The University of Texas at Austin- What Starts Here Changes the World
Services Navigation

Confronting Sexual Assault: Researchers look beyond statistics to understand root causes of complex social problem

In 2003 results of the first and only study of sexual assault in the State of Texas revealed what practitioners working in the field already knew: sexual assault is a pervasive problem, affecting women and men of all backgrounds. About 20 percent of women and 5 percent of men, about 1.9 million Texans, have been the victim of assault.

For Dr. Noël Busch, the study’s principal investigator and an assistant professor in the School of Social Work, the statistics are valuable because they attach data to the experiences of assault victims. But they only represent one piece of tackling the larger issue.

Noël Busch
Dr. Noël Busch
Photo: Christina Murrey

“If we really want to ameliorate sexual assault in our communities, we have to understand the whole social problem,” she says. “One of the things we’re trying to do in the fields of domestic violence and sexual assault is address all the viable preventative efforts, including how one gets to the place where they commit assault.”

Busch has worked in the field of sexual assault for more than 14 years, much of it spent supplying services directly to victims. Her experience ranges from working with incarcerated women who killed their abusers to helping set up an emergency room advocate program for assault victims in South Carolina to frequent work as an expert witness in court cases. When she began studying sexual assault, she was committed to conducting research with real, tangible value.

“When I was a social worker working in the field, research didn’t make that much difference in how I did things because it was so esoteric that it didn’t have meaning in my life,” she says, “or it didn’t answer the questions I really needed answered.”

To help bridge the gap between research and practice, Busch helped found and now directs the university’s Institute on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault (IDVSA) with Sarah Buel, a professor in the School of Law, and Dr. Regina Jones Johnson, assistant professor in the School of Nursing. IDVSA supports research and provides training and information to the practitioner community. And the practitioners set the research agenda, telling researchers what issues they are struggling with and what they most need to know.

IDVSA sponsored the groundbreaking Statewide Prevalence Study of Sexual Assault in Texas, in partnership with the Office of the Attorney General and the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault. Busch and co-investigators Dr. Diana DiNitto, professor at the School of Social Work, and Dr. Holly Bell, with the Center for Social Work Research, conducted a study of 1,200 adult Texans.

About 1.9 million adult Texans have been sexually assaulted at one time in their life.While the study shows Texas doesn’t vary dramatically from other states in the prevalence of assault, the findings still pack a punch. For example:

  • Most assaults are perpetrated by someone already known to the victim, such as a family member or date. Only 19 percent of assaults are perpetrated by a stranger.
  • All racial and socio-economic groups are at risk of sexual assault.
  • Assaults during the teen years (ages 14-17) are more likely to take place in cars than assaults at earlier or later ages.
  • Women and men with mental or physical disabilities are more likely to have been assaulted than those without a disability.
  • Less than 10 percent of Texans who experienced sexual assault received medical care for their assault.
  • Nearly half of victims report that their perpetrator was under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time of the assault.

The study’s findings were distributed widely across the state and provide needed information for policymakers when considering programs and policy to curb assault. Busch and her colleagues, however, immediately asked what more we need to know.

“Most of the study of sexual assault has been about victims, and it only tells a partial story,” Busch says. “We still don’t know much about why people perpetrate, under what circumstances or situations they perpetrate, what ideologies they hold that allow them to perpetrate or what values they have about power and control.”

Reducing Your Risk of
Being Assaulted on a Date

Find out more about your date. Go beyond the basics. Ask about his feelings toward women and relationships. If he is someone you do not know, arrive separately and meet in a public place.

Be assertive. Speak up if a situation makes you uncomfortable. Make it clear that paying for a meal does not entitle him to anything else, or offer to pay your own way.

Don’t allow yourself to be isolated with someone you don’t know or trust.

Set your own limits and communicate these limits to your date.

Trust your feelings. If something doesn’t feel right, or if you just feel pressured or frightened, listen to yourself.

