About the Author

Claudia Howell

Claudia is a second year doctoral student studying Counselor Education and Supervision. She holds a Master’s degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Clemson University and is a National Certified Counselor. Claudia’s research interests include multicultural competence of clinical supervisors and counselors as well as pedagogical practices that incorporate social justice and advocacy practices. More about Claudia...

In the United States, universities address issues of student conduct for students that live both on and off campus. Do the universities in Switzerland address infractions in student behavior?Claudia


Much like other areas of life, my decision to research sexual assault in the context of the European Higher Education system was influenced by my Western perspective. There has been such a strong movement toward sexual assault prevention in the United States in the past year, and I concluded to research this topic in Switzerland under the assumption that sexual assault was an issue there as well. This was a faulty assumption; however, the discussions that resulted from my research were enlightening in different ways than I expected. In this chapter, I will define sexual assault, outline the present contexts of sexual assault in the United States and Switzerland, and describe the themes that I uncovered through my dialogue about this topic.

Policies against sexual assault on university campuses in the United States

A United States-based organization, Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), define sexual assault as “sexual contact or behavior that occurs without explicit consent of the victim” (Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, n.d). The organization specifies that the perpetrator may use force beyond physical force, including psychological/emotional coercion to manipulation a victim. Additionally, the majority of sexual assaults are committed by someone that the victim knows (RAINN, n.d). Four-year higher education institutions in the United States possess structural factors that make these universities susceptible to increased rates of sexual assault (Kimmel, 2014).

For instance, Kimmel (2014) notes that four-year universities are more likely to embrace a fraternity culture. An analysis of the norms and dynamics of this culture revealed an adherence to a narrow, stereotypical conception of masculinity; a preoccupation with loyalty and need to protect the group; pervasive violence; and an obsession with superiority and dominance (Yancey Martin & Hummer, 1989). Through their study, the authors assert that the combination of superiority, masculinity, competition and the use of women as sexual objects contribute to a cultural climate that tolerates, if not subliminally encourages, sexual assault.

An additional structural factor of four-year universities is the varsity level collegiate sports programs. In 2010, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), which is the governing body for collegiate sport programs, laid the groundwork for a committee to address sexual assault and interpersonal violence in collegiate sport. In 2014, the organization published a handbook entitled “Addressing Sexual Assault and Interpersonal Violence: Athletics’ Role in Support of Healthy and Safe Campuses”, which outlined the ways in which athletics departments needed to play an integral role in addressing and decreasing sexual assault and interpersonal violence on campuses (NCAA, 2014). Interestingly, many of premises that underlie collegiate sports are similar to those of fraternities: competition, dominance, loyalty to a group, and masculinity.

One final structural factor that has been hypothesized as increasing the rates of sexual assaults on four-year university campuses involves the living situation of students and subsequent university involvement in behavioral infractions. Many of the undergraduate students that attend four-year universities live on campus. For example, Virginia Tech offers housing for 9,300 students (Housing and Residence Life, 2015). Students living in such close proximity of one another increase the chances of sexual assault that is committed against a student by another student. Because these students reside on university property, universities have become responsible for addressing student behavioral infractions, including sexual assault. Universities have designated offices on campus to address behavioral issues as well as support students that may be in need.

Clearly, the topic of sexual assault on university campuses in the United States has gained attention in the recent months and in April 2014, the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault reported that one in five women are sexually assaulted in college. Additionally, the American Civil Liberties Union estimates that 95% of sexual assaults committed are never reported. Campuses are taking more stringent measures to ensure student safety, such as instituting trainings for employees and student groups, educating students on sexual assault prevention and allocating campus resources to support these initiatives. The goal driving this movement is not only a decrease in sexual assaults but also an increase in the support provided by campuses.

Less structural opportunities for sexual assaults in Switzerland?

In Switzerland, I learned that the context is different, which may be contributing to the smaller numbers of sexual assaults on campuses. Through dialogue with students, faculty members, and administrators at various universities in Switzerland, I explored several factors, as well as cultural variables, that appear to be playing a role in the lower instances of sexual assault. The general message I received was that sexual assaults at universities are not a problem in Switzerland, and I was offered several possible options as to why.

When I asked about fraternity life, I was informed that the fraternity culture as we know them in the US does not exist in Switzerland. I opened the question up more broadly to ask about general student clubs or organizations, and the students from the University of Basel shared that few clubs existed compared to the schools in the United States. Of the clubs that existed, many of these were academically related, such as an honor society. The students reported that social events mainly take place in the city, rather than being hosted by the university, and that many students prefer to engage socially through experiences that are not university related. Meaning, the emphasis on student social engagements are independently initiated by students or groups of students, rather than the university.

This concept of student-centered services differing significantly from the United States model was further proven by a professor at SUPSI who stated that there is a Gender Office that acts as a liaison for student victims, but he was unclear how utilized the office was by students. Additionally, at ETH, we were informed that very little of the student budget was got into student services. This is in stark contrast to the United States model, in which numerous offices are responsible for providing various services to students that range from opportunities for civic engagement to counseling services.

These student services that are offered on collegiate campuses in the United States promote connectedness of the students to the college campus and allow students to wrap their identity around the university. For example, those enrolled at Virginia Tech first identify as VT students, then citizens of Blacksburg. Often, students may not even identify as being a citizen of the city because they recognize that they will not remain in the community once they obtain their degree. This is different in the Swiss system where the students are perceived as being members of the larger community, rather than having their identity fixed solidly on being a student of a university. Andres at ETH demonstrated this concept when he stated, “Students are mature adults, voting citizens. They are expected to handle their own lives, except in the classroom.” This conceptual model of citizens before students may be impacting the low reports of sexual misconduct between students because the larger communities, rather than the universities, handle student conduct matters. At the University of Zurich, I was informed that sexual assaults committed by or on a student are reported to the police, whereas the university handles academic infractions. This was confirmed at ETH, where the Academic Vice Dean manages academic dishonesty.


The United States has experienced a recent push toward addressing and preventing sexual assaults on college campuses. Universities have witnessed a rise in reports of sexual misconduct among students and have developed committees and new policies that aim to support victims of sexual assault. There has been evidence that suggests that several cultural factors exist on college campuses that promote sexual assault. In Switzerland, the cultural is different and the people that I spoke with reported a lack or even absence of sexual assault on campuses. I cannot definitively say that sexual assaults are occurring at lesser rates in Switzerland universities; possible reporting issues and the fact that universities are not involved in student conduct matters beyond academic may be greatly influencing the opinions about rates of sexual assault. What I can definitively say is that several cultural variables differ between the higher education systems, and may be contributing to the variation in focus. I am hopeful that both systems of higher education continue to learn from one another so that both may benefit.


Housing and Residence Life, Virginia Tech (2015). About Housing and Residence Life. Retrieved from http://www.housing.vt.edu/about/about_housing_residence_life.html

Kimmel, M. (2014, August 24). A recipe for sexual assault: Certain structural factors appear to make rape especially prevalent on some college campuses. The Atlantic. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2015/08/what-makes-a-campus-rape-prone/402065/

NCAA (2014)

RAINN (n.d.)

Stark, R. (2014). NCAA releases new handbook addressing sexual assault. Retrieved from http://www.ncaa.org/about/resources/media-center/news/ncaa-releases-new-handbook-addressing-sexual-assault

Yancey Martin, P. and Hummer R. A. (1989). Fraternities and Rape on Campus. Gender & Society, 3(4), 457-473.