The Red Zone

Each fall brings a new academic year to university campuses and diverse opportunities for students to realize their endless potential. Universities must prioritize how to maximum students’ ability to meet their highest potential and must understand how to remove barriers to student success. Sexual victimization and its aftermath are among the most destructive barriers to student achievement.
Prevalence of Sexual Assault Among College Women
Research of the past several decades reveals that for too many female students across the nation, college is associated with exposure to sexual assault. In fact, studies suggest that college women are at greater risk for certain forms of assault than are women in the general population or in similar age groups (e.g., Belknap & Erez, 1995; Fisher, Cullen, & Turner, 2000). Across multiple studies, one in four to one in three college women report experiencing some form of rape or attempted rape (e.g., Abbey, Parkhill, BeShears, Clinton-Sherrod, & Zawacki, 2006; White & Koss, 1991; Wilcox, Jordan, & Pritchard, 2006).  Research also makes clear that this intimate form of crime covers the broad spectrum of races. Rates of sexual assault among Black, Hispanic, Asian, and White college women appear to be relatively comparable (Abbey, Ross, McDuffie, & McAuslan, 1996; Smith, White & Holland, 2003).  Additionally, one national prevalence study reports that 44% percent of women who self-identify as lesbian, 61% of bisexual women, and 35% of heterosexual women experience rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime (Walters, Chen, & Breiding, 2013).
Sexual Assault: The Impact on Academic Performance for College Women
The literature on sexual assault among college women finds significant health, mental health, and other impacts resulting from the experience (e.g., Amar & Gennaro, 2005; Campbell, Dworkin, & Cabral, 2009; Kaura & Lohman, 2007).  Recently research identified another major effect that should be prominent in the work of institutions of higher education.  That is the association of victimization and academic performance (Jordan, Combs, & Smith, 2014). Research is showing that women exposed to sexual victimization are likely to have lower grade point averages than women without victimization.  
In a study at one flagship university:
  • More than 40% of the women entering the study university as freshmen had an experience of rape or sexual assault during their teen years; an additional 24% experienced sexual victimization in their first semester of college, and another almost 20% were raped or sexually assaulted during their second semester of college.
  • Women with prior teen sexual victimization experiences tended to enter college with lower GPA scores and tended to earn lower grades during their freshman year than did non-victimized women students.
  • Women sexually assaulted during their first semester of college tended to have lower GPAs by the end of the semester than did women without a sexual assault experience during the first semester.
  • The level of negative academic impact on a woman’s academic performance was positively related to the severity of her victimization: Higher rates of GPAs under 2.5 were seen among women for those whose assault experience was a rape as compared to other forms of sexual assault.
The Unique Risk of Sexual Victimization for Freshmen Women: Identification of a “Red Zone”
Some research is now suggesting that not only are college women at risk of sexual assault, there may be a specific time during a semester when that risk is enhanced.  Called "the Red Zone,"  this elevated period of risk refers to the first few weeks of the first semester and suggests that female students are at greatest risk for experiencing unwanted sex during that time (e.g., Cranney, S. 2014; Flack, Caron, et al, 2008; Paul, McManus, & Hayes, 2000).  In one study, first-year women were at higher risk for unwanted sexual experiences early in the fall semester than were second-year women (Kimble, Neacsiu, Flack, & Horner, 2008).  Further, in a U.S. Department of Justice study of nine colleges, the research team found that 629 sexual assaults occurred among first-year students in September and October, a number they found to be more than the assaults that occurred during the next four months combined (Krebs, Lindquist, Warner, Fisher, & Martin, 2007). Gross, Winslett, Roberts, and Gohm (2006) also reported that the risk of sexual victimization for women is highest during their first four semesters on campus.
Higher education publications are now shining a light on the existence of a Red Zone, including Inside Higher Education which summarized the literature in a recent article saying, “the first six to eight weeks of the semester are when more sexual assaults take place than at any other time in the year. First-year female students who are often still in their late teens and have not yet developed a social network on campus are most likely to be victimized during this time” (Bauer-Wolf, 2019).  While research on the presence of a Red Zone is still in its infancy, and it is important to emphasize that even if such a phenomenon is documented fully, the risk of sexual assault is present throughout a woman’s college career.  The Red Zone concept can be an important tool for colleges and universities, however, as they address the unique needs of women arriving on campus as freshmen students.