Texas Association Against Sexual Assault

One way to answer those questions is to start studying men, by and large the most likely perpetrators of assault. Busch, with DiNitto, is working on the early stages of a national study of men that seeks to understand their attitudes toward and relationships with women, including sexual assault perpetration. It will be the first national study of its kind.

Busch has already completed a pilot study conducted with just under 100 men. Researchers asked 16 questions about sexual assault perpetration, 11 of which met the legal definition of assault. Initial findings show that about 40 percent of the men surveyed admitted to some form of sexual assault perpetration.

“They admitted to using, for example, their position of authority, alcohol or drugs, threatening to break up with her if she didn’t have sex, sulking until she gave in and such,” Busch says. “This is very consistent with the research on what victims tell us about their experiences of sexual assault.”

She acknowledges that collecting data on assault is challenging, but knowing that a very small percentage of perpetrators ever even make it to court, gathering information from a representative sample of men becomes critical.

“It’s also important to reiterate that most men in our country do not assault,” she says. “We’re talking about a segment of men.”

But understanding men’s attitudes toward women will clarify which programs should be developed around the goal of ameliorating assault. People need to learn how to talk about respectful relationships, how to address the need for power and control at the core of sexual assault and how to make resources available for men who fear they have or will assault, Busch says.

As a professor Busch is particularly concerned about the occurrence and impact of assault in the university community. She praises the resources the university has in place for its students, while admitting that all universities face similar challenges with their student bodies.

Only 18 percent of sexual assault victims in Texas report their assault to law enforcement.“University students are often exploring their own independence for the first time in their lives and are trying to figure out how to conduct themselves as men and women,” she says. “Their expectations around socialization are different than the general population. There is a lot of socialization going on, and involved in that socialization can be alcohol.”

The high correlation of drug and alcohol use with sexual assault makes educating the university community particularly important. IDVSA is working on infusing information about sexual assault into the curriculum of classes. Academic units across campus, including the LBJ School of Public Affairs and the Department of History, have asked for help in developing ways of talking about assault in their classes.

The university is also home to Voices Against Violence, a campus organization funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice. Voices Against Violence works with university faculty, staff and students to prevent relationship and sexual violence, including offering the Theatre for Social Change class, wherein students create and perform a theatre piece about assault, educating their peers and themselves in the process.

“We work really collaboratively together, with different strategies toward the shared goal of ameliorating interpersonal violence,” Busch says of Voices Against Violence. “There are very few university communities where you find both the micro and the macro work of solving this problem happening. This is really an agenda item at the university.”

Survivors of sexual assault
can find support and
resources by calling:

Voices Against Violence
(on campus)

National Sexual Assault Hotline

The university and the Austin community are putting resources and effort toward addressing the issue, but some change begins at the personal level. There are simple things that everyone can do to help curb and eventually end assault. One of them is paying attention to how we talk.

“One of the things we can all be doing is when we hear demeaning or sexist or racist comments, we can address those in our families, in our workplaces and in our communities,” she says. “That would begin changing social norms about what’s appropriate.

“I think that schools, teachers, principals, parents, we all have to be charged with fighting the status quo about relationships and gender stereotypes.”

After all these years working in the field, witnessing the pain of assault first-hand and gathering the hard statistics, it might seem like Busch would feel discouraged. On the contrary, she’s optimistic. She recognizes that social change is a progression, not an event, and that progress in the area of sexual assault and domestic violence is happening.

“People are more open to understanding the complexity of this problem, and more people are willing to ask what’s going on that we have this happening in our families and our communities,” she says. “I’m hopeful in all of those respects.”


[IDVSA will be hosting an open house from 12:30-2:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 4, in the Utopia Theatre in the School of Social Work. It is free and open to the public.]

Office of Public Affairs

P.O. Box Z
Austin, Texas

Fax 512-471-5812

  Updated 10 October 2005
  Comments to