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The cost of campus sexual violence

Potter studies the financial toll campus sexual assault extracts from its victims in the form of changing to less challenging majors or dropping out of college altogether. She has also developed bystander intervention strategies to stop assault before it happens.
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Photo credit: Lee Germeroth

One in five women entering college in the U.S. will be a victim of campus-based sexual assault before she graduates (if she graduates). Those numbers have not changed since first published in 1987.

Researchers have long investigated the devastating psychological and physical toll sexual assault takes on victims. Sharyn Potter 94MPH 98G has identified a corresponding financial toll. Potter is a professor of sociology and women’s studies at the University of New Hampshire and co-founder and executive director of research at the Prevention Innovations Research Center (PIRC). The research center was one of three centers engaged by the 2014 White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault and cited in the Task Force’s report, “Not Alone.”

In her study on the economic costs of campus sexual assault, Potter has found that victims often change their major or drop out of college following an assault. In fact, one-third of her study participants never completed college, which can cripple their career trajectory and earnings potential.

Potter has talked to many such women who shared similar narratives and details these conversations in her TEDx Talk. “Sophia” had planned on pursuing master’s and doctoral degrees in psychology. After she was a victim of campus sexual assault, Sophia couldn’t concentrate on her studies. She never completed her bachelor’s degree, and at 32 years old, she is four credits short of earning it. Sophia now works at a homeless shelter.

“Ann” wanted to be a neurobiologist. After her sexual assault, she changed her major to early childhood education, saying she now found neurobiology too taxing. Potter cites research estimating that students graduating with a bachelor’s biology degree earn approximately $1 million more over their lifetime than people who graduate with an early education degree.

Although Ann has a rewarding career, Potter wonders what our society and community may have lost because Ann was unable to complete her neurobiology degree. “Did we lose the person who was going to find the cure for Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s disease?” says Potter.

Although Ann has a rewarding career, Potter wonders what our society and community may have lost because Ann was unable to complete her neurobiology degree. “Did we lose the person who was going to find the cure for Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s disease?” says Potter.

Potter and colleagues have also created an app, uSafeUS, that connects students with an up-to-date source of all resources a person who has experienced an assault might need, as defined by each school. The app also has three interactive assault prevention tools to help reduce the incidence of assault by letting users or their friends subtly exit potentially risky situations. USafeUS is currently available for all college and university campuses in New Hampshire and is being rolled out nationwide. Potter and colleagues are currently working on adapting the app for high school students.

To truly curtail sexual campus assault, Potter believes the country must undergo a fundamental culture change. “There are so many lessons that the campus sexual assault prevention movement can learn from the large cultural change credited to the anti-drunk driving movement of the late 1970s and early 1980s,” says Potter. “Prior to that movement, people would regularly get in their cars after drinking and cause horrible crashes. It was not the norm to take an intoxicated person’s car keys or find them a safe ride. There has been this larger paradigm shift in how we think about drunk driving, and because of that, we have seen a significant decrease in drunk-driving fatalities. You can ask an 8- or 9-year-old about drunk-driving, and they know that it’s wrong. But you can’t ask them about sexual assault.

“And this education needs to start age-appropriately, ” continues Potter. “Teaching kids about communities, respect, healthy relationships, and how we help one another is so important, and it needs to be part of the K-12 curriculum. College is not the first time that students should be receiving this message, and even high school is really late too.”

Of her time at Rollins, Potter says, “I was in health policy and management at Rollins, and it truly was a transformational experience, both personally and intellectually. I learned so much about community engagement and the collaborative approach while at Rollins, which truly informs the work I do today.” —Catherine Morrow




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