Warning Signs for College-Age Adults

Whether you are a parent, professor, administrator, student, coworker, or friend—you can make a difference in someone’s life by noticing the warning signs of sexual assault and abusive relationships. Sexual violence, like many other crimes, can occur on college campuses and at locations frequented by college students.

It’s not easy to come forward

In seven out of 10 cases of sexual assault, the perpetrator is someone the victim knows.1 This can make it more difficult for someone to be open about sexual assault, particularly if the perpetrator is part of a friend group, a classmate, or someone who is well liked by other peers. No matter who the alleged perpetrator is, the survivor deserves support and care.

Warning signs that a college-age adult may have been sexually assaulted

Some of the warning signs for sexual assault in college-age adults may be caused by events that are unrelated, such as being way from home for the first time. It’s better to ask and be wrong than to let the person you care about struggle with the effects of sexual assault. You can ask questions that point to a specific person or time like, “Did something happen with the person you met at the party the other night?” You can also simply reaffirm that you will believe them when they are ready to come forward, and that it’s not their fault.

If you notice these warning signs in a college-age adult, it’s worth reaching out to them:

  • Signs of depression, such as persistent sadness, lack of energy, changes in sleep or appetite, withdrawing from normal activities, or feeling “down”
  • Self-harming behaviors, thoughts of suicide, or suicidal behaviors
  • Low self-esteem
  • Sexually transmitted infections (STIs)
  • Anxiety or worry about situations that did not seem to cause anxiety in the past
  • Avoiding specific situations or places
  • Falling grades or withdrawing from classes
  • Increase in drug or alcohol use

Warning signs that could lead to a sexual assault

The majority of sexual assaults are committed by someone the victim knows, such as a friend, family member, acquaintance, or partner.1 Often, abusive partners will try to cut the victim off from their support system. As someone outside of the relationship, you have the potential to notice warning signs that someone may be in an abusive relationship or at risk for sexual assault.

Some warning signs include:

  • Withdrawing from other relationships or activities, for example, spending less time with friends, leaving sports teams, or dropping classes
  • Saying that their partner doesn’t want them to engage in social activities or is limiting their contact with others
  • Disclosing that sexual assault has happened before
  • Any mention of a partner trying to limit their contraceptive options or refusing to use safer sexual practices, such as refusing to use condoms or not wanting them to use birth control
  • Mentioning that their partner is pressuring them to do things that make them uncomfortable
  • Signs that a partner controlling their means of communication, such as answering their phone or text messages or intruding into private conversations
  • Visible signs of physical abuse, such as bruises or black eyes

Using technology to hurt others

College-age adults may also experience sexual harassment or other unwanted behaviors through technology and online interactions. Some people use technology—such as digital photos, videos, apps, and social media—to engage in harassing, unsolicited, or non-consensual sexual interactions. It can leave the person on the other end feeling manipulated, unsafe, and exposed, like when someone forwards a text, photo, or “sext” intended only for the original recipient. The laws pertaining to these situations vary from state to state and platform to platform, and they are evolving rapidly. Learn more about the ways people use technology to hurt others.

Remember, you are not alone. If you suspect sexual abuse you can talk to someone who is trained to help. Call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE (4673) or chat online at online.rainn.org.


1Bureau of Justice Statistics, Office of Justice Programs, Department of Justice. National Crime Victimization Survey, 2009-2013. 2015.

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