependent variable against the two independent negative peer support variables. Probability +
Unit (probit) modeling is a form of binary variable analysis that looks at maximum likelihoods in
variable interactions (Bliss 1934). As such, it predicts odds values, meaning that ratio of the
probability that the event will occur to the probability that it will not occur. As opposed to
logistic regression modeling, the primary benefit to probit models is that it uses normal
distributions, which is more statistically relevant with large datasets.
Here the polyvictimization variables capture whether female students experienced more
than two of any acts contained within any specific victimization category. The negative peer
support variables were constructed by grouping women who experienced any form of pro-abuse
information or indicated attachment to abusive friends. The one exception here was the sexual
assault variable. Because the questions only asked for yes/no binary information, the sexual
assault variable used here measures polyvictimization by whether a person answered yes to more
than one type of sexual assault.
Table 4 About Here
The model provides information that advances our understanding of this type of
victimization. All coefficients show a statistically significantly higher likelihood that negative
peer environments will increase the rate of female polyvictimization, By using a large binary
dataset with probit modeling, we ensure that proper statistical practices are met, providing some
support for significance of the relationship between polyvictimization and negative peer support.
At the same time, however, the Pseudo R2 values are relatively low. While this might indicate
model misspecification, it is more likely that it shows potential variable omission. Here the pro-
abuse information questions used the same language for both male and female respondents. The
low positive rates for women might suggest that the true impact of such information was hidden.
The fact that all of these variables indicate strong positive relationships to likelihood of women
suffering multiple victimizations should be grounds for future considerations of a campus
cultures and contexts.
This study is, to the best of our knowledge, the first quantitative study to apply a
modified version of either a continuum of sexual abuse or a polyvictimization model to the
problem of woman abuse on campus. The findings from our descriptive analysis show how
widespread polyvictimization is on this campus. These empirical findings resonate with how we
understand the residual effects of abusing female students at multiple times.
While there is a theoretical literature that supports the logical argument that webs of
abuse promulgate more abuse, the empirical nature of this work has mainly been qualitative,
involving in-depth interviews with non-university women. This investigation has been very
valuable to develop rich contextual data. More can be done on campus to document the manner
in which these behaviors “blur into and out of each other” and function as mechanisms of social
control (Phoenix, 2012). Qualitative research can do much to explain that sexually abusive
behaviors are common instead of rare and that the bulk of women’s abusive experiences are not
reported to criminal justice officials and other service providers (Walklate & Brown, 2012).
Support for this perception claim might come from an additional CQLS question, where 75
percent of all students either agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “The institution
tolerates a culture of sexual misconduct.”
However, this unique dataset allows for us to contribute quantitatively to the research by
gauging the degree to which women report such behaviors on a university campus. Another of
this study’s findings is that not only can we document that there is very extensive
polyvictimization on th is campus, but that it is related to negative peer support. The presence of
negative peer support, and especially attachment to abusive peers, makes it more likely that
multiple or polyvictimization will occur. Nearly 30 years ago, Gwartney-Gibbs and Stockard
(1989) stated, “[S]exual aggression and victimization may be a part of peer group culture. That
is, the friendship networks from which individuals draw … their partners may allow, or even
encourage male aggression and female victimization in different degrees” (185). Now, it appears
that sexual harassment and stalking may also be part of a peer culture.
Of course there are still tremendous gaps in our knowledge on this subject. Besides
additional empirical work, in depth interviews with college women are needed to understand the
impact of repeated victimizations on women. Another understudied area is empirical data on
whether the concepts discussed in this paper are relevant specifically to the lives of LGBTQ
This study provided evidence that researchers should focus on practices and discourses
that occur in mixed-sex college peer groups. There is extensive evidence over decades that male
peers provide support for abusive behavior (DeKeseredy and Schwartz, 2013). However, there is
more limited evidence that toxic mixed-sex networks may contribute to normalizing as part of
regular college life a pattern of male hurtful behaviors and sexist attitudes (Gwartney-Gibbs and
Stockard, 1989). Of course, women can demonstrate sexism toward other women (Glick &
Fiske, 1996; Sibley, Overall, and Duckitt, 2007), or they might maintain friendships with
sexually aggressive men, giving tacit support. Schwartz and Pitts (1995), for example, found
that college women who are sexually assaulted are more likely than others to have male friends
who they know get women drunk or high to have sex with them.