Resources for Survivors of Sexual Assault
By federal law, any student who is a victim of a sexual assault is entitled to appropriate accommodations for his or her coursework. To get help securing accommodations and other support, students who are assaulted can do any of the following:
  1. In the case of an emergency, contact the UK Police Department at 911.
  2. Tell your instructor who can assist you in accessing resources appropriate to your situation (see UK resources listed below);
  3. Contact the UK VIP Center (Violence Intervention and Prevention Center) at 257-3574 or or or walk in to the Center in Frazee Hall, lower level, between 9:00 am and 5:00 pm;
  4. Contact the University Counseling Center at 257-8701; 2nd floor, Frazee Hall;
  5. Contact Ms. Martha Alexander ( from the UK Institutional Equity and Equal Opportunity at 257-8927; or
  6. Students may also contact community resources 24-hours a day, including:
    • Ampersand: Sexual Violence Resource Center of the Bluegrass (formerly the Bluegrass Rape Crisis Center) at 800.656.HOPE or   
    • GreenHouse17 (formerly Bluegrass Domestic Violence Program) at 800.544.2022 or


Abbey, A., Parkhill, M. R., BeShears, R., Clinton-Sherrod, A. M., & Zawacki, T. (2006). Cross-sectional predictors of sexual assault perpetration in a community sample of single African American and Caucasian men. Aggressive Behavior, 32, 54–67.
Abbey, A., Ross, L. T., McDuffie, D., & McAuslan, P. (1996). Alcohol and dating risk factors for sexual assault among college women. Psychology of Women Quarterly 20, 147–169.
Amar, A. F., & Gennaro, S. (2005). Dating violence in college women: Associated physical injury, health care usage, and mental health symptoms. Nursing Research, 54, 235–242.
Bauer-Wolf, J. (2019). Avoiding the Red Zone. Inside Higher Education, September 12, 2019. 
Belknap, J., & Erez, E. (1995). The victimization of women on college campuses: Courtship violence, date rape, and sexual harassment. In B. S. Fisher, I. Sloan, & J. John (Eds.), Campus crime: Legal, social, and policy perspectives (pp. 156–178). Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas.
Campbell, R., Dworkin, E., & Cabral, G. (2009). An ecological model of the impact of sexual assault on women’s mental health. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 10, 225–246.
Cranney, S. (2014). The relationship between sexual victimization and year in school in U.S. colleges: Investigating the parameters of the “Red Zone.” Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 30(17), 3133 – 3145.
Fisher, B. S., Cullen, F. T., & Turner, M. G. (2000). The sexual victimization of college women. (182369). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs.
Flack, W.F., Caron, M.L. et al. (2008). “The Red Zone”: Temporal risk for unwanted sex among college students.  Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 23(9), 1177 -1196.
Gross, A. M., Winslett, A., Roberts, M., & Gohm, C. L. (2006). An examination of sexual violence against college women. Violence Against Women, 12, 288-300.
Jordan, C.E., Combs, J.L., & Smith, G.T. (2014).  An exploration of victimization and academic performance among college women. Trauma, Violence & Abuse: A Review Journal, 15(3), 191 - 200. doi: 10.1177/1524838014520637.
Kaura, S. A., & Lohman, B. J. (2007). Dating violence victimization, relationship satisfaction, mental health problems, and acceptability of violence: A comparison of men and women. Journal of Family Violence, 22, 367–381.
Kimble, M., Neacsiu, A.D., Flack, W.F., & Barnes, J. (2008). Risk of unwanted sex for college women: Evidence for a Red Zone. Journal of American College Health, 57(3), 331 – 338. 
Krebs, C. P., Lindquist, C. H., Warner, T. D., Fisher, B. S., & Martin, S. L. (2007). The campus sexual assault (CSA) study: Final report. Washington, DC: National Institute of Justice, US Department of Justice.
Paul, E. L., McManus, B., & Hayes, A. (2000). “Hookups”: Characteristics and correlates of college students’ spontaneous and anonymous sexual experiences. The Journal of Sex Research, 37(1), 76 – 88.
Smith, P.H., White, J.W., & Holland, L.J. (2003). A longitudinal perspective on dating violence among adolescent and college-age women. American Journal of Public Health, 93, 1104-1109.
Walters, M.L., Chen J., & Breiding, M.J. (2013). The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS): 2010 Findings on Victimization by Sexual Orientation. Atlanta, GA: National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
White, J. W., & Koss, M. P. (1991). Courtship violence: Incidence and prevalence in a national sample of higher education students. Violence and Victims, 6, 247–256.
Wilcox, P., Jordan, C. E., & Pritchard, A. J. (2006). Fear of acquaintance versus stranger rape as a master status: Towards refinement of the shadow of sexual assault. Violence and Victims, 21, 355–370.
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