University Definitions of Prohibited Conduct

Leanna Papp led this project, with the goal to understand how many terms were in use to describe sexual assault 2016, and how the specific term “sexual assault” was defined across and within schools. We collected and analyzed publicly available sexual misconduct policies from our sample of 381 schools. We focused our attention on a single document per school and opted, when possible, to code sexual misconduct policies (SMPs) or similar standalone policies (e.g., Title IX policies).

Through our research, we documented a “conceptual morass” around sexual assault; more specifically, we found that beyond a handful of highly-used terms, more than 100 terms related to sexual assault were used by very few or only one school. Not only were the defined terms inconsistent across policies, but definitions of “sexual assault” also varied between and within schools. Most schools had a broad definition of “sexual assault,” meaning that the term was used to describe a range of assaultive behavior and was not limited to penetrative acts. Some schools used a narrow definition of “sexual assault,” where sexual assault was defined explicitly as some form of non-consensual penetration. Our findings illustrate a lack of shared understanding in higher education of what sexual assault is and how to describe it in policies. While only higher education policies were coded, our findings mirror misunderstandings among the general public regarding sexual assault and other forms of harassment.

Our next step is to identify patterns in the data. We are curious about how schools “hang together” in their adoption of specific terms. We will explore factors such as geographical location, enrollment, and endowment.


Leanna J. Papp, Kamaria B. Porter, Elizabeth A. Armstrong & Sandra R. Levitsky (20 October 2020). The Conceptual Morass of Sexual Misconduct Terminology in Higher Education. National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, Action Collaborative on Preventing Sexual Assault in Higher Education: 2020 Public Summit, University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee. [Poster presentation].

Team Members:

Acknowledgements: Olivia Drlik, undergraduate research assistant

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