A Descriptive Analysis of College Students’ Experiences of Female-Perpetrated Sexual Assault

Date01 November 2020
AuthorGianna Gambardella,Kathleen M. Palm Reed,Denise A. Hines,Madeline Benz
Published date01 November 2020
Subject MatterArticles
Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice
2020, Vol. 36(4) 520 –538
© The Author(s) 2020
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1043986220936077
A Descriptive Analysis
of College Students’
Experiences of Female-
Perpetrated Sexual Assault
Gianna Gambardella1, Madeline Benz1,
Denise A. Hines2, and Kathleen M. Palm Reed1
The current study sought to explore the experiences of college students who have
experienced female-perpetrated sexual assault, and to compare their experiences to
those of students assaulted by male perpetrators. A total of 11,165 college students
across 11 years completed an online, anonymous survey measuring self-reports of
sexual violence, context surrounding their victimization, help-seeking, and well-
being. Of the students surveyed, 531 students reported experiencing sexual assault
and identified both their own gender and the gender of their perpetrator, and 14%
reported having experienced female-perpetrated sexual assault. Victims of female
perpetrators were more likely to report their perpetrator being an (ex)intimate
partner and less likely to be a stranger. Victims of female perpetrators were also
more likely to report that their victimization involved their own drug use. Overall,
victims of female-perpetrated sexual assault were less likely to tell anyone about
their victimization, or to report to on- or off-campus resources. Finally, our findings
suggest that victims of female perpetrators have comparable well-being to victims of
male perpetrators. These finding contribute to the overall understanding of female-
perpetrated sexual assault.
sexual assault, female perpetrators, college campuses, interpersonal violence, rape
1Clark University, Worcester, MA, USA
2George Mason University, Fairfax, VA, USA
Corresponding Author:
Gianna Gambardella, Department of Psychology, Clark University, 950 Main St., Worcester, MA 01610,
Email: ggambardella@clarku.edu
936077CCJXXX10.1177/1043986220936077Journal of Contemporary Criminal JusticeGambardella et al.
Gambardella et al. 521
The phenomenon of female-perpetrated sexual assault in college environments has
generally been understudied and underrepresented in the literature on sexual violence.
Despite recent increased interest in the topic, there is a limited understanding about
who is victimized by female perpetrators and in what context they experience
Research on sexual assault has traditionally focused on the experiences of women
as victims and men as perpetrators (e.g., Greathouse et al., 2015; Ullman, 2010). As
such, less is known about the experiences of victims who are assaulted by women, and
much of the research that does exist suggests low frequencies of female-perpetrated
sexual assault against adults (N. L. Fisher & Pina, 2013; Groth & Birnbaum, 2013).
For example, The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence survey reported that
both women and men were infrequently sexually assaulted by women, although these
rates were slightly higher for men (Smith et al., 2017). In fact, while studies on domes-
tic violence have explored victimization and perpetration by women (Orcutt et al.,
2005), most studies on sexual assault exclusively inquire about women’s experiences
of victimization, neglecting any assessment of perpetration (Anderson & Struckman-
Johnson, 1998). In addition, much of the research on sexual assault on college cam-
puses has focused on examining men’s perpetration (Berkowitz, 1992; B. S. Fisher
et al., 2000; Krebs et al., 2007).
Despite the historical trend of only studying male-perpetrated sexual assaults
against women, accumulating research suggests that women can also be perpetrators
of sexual assault. In a general population sample, women committed 28% of sexual
assaults on men and 4% of assaults on women (Stemple et al., 2017). Thus, the public
health significance of sexual violence has only been partially understood. Further
research is essential to understand the rates of perpetration by women, the nature of the
relationships between victims and female perpetrators, and the conditions in which
these assaults are occurring.
Characteristics of Victims
In addition to highlighting the existence of female-perpetrated sexual assaults, it is
also important to consider who is affected by female perpetrators. Research on women
who perpetrate sexual assault has found patterns regarding the perpetrator’s relation-
ship to their victim. One study found that over half of female-perpetrated sexual
assaults against male victims occurred between friends and acquaintances, one third
involved a girlfriend or fiancé, and less than 10% involved strangers (Struckman-
Johnson & Struckman-Johnson, 1998). Other studies suggest that women perpetrate
sexual assault against men within long-term intimate relationships (Hines & Douglas,
2016). More research is needed to explore the trends in the relationship between per-
petrator and victim, particularly among college-age students due to their increased risk
of sexual violence (Mellins et al., 2017).
Much of the limited research on female-perpetrated sexual violence has focused on
women who perpetrate against men (Anderson & Struckman-Johnson, 1998), but even

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