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The Issue of Domestic Violence in College Settings We Don't Talk About

Girl in backpack sitting alone

College freshman Karlie Hall had a bright future ahead of her – part of the rugby team and gay-straight alliance club, she also did volunteer work at an animal shelter. She was described by her teachers as “hard-working” and had a part-time job to help pay for college.[1] Karlie was a caring, down-to-earth girl who had future plans in finance, and those around her admired her kindness. 

In 2015, after being seen with a black eye and requesting her university relinquish her boyfriend’s rights on campus[2], Karlie was found strangled in her dorm room. The people in her life weren’t surprised, as she had been showing signs of experiencing domestic abuse, or intimate partner violence, prior to her death. Nothing was ever reported to the authorities, and her university denied her request for protection.

While half of college students know a college friend who has experienced dating abuse, only eight percent see dating abuse as a major problem on their campus.  Along with that, college-aged women (between 16-24) have the highest per capita rate of intimate partner violence.[3] October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, making now an ideal time to learn the warning signs and how you can help if you suspect a friend or loved one is being abused. 

What does intimate partner violence look like?

Most people become acquainted with what domestic violence looks like through movies and TV shows – depictions of women concealing black eyes and other stereotypes. While physical violence such as hitting, choking, and slapping are typical of intimate partner violence, there are less obvious ways someone may abuse their partner. For instance:

  • Controlling who they hang out with
  • Constantly checking in to see where they are
  • Not allowing a partner to do things
  • Going through a partner’s phone without permission
  • Coercing or blackmailing them

Another less obvious type of abuse that is especially prevalent with college students is digital abuse. Along with physical and verbal, digital abuse is more prevalent in today’s society due to the everyday use of technology. College students, while constantly connected to the internet, are at a high risk for digital abuse, such as:

  • Controlling who they can’t and can be friends with on social media
  • Sending negative and threatening messages
  • Demanding constant contact 
  • Pressuring someone into sending explicit videos/pictures
  • Stealing passwords

According to a study by Knowledge Works, 1 in 3 (36 percent) dating college students has given a dating partner their computer, email, or social network passwords, and these students are more likely to experience digital dating abuse.[4] The lack of privacy and trust creates a blurred line between caring and abusive –  not allowing a partner to go hang out with friends because you can't go along and protect them. 

When looking at domestic violence, signs to watch out for are:

  • Accusing their partner of having an affair
  • Telling them what they can and cannot wear
  • Yelling and throwing things
  • Threatening to kill a partner or someone close to them

What contributes to intimate partner violence during college?

Victims of domestic violence are never to blame for the actions of their partner. Oftentimes, an undiagnosed mental illness, such as PTSD and depression, along with drug and alcohol abuse, is the cause of domestic violence. Along with mental illness, there are other factors that contribute to domestic violence, such as stress and financial reasons.  

Students are under immense amounts of stress. From tests and homework to trying to find a job and balancing their relationships and family, it is a stressful point in life and can be a lot to handle. Sixty-one percent of college students are seeking counseling services related to anxiety, depression, stress, and relationship issues,[5]  but this also doesn’t mean that someone with a mental illness is automatically a perpetrator. A study also found that enrolling in college was often seen as a threat to partners who then sometimes used psychological violence in return.[6] 

Stress, anxiety, and anger management aren't the only things that cause domestic violence. Along with ignorance and mental illness, there is also dependency. A recent study shows female students are often financially dependent on partners while in college, which can put them at risk for economic abuse.[7]  

Who is at risk?

Those who are abused have no say in what happens to them and can hold many risk factors that play into domestic violence. Unemployment, drug and alcohol abuse, and a belief in strict gender roles can lead to abusive behavior. Many abusers have violent related trauma in their history, creating a vicious cycle of abuse.  

Even though there is more emphasis on heterosexual relationships, those who are in same-sex, non-binary/gender non-conforming relationships are at higher risk of domestic violence. According to the CDC’s National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS), lesbian women and gay men reported levels of intimate partner violence and sexual violence equal to or higher than those of heterosexuals.[8] Along with LGBTQ+ victims, African American victims are more likely to experience physical intimate partner violence, compared to those who do not identify as Black/African American.[9] The treatment and stigma of the LGBTQ+ community and minorities create more risk for those individuals, especially those attending college.  

Why it continues
Students who are victims of domestic violence and sexual assault are often afraid to speak out against their abuser -- the fear of retaliation, the overwhelming sense of being lonely at college without anyone from home, as well as social status all play into not speaking out. Along with those who are abused, others that know of abuse are hesitant to report it, with 60 percent of people saying they don't feel it’s appropriate to get involved.[10]  

Victims of abuse find it hard to gain freedom within their relationship, not just mentally, but physically as well. During a survey done by Urban Health, an interviewee who had gained employment while in college communicated how her increased independence, “having a job and being out in public,” triggered physical violence and led to her dropping out of college.[11] Regardless of any situation, forcing someone to jeopardize their future/career is abuse and should always be taken seriously. 