Most important of all are the responses by universities to this information (Richards,
2016). After many years of developing campus programming, these responses remain widely
varied (Wooten & Mitchell, 2016), although under federal pressure many schools have
implemented bystander programs (DeKeseredy, 2017). Of course, with most victimizations
taking place in private, it is unlikely that bystander intervention will solve this problem
(Henriksen, Mattick and Fisher, 2016; Hewitt and Beauregard, 2014). Still, findings like those in
this study show that campus victimization remains very high, suggesting that additional
approaches are needed to chip away at campus climates that legitimate and support the
victimization of women.
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Table 1: Descriptive Variable Analysis of the Campus vs. Sample Populations
Variables & Categories Total Sample Population Female Sample
Heterosexual 4,966 (.921) 2,987 (.924)
Gay / Lesbian 147 (.027) 58 (.018)
Bisexual 194 (.036) 143 (.044)
Asexual 38 (.007) 22 (.007)
Other 48 (.009) 22 (.007)
N = 5,393 N = 3,232
Undergraduate 4,267 (.789) 2,545 (.785)
Graduate 862 (.159) 534 (.165)
Professional 278 (.051) 165 (.051)
N = 5,407 N = 3,244
Race / Ethnicity
White 4,529 (.838) 2,784 (.858)
African-American / Black 240 (.044) 131 (.040)
Hispanic 168 (.031) 95 (.029)
Asian 179 (.033) 91 (.028)
Native American / Hawaiian / Pacific Islander 33 (.006) 15 (.005)
Middle Eastern / South Asian / Indian 145 (.027) 54 (.017)
Other (Including Mixed Race) 109 (.020) 73 (.023)
N = 5,403 N = 3,243
N = 5,441 N = 3,266
Abuses Experienced While Enrolled
Non-Intimate Partner Stalking
Yes 1,910 (.375) 1,375 (.449)
No 3,187 (.625) 1,684 (.551)
N = 5,097 N = 3,059
Non-Intimate Partner Sexual Harassment
Yes 2,339 (.464) 1,862 (.614)
No 2,700 (.536) 1,171 (.386)
N = 5,039 N = 3,033
Intimate Partner Violence
Yes 936 (.187) 551 (.182)
No 4,080 (.814) 2,469 (.818)
N = 5,016 N = 3,020
Sexual Assault and Attempted Sexual Assault
Yes 1,235 (.252) 995 (.336)
No 3,661 (.748) 1,965 (.664)
N = 4,892 N = 2,960
Table 2: Binary Descriptive Analysis of Female Student Abuse
Variables & Categories Yes No
Personal Surveillance 426 (.138) 2,650 (.862)
Direct Home, Workplace, or School Interference 558 (.182) 2,515 (.818)
Leaving Strange / Threatening Items 99 (.032) 2,974 (.968)
Home or Property Invasion 76 (.025) 2,992 (.975)
Unwanted Communications 855 (.278) 2,221 (.722)
Unwarranted Gifts 200 (.065) 2,874 (.935)
Cyberbullying 688 (.224) 2,383 (.776)
Online Harassment & Rumor Spreading 472 (.154) 2,594 (.846)
Female Stalking Victimization 1,375 (.449) 1,684 (.551)
Unwanted Sexual Comments 1,600 (.526) 1,440 (.474)
Non-Consensual Messages & Picture Sharing 633 (.208) 2,409 (.792)
Sexual Pressuring for Dates & Sexual Favors 1,081 (.356) 1,958 (.644)
Unwanted Gestures & Touching 1,022 (.336) 2,016 (.664)
Genital Exposure 406 (.134) 2,626 (.866)
Female Sexual Harassment Victimization 1,862 (.614) 1,171 (.386)
Intimate Partner Violence
Shoving, Shaking, Pinching, Scratching & Hair Pulling 396 (.130) 2,654 (.870)
Slapping 186 (.061) 2,860 (.939)
