General Education

College Sexual Assault: A Glossary of Terms

College Sexual Assault: A Glossary of Terms
Image from
Orly Michaeli profile
Orly Michaeli October 6, 2014

Understanding how your school handles cases of sexual assault starts with understanding the terms you’ll hear.

Article continues here

The conversation about sexual assault has been dominating the news in the last year, and it’s about time. The struggle to make our college campuses safer for everyone is something we can all get behind.

However, making sense of the policies and laws that are in place can be challenging. There are a lot of different terms to juggle, and their meanings can change depending on the state or campus you are on.

Knowing the language will help students and families navigate the existing system, or pursue one they believe will make campuses safer.

Below is a list of essential terms related to sexual assault policy.

Note: Terms are organized alphabetically.


Advocates are professionally-trained individuals who support and guide victims of crimes, including sexual assault. They offer many forms of assistance, from legal information to counseling to finding the right resources and paperwork. Advocacy organizations use a variety of methods (support groups, crisis hotlines, and more) to help survivors, and their programs differ by organization. At colleges that provide advocacy services, an advocate will often accompany a student who has been assaulted to a medical facility for an examination or to a law enforcement setting if the student wants to file a report.

More information at: Victims of Crime

Campus Security

These are the security officers hired directly by the college. They have jurisdiction over the campus and within a limited geographic area near campus. Many colleges have formal agreements between campus security and local law enforcement about how to coordinate handling crimes that occur on campus or involve students.

Campus SaVE Act

The Campus Sexual Violence Elimination (SaVE) Act is an addition to the Clery Act that more specifically addresses sexual violence on college campuses. The SaVE Act requires colleges and universities that participate in federal funding to: increase transparency about sexual violence on campus; guarantee victims’ specific rights; provide standards for conduct proceedings; and require prevention programming.

Here are some of the specific implementations that colleges must have made by October 1, 2014:

  • Assist survivors in changing their academic, living, or transportation arrangements to avoid a hostile environment.

  • Issue a no-contact directive against a perpetrator if a survivor requests it.

  • Distribute information about counseling and survivor advocacy groups on campus.

  • Create fair and prompt disciplinary proceedings. Policies should be clearly articulated and readily available online and/or in handbooks.

  • Institute a range of reporting, risk reduction, and bystander training programs for faculty and students.

  • In addition to reporting instances of sexual assault in an Annual Security Report (see Clery Act), institutions must also publicly report instances of domestic violence, dating violence, and stalking.

More information at: The Clery Center and Jeanne Clery Act Information

Clery Act

The Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Crime Statistics Act, or Clery Act, is named after Jeanne Clery, a student who was raped and murdered in her dorm room in 1986. This federal law requires schools to report crimes committed on campus (see below) in an Annual Security Report that is available on school websites every October 1. In addition to documenting certain crimes, such as sexual assault, that have occurred for each of the past three years, the report must clarify existing security policies and basic rights guaranteed to survivors of sexual assault.

In addition, schools are required to issue a “timely warning" — or an announcement capable of reaching the entire student body — when an event poses a serious or ongoing threat to the rest of the campus.

All public and private colleges that receive federal financial support and have a security office or campus police must maintain a daily crime log, in which basic information of each campus crime is recorded within two business days of an initial report. These logs must be publicly available during regular business hours and maintained for 60 days. Schools are required to provide older logs within two business days of a request. Certain information may be withheld if it would violate the confidentiality of the survivor or jeopardize an ongoing criminal investigation, though such decisions must be narrowly interpreted.

If the U.S. Department of Education determines that a school is violating the Clery Act, the institution may be required to pay a fine.

More information at: The Clery Center and “The Clery Act in Detail" from Know Your IX


Coercion is the use of force, intimidation, pressure, and/or oppressive behavior to obtain compliance to an act, such as sexual contact. Coercion can take explicit forms, like physical violence, or it can be more subtle behavior, like emotional manipulation or implied threats.

More information at: Center Against Rape and Domestic Violence


Consent refers to an overt demonstration that a person is legally able to agree with the action being taken. Since acting without consent is one of the defining criteria of sexual assault, the legal meaning of this word is very important. The way consent is defined varies from state to state and from college to college. However, in addition to the personal decision involved in consensual choices, there are a few formal rules to take into consideration:

  • Age: Each state sets an “age of consent," or an age someone must reach in order to legally have sex. For example, if the age of consent is 16 in a particular state, any individual who is under 16 and has sex in that state is not legally able to consent to sex, even if he or she desires to.

