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Language gap may complicate awareness and reporting of dating violence

When students talk about their experiences with sexual violence, what they describe often doesn’t sound anything like the situations referenced in campus policies and educational materials.

This language gap may hinder campus efforts to educate students, cause students to minimize their own or friends’ experiences and put them at risk for violence, says a new report from the McCluskey Center for Violence Prevention.

“Understanding how students perceive, talk about, experience and counsel one another around issues of dating violence will inform more effective efforts to make college campuses—and our larger community—safer,” said Chris Linder, center director and an associate professor in the U’s College of Education. The full report is available here.

The study’s research team examined the language students used to describe their experiences and compared it to language in U policies and educational program materials. In all, they held 21 focus group sessions with 53 students and looked at 106 policies and 11 education resources.

The researchers found that the students related more to the term “dating violence,” for example, and did not see the behaviors they experienced as fitting the terms “domestic violence” or “intimate partner violence.”

“I feel like intimate partner violence is a very academic term, and that’s what you would use in research the majority of the time,” one student told the research team. Others said they associated domestic violence with physical abuse, police and legal issues and heterosexual couples—not the gaslighting, coercion and emotional manipulation they experienced.

The students also viewed “sexual violence” as distinct from these other terms, using it to describe rape or sexual assault that occurs in one-time situations such as a date or hook-up, but not ongoing relationships.

Students tended to describe their experiences through specific behaviors rather than overarching terms that encompass those behaviors—manipulation, for instance, versus domestic violence. And students described some behaviors as normal in their relationships, such as sharing social media passwords, while professionals might consider those behaviors harmful.

The students who participated in the study did not view their experiences as connected to “campus safety” and responded with confusion to the term “sexual misconduct,” which is used throughout university policies and educational programming, the study found.

“I think conversations around that, where we kind of chalk everything up to sexual misconduct or inappropriate conduct, instead of actually calling it what it ends up being, is something that comes to mind as a minimizing activity around this,” one student said.

Students also did not find connections between most campus safety efforts, such as lighting or transportation offerings, with their experiences of sexual violence.

The researchers found variations in language used by different programs on campus, such as the Center for Student Wellness, Office for Equal Opportunity and Office of the Dean of Students; the two offices rely on legalistic terms such as sexual misconduct that students found vague and minimizing.

“Ultimately, although likely dictated by legal requirements, the terms used by the Office of the Dean of Students and dictated by the reporting structures of OEO/Title IX are somewhat meaningless for students,” the study states.

In addition to Linder, members of the research team included Jessie Richards, an assistant professor in the Eccles College of Business; Heather Melton, an associate professor in the College of Social and Behavioral Science, Adrienne Griffiths, who received a Ph.D. in sociology in 2022; Hannah Lund, who graduated in 2022 with bachelor’s degrees in sociology and criminology; and Charnell Peters, now an assistant professor in Communication at Saint Louis University.