Throwing Objects 234 (.077) 2,807 (.923)
Bending Fingers & Twisting Arms 187 (.061) 2,861 (.939)
Hitting, Punching, Kicking & Biting 178 (.058) 2,866 (.942)
Dragging & Throwing Partner Around 75 (.025) 2,972 (.975)
Burning, Strangulation & Suffocation 96 (.031) 2,952 (.969)
Use or Threatened Use of a Weapon 83 (.027) 2,964 (.973)
Female Intimate Partner Violence Victimization 551 (.182) 2,469 (.818)
Non-Consensual Fondling, Kissing & Groping 860 (.291) 2,099 (.709)
Non-Consensual Oral Sex 193 (.065) 2,765 (.935)
Non-Consensual Vaginal Sex 301 (.102) 2,652 (.898)
Non-Consensual Anal Sex 121 (.041) 2,831 (.959)
Attempted Non-Consensual Sex (Any Type) 465 (.157) 2,489 (.843)
Female Sexual Assault Victimization 995 (.336) 1,965 (.664)
Table 3: Descriptive Analysis of Female Polyvictimization* & Negative Peer Support**
Personal Surveillance 83 (.195) - -
Direct Home, Workplace, or School Interference 147 (.263) - -
Leaving Strange / Threatening Items 23 (.232) - -
Home or Property Invasion 20 (.263) - -
Unwanted Communications 349 (.408) - -
Unwarranted Gifts 49 (.245) - -
Cyberbullying 268 (.390) - -
Online Harassment & Rumor Spreading 165 (.350) - -
Female Stalking Polyvictimization Summary 768 (.559) 144 (.188) 423 (.551)
Unwanted Sexual Comments 1,130 (.706) - -
Non-Consensual Messages & Picture Sharing 374 (.591) - -
Sexual Pressuring for Dates & Sexual Favors 665 (.615) - -
Unwanted Gestures & Touching 583 (.570) - -
Genital Exposure 155 (.382) - -
Female Sexual Harassment Victimization Summary 1,567 (.842) 275 (.175) 913 (.583)
Intimate Partner Violence
Shoving, Shaking, Pinching, Scratching & Hair Pulling 188 (.475) - -
Slapping 77 (.414) - -
Throwing Objects 94 (.402) - -
Bending Fingers & Twisting Arms 87 (.465) - -
Hitting, Punching, Kicking & Biting 75 (.421) - -
Dragging & Throwing Partner Around 31 (.413) - -
Burning, Strangulation & Suffocation 36 (.375) - -
Use or Threatened Use of a Weapon 24 (.289) - -
Female Intimate Partner Violence Victimization
516 (.936) 82 (.159) 251 (.486)
* The polyvictimization percentages compared to total victimizations in that category.The summary shows those
that suffered at least one form of polyvictimization in any category, after removing double-counting students
that suffered multiple victimizations in multiple categories. Finally, the summary figure in parentheses refers to
the percentage of polyvictimized survivors compared to all victimized survivors in that category.
**The summary values refer to the polyvictimized women who also either received negative informational support
or had abusive peer attachments. Percentages in parentheses polyvictimized women to all women victimized in
this manner (see Table 2).
Table 4: Probit Analysis of Female Polyvictimization & Negative Peer Support
Variables & Categories Pro-Abuse
Female Stalking Polyvictimization .464 (.074)* .432 (.058)* .0432
Female Sexual Harassment Polyvictimization .506 (.073)* .572 (.049)* .0580
Female Intimate Partner Violence
.294 (.083)* 399 (.067)* .0301
Female Sexual Assault Polyvictimization* .474 (.071)* .623 (.052)* .0649
* s =.000