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Sexual victimization and learning

By Itiya Aneece, PhD student in Environmental Sciences and Tomorrow’s Professor Today Alumna

Itiya AneeceThe Rolling Stone article-irrespective of the accuracy of the reported incident- has helped bring to light the prevalence of sexual crime across our grounds as well as other college campuses. What is the university’s role in preventing and addressing such trauma?

Students experiencing psychological distress are more likely to drop out of the university (Jordan et al. 2014). To increase student retention rates and provide equal access to education among all students, a university has an obligation to provide a psychologically and physically safe environment for learning (Jordan et al. 2014).

In their study including 750 women, Jordan et al. (2014) found that 41% of women enrolling into the University of Kentucky had been sexually victimized in their teens. An additional 24% and 20% experienced sexual crime in their first and second semesters respectively. Such sexual crimes can lead to feelings of shock, confusion, fear, agitation, depression, anxiety, guilt, shame, embarrassment, and low self-esteem (Jordan et al. 2014). They can result in several mental and physical health problems (Kaltman et al. 2005) including eating disorders, chronic pain, substance abuse, sleeping disturbance, social withdrawal, PTSD, and suicidality (Jordan et al. 2014).

What does this have to do with the university? Jordan et al. (2014) found that women who had experienced sexual victimization as teenagers matriculated with lower GPAs from high school and earned lower grades during their freshman year. Women who had been sexually assaulted during the first semester had lower GPA scores at the end of the semester as compared with women who had not been sexually assaulted. This decrease in grades may be because survivors of sexual victimization can have diminished abilities to concentrate, organize facts, and remember what they learned in class (Jordan et al. 2014). Dealing with depression and anxiety also takes up vast amounts of energy that would otherwise be available for studying or engaging with peers (Jordan et al. 2014).

Colleges and universities are not powerless and have options for action. They can incorporate trauma and mental health screenings upon entry, and offer trauma-focused interventions and treatment options (Kaltman 2005). They can educate students, faculty, and staff in responding to survivors. Listening to and believing survivors supports recovery from trauma whereas victim-blaming, taking control, and distracting can be detrimental to recovery and have long-term consequences (Ullman 1996). Although dealing with student disclosures of sexual assault and intimate partner violence is difficult (Branch et al. 2011), it is important that instructors educate themselves about how to respond when students confide in them. They may also consider strategies for trauma-sensitive teaching. In an earlier blog post, I have written on trauma and learning and suggested a few resources for instructors.

I am glad to see several initiatives that the University of Virginia has undertaken to help survivors in their recovery within the university community. It is time that we as teachers recognize the effects that traumatic events have on learning itself and make changes in the classroom to provide all students an equal opportunity to learn.

For excellent suggestions on how to support students in distressing times see Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPs) guide “How Faculty Can Help.


Branch, K. A., Hayes-Smith, R., & Richards, T. N. 2011. Professors’ experiences with student disclosures of sexual assault and intimate partner violence: How “helping” students can inform teaching practices. Feminist Criminology, 6(1), 54-75.

Gomez, J. 2013. Exploring the association between mindfulness, sustained attention, experiential avoidance, and posttraumatic stress symptom severity among females who have been sexually victimized. Open Access Dissertations. Paper 1054.

Jordan, C., Combs, J., and G. Smith. 2014. An exploration of sexual victimization and academic performance among college women. Trauma, Violence, and Abuse, 15 (3): 191-200.

Kaltman, S., Krupnick, J., Stockton, P., Hooper, L., and B. Green. 2005. Psychological impact of types of sexual trauma among college women. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 18 (5): 547-555.

Ullman, S. 1996. Social reactions, coping strategies, and self-blame attributions in adjustment to sexual assault. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 20: 505-526.

Itiya AneeceItiya Aneece is pursuing a PhD in Environmental Sciences at the University of Virginia. She has taught the Fundamentals of Ecology lab since the Fall of 2011, has recently completed the Tomorrow’s Professor Today program, and enjoys exploring new ways to encourage learning.

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