  • Capacity: This means a mental and legal ability to agree to sex. For example, someone who is unconscious or mentally disabled does not have the capacity to consent. If a student is intoxicated or impaired by drugs, that person may not have the legal capacity to consent to sex. Again, these guidelines often vary geographically.

Consent must be acquired throughout a sexual interaction and can be withdrawn at any time. Also, consent to one form of contact does not mean consent to all forms of contact. For example, if a person consents to kissing, this does not mean the person is consenting to any other form of sexual contact.

More information at: Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network and Amherst website for Sexual Respect


If a student decides to bring a sexual assault complaint to the college’s administration, a disciplinary hearing is the common setting that colleges use to deal with the complaint. The standard of evidence used at a hearing is whether a complaint of sexual assault is “more likely than not" to have happened. This stands in contrast to a criminal proceeding, where the crime must be proven “beyond a reasonable doubt."

Under the disciplinary process, both parties must have equal rights, including an advisor of choice present during proceedings, timely access to information, and a written result of the hearing that is issued to both parties simultaneously.

Before hearings begin, schools are required to take certain steps. For example, administrators must issue a no-contact directive if a survivor requests it, ensuring that the accuser and accused don’t interact. Schools are also not allowed to substitute the formal hearing process with a mediation process because that could re-traumatize the survivor.

More information at: “Title IX: The Basics" from Know Your IX

Local Law Enforcement

You can make a criminal complaint to the town or city police that may lead to legal proceedings. Pursuing an assault charge through local law enforcement is different than pursuing a college disciplinary hearing, where the issue rests on whether there was a violation of the college’s student code of conduct. Students may file a criminal complaint, pursue a college disciplinary hearing, do both or neither.

On-campus vs. Off-campus

The division between on-campus and off-campus, while seemingly simple, becomes very important when it comes to sexual assault policy, especially since the Clery Act requires schools to report incidences of on-campus crime. This distinction can get tricky and often varies from campus to campus. However, as a general rule:

  • School grounds or school-owned buildings qualify as on-campus sites.

  • Some schools are required to count non-campus facilities, like public property next to the institution or Greek houses, when reporting crimes for the Clery Act.

  • Remote locations, owned by campus groups or the college, are at times counted as on-campus facilities under the Clery Act.

More information at: “The Clery Act in Detail" from Know Your IX

Sexual Assault

The U.S. Department of Justice defines sexual assault as “any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient. Falling under the definition of sexual assault are activities such as forced sexual intercourse, forcible sodomy, child molestation, incest, fondling, and attempted rape." [Emphasis added].

Survivor or Victim

Both of these words refer to someone who has been sexually assaulted. They are sometimes used interchangeably but may have different connotations, depending on the audience. Traditionally, law enforcement has used the word victim, and some people prefer this term because it identifies the absence of choice in a forcibly inflicted traumatic event.

Many advocates use the word survivor because it connotes empowerment and choice. Neither of these words is wrong. Both portray different aspects of what it means to be sexually assaulted. It is generally agreed that it is best to employ the word used by the person who has experienced the assault.

Title IX:

Title IX refers to an Education Amendment passed in 1972 that prohibits sex discrimination in any educational institution receiving federal funding. The policy covers men, women, and gender-nonconforming individuals. It ensures equal treatment in a variety of ways, from prohibiting gender discrimination in the area of athletics to ensuring non-discriminatory practices towards pregnant faculty members and students.

Title IX is the main component of a federal law that holds schools accountable for sexual violence on campus. It requires that a Title IX Coordinator be present at every school to hear complaints and coordinate disciplinary action. Schools are also required to have prompt disciplinary hearings in cases of sexual violence (the Department of Education recommends that hearings last no more than 60 calendar days, and more complex cases be addressed within a reasonable time-frame), that they publish clear guidelines of policies and hearings, and that both parties are treated equally and fairly at all hearings.

The U.S. Department of Education oversees the implementation of Title IX at each school, and a college’s failure to comply can result in fines or loss of federal funding.

More information at: “Title IX in Detail" from Know Your IX and The U.S. Department of Education