Social Constructions of Rape at Columbia University and Barnard College, 1955-90

Desiree Abu-Odeh, Shamus Khan, Constance A. Nathanson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


Sex on college campuses has fascinated scholars, reporters, and the public since the advent of coeducational higher education in the middle of the nineteenth century. But the emergence of rape on campus as a public problem is relatively recent. This article reveals the changing social constructions of campus rape as a public problem through a detailed examination of newspaper reporting on this issue as it unfolded at Columbia University and Barnard College between 1955 and 1990. Adapting Joseph R. Gusfield's classic formulation of public problem construction, we show the ways police and other judicial and law enforcement authorities, feminists, university faculty, student groups, university administrators, and health professionals and institutions have struggled over ownership of how the problem should be defined and described, attribution of responsibility for addressing the problem, and prescriptions for what is to be done. Our findings show how beginning in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the simultaneous swelling of the women's liberation movement and the exponential integration of women into previously male-dominated institutions of higher education and medicine catalyzed the creation of new kinds of knowledge, institutions, and expertise to address rape and sexual violence more broadly on college campuses. New actors-feminists and health professionals-layered frames of gender and health over those of crime and punishment to fundamentally transform how we understand rape on campus, and beyond.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)355-379
Number of pages25
JournalSocial Science History
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jun 1 2020
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • History
  • Social Sciences (miscellaneous)


  • crime
  • health
  • higher education
  • rape
  • sexual violence
  • social construction


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