"I didn't want to be 'that girl"': The social risks of labeling, telling, and reporting sexual assault

Shamus R. Khan, Jennifer S. Hirsch, Alexander Wamboldt, Claude A. Mellins

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

75 Scopus citations


This article deploys ethnographic data to explain why some students do not label experiences as sexual assault or report those experiences. Using ideas of social risks and productive ambiguities, it argues that not labeling or reporting assault can help students (1) sustain their current identities and allow for several future ones, (2) retain their social relationships and group affiliations while maintaining the possibility of developing a wider range of future ones, or (3) avoid derailing their current or future goals within the higher educational setting, or what we call "college projects." Conceptually, this work advances two areas of sociological research. First, it expands the framework of social risks, or culturally specific rationales for seemingly illogical behavior, by highlighting the interpersonal and institutional dimensions of such risks. Second, it urges researchers to be more attentive to contexts in which categorical ambiguity or denial is socially productive and to take categorical avoidance seriously as a subject of inquiry. Substantively, this work advances knowledge of why underreporting of campus sexual assault occurs, with implications for institutional policies to support students who have experienced unwanted nonconsensual sex regardless of how those students may label what happened.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)432-460
Number of pages29
JournalSociological Science
StatePublished - 2018
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Social Sciences(all)


  • College/university
  • Gender
  • Labeling
  • Reporting
  • Sexual assault
  • Sexual violence


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