Mental illnesses that go untreated are prevalent in abusive relationships, including suicide and death. Knowledge of mental illnesses within the relationship is important to treat and care for, especially due to threats of suicide and self-harm being the number one reason college students stayed in an abusive relationship.[12]  

If you or someone you know has thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

How to prevent it
Intimate partner violence, while prevalent, is preventable. College is a stressful time for students, especially with massive workloads and trying to balance a social life, but that doesn't justify abusive or violent behavior within a relationship. Understanding domestic violence and what it includes helps us better understand how to prevent it. In some cases, the person doesn’t even know they're being abused because there is no violence involved. 

Physical, mental, and digital abuse are indicative of an abusive relationship, and understanding what each individual can do to help is important in ending domestic violence. Abusers often attack their victims at their place of work or other public spaces with severe injury or death to the victim occurring.[13]  Whether behind closed doors or in public, abusive behavior is sometimes ignored by the people around them, making it even more important for people to know how to help.

What bystanders can do: If you suspect violent or abusive behavior, try and scope out the situation. Does the victim look uncomfortable? Do they have any visible wounds? Try to make contact with the victim and see if they need help or try to offer them resources. In an immediate danger situation, call 911. Without directly intervening in the situation, calling 911 is an easy and effective way to help. While strange noises or potential red flags can be easily swept under the rug, a potential life could be saved by dialing just three numbers.

What friends and family can do: According to Knowledge Works, 52 percent of college women report knowing a friend who has experienced violent and abusive dating behaviors including physical, sexual, digital, verbal, or controlling abuse. Sixty percent also believe that it will hurt their relationship with the victim to intervene. It is always more beneficial to seek help to end the abuse, no matter what the situation is. Being aware of what domestic violence is and the correct resources to seek help is crucial, along with providing support and being a safety net.  

What colleges can do: In 2013, the United States Congress established an act requiring all federally funded universities to provide primary prevention for sexual violence and awareness training to all incoming students and employees.[14]  Honoring this program will give students the education they need to understand domestic and sexual violence, along with campus events (Take Back the Night, Denim Day, etc.) that add more awareness on college campuses, creating a stronger fight against domestic violence. 


If someone is being abused or in a violent situation, telling someone could save their life. Talking to a police officer, a trusted professor, the nurse, or even a friend can get someone the help that they need to leave their partner and keep it from happening to others. Campuses are full of resources -- some have a women’s center or even a designated safe place for students to utilize in times of stress. Managing stress and mental health while changing the way society views domestic violence can be the start of ending violence between partners.

The time spent calling an organization could be the time it takes to help someone stop being abused, suicidal or in a bad situation. The resources available on campuses vary, but most can be found at the on-campus wellness center. Other resources outside of campus life include:

The National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255

National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI): 1-800-950-NAMI

The National Sexual Assault Hotline (RAINN): 800-656-HOPE

The Trevor Project: 1-866-488-7386

Trans Lifeline: US: 877-565-8860 / Canada: 877-330-6366

Don’t hesitate to reach out. Whether you’re a friend, family member or even a bystander, it’s on you to be the voice for those who cannot. Victims are never to blame for any situation they are put in, making it harder for them to come forward with their stories. No matter what the situation may be, each person deserves to live a life of freedom and safety, away from the constraints of their partner or anyone else. 


[1]Associated Press. “Pa. Boyfriend Who Fatally Beat College Freshman Karlie Hall Faked CPR Hours Later, Police Say.”,, 10 Feb. 2015,

[2]Knowledge Networks. “College Dating and Abuse Final Study.” Love Is Respect, 2011,

[3]Libertin, Anna. “Domestic and Intimate Partner Violence on College Campuses.” HAWC, 30 Nov. 2017,

[4]Knowledge Networks. “College Dating and Abuse Final Study.” Love Is Respect, 2011,

[5]Winerman, Lea. “By the Numbers: Stress on Campus.” American Psychological Association, American Psychological Association, 2017,

[6]Tsui, Emma K, and E. Karina Santamaria. “Https://” Intimate Partner Violence among Undergraduate Women from an Urban Commuter College: the Role of Navigating Off- and On-Campus Social Environments, June 2015,

[7]Tsui, Emma K, and E. Karina Santamaria. “Https://” Intimate Partner Violence among Undergraduate Women from an Urban Commuter College: the Role of Navigating Off- and On-Campus Social Environments, June 2015,

[8]Center for Disease Control and Prevention. “NISVIS Findings.” National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey. 2010.

[9]National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs. “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and HIV-Affected Intimate Partner Violence in 2015.” Anti-Violence Project, 2015, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and HIV-Affected Intimate Partner Violence in 2015.

[10]Knowledge Networks. “College Dating and Abuse Final Study.” Love Is Respect, 2011,

[11]Tsui, Emma K, and E. Karina Santamaria. “Https://” Intimate Partner Violence among Undergraduate Women from an Urban Commuter College: the Role of Navigating Off- and On-Campus Social Environments, June 2015,

[12]Knowledge Networks. “College Dating and Abuse Final Study.” Love Is Respect, 2011,

[13]Nguyen, Brian. “Don't Be a Bystander: Nine Ways to Intervene If You Witness Abuse.” Break the Silence Against Domestic Violence, 22 Aug. 2017,

[14]Newlands, Rory. “A Critical Review of Sexual Violence Prevention on College Campuses.” Acta Psychopathologica, IMedPub, 2 Apr. 2016,


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