Mired in fears linked to confidentiality, re-victimization, and stigma, sexual assault remains largely underreported among college students. A 2006 national study by the Department of Justice found that less than 5 percent of college-aged women who were assaulted reported it.

Clinical science doctoral student Allison Tobar of the Department of Psychology, part of the Virginia Tech College of Science, was drawn to the subject by the difficulty in discussing it. “I’m interested in talking about things that are highly stigmatized,” she said. “That’s what brought me down this road of looking into sexual assault.”

Under the mentorship of assistant psychology professor Meagan Brem and as a member of Brem’s Research for Alcohol and Couples Health (REACH) lab, Tobar will survey Virginia Tech students for their perspectives on barriers to reporting sexual assault and accessing resources for support on college campuses. The study, which is supported by the Graduate and Professional Student Senate of Virginia Tech’s Graduate Research Development Program, marks the start of what Tobar hopes will be a diverse, multi-site look at sexual assault on college campuses.

Tobar began studying sexual assault in the context of intimate partner violence and substance use — another stigmatized subject tied to discussion of sexual assault, she pointed out — as an undergraduate student at the University of Rhode Island in early 2018. That work brought her to Brem’s lab in 2022. The lab focuses on alcohol misuse, intimate partner violence, and their co-occurrence. With alcohol and drug use often interwoven into the issue of sexual assault on college campuses, Tobar foresees substance use as a core topic of discussion in surveys. She’s looking at drug and alcohol use that is either voluntary or involuntary, as in the case of date-rape drugs slipped into beverages.

Tobar will keep the survey questions open-ended. “There is a lot of research in this area, but we're really interested in learning: what are some unique perspectives that maybe researchers haven't typically spotted but can come up within these broad questions?” she said.

She also plans to look at issues of what comes after a victim’s experience of sexual assault. “I would be really curious to ask our students, what are some reasons why they think individuals may not seek the resources or help they need after sexual assault?” Tobar said. The survey will seek insights from personal experiences with sexual assault but will still be open to students without those experiences. Those students have valid perspectives to share as well, Tobar said.

In the future, Tobar aims to expand the survey to other universities and account for a diverse sample set in terms of racial, ethnic, LGBTQ+, and socioeconomic backgrounds. She hopes that information sourced directly from students can be used to better support victims of sexual assault.

“We’ll look at: what exactly do they like or dislike about the resources, policies, or prevention programs at their university, and what would they suggest the university implement in the future?” Tobar said. “We’re hoping to figure out: what is the best way to incorporate this feedback, while helping as many people as we can?”

Added Brem, Tobar’s mentor and director of the REACH lab, “Students’ experiences should be central to overcoming reporting barriers and resource utilization, but resources, policies, and education efforts are not always sensitive to the needs and concerns of diverse student populations.

Learning directly from students through dialogue in a confidential study like Allison’s will provide critical insight into the unique needs and experiences of Virginia Tech students. We are excited about the potential for her findings to help shape the ways in which we support students moving forward.”

Editor's note: The Virginia Tech Division of Scholarly Integrity and Research Compliance's Institutional Review Board has reviewed and approved the study proposal. The IRB number is 23-199.

Virginia Tech is committed to ending sexual violence and enhancing preventative programming. The Sexual Violence Culture and Climate Work Group, established by President Tim Sands, is developing a framework for sustainable climate and cultural transformation that establishes sexual violence prevention as a shared responsibility of the entire Virginia Tech community. April is National Sexual Assault Awareness Month.

Those looking for additional resources and information related to sexual violence and harassment may do so by reaching out to any of the following sources:

    •    Women's Center at Virginia Tech: 540-231-7806
    •    Women's Resource Center of the New River Valley: 540-639-1123
    •    Katie Polidoro: Title IX Coordinator: 540-231-1824
    •    Cook Counseling Center: 540-231-6557
    •    Dean of Students Office: 540-231-3787
    •    Virginia Tech Police Department: 540-382-4343

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