What Kinds of Sexual Misconduct Can Colleges Punish?


Colleges and universities that receive federal funding are required to be in compliance with Title IX, which means that those colleges and universities must have procedures in place for receiving formal complaints concerning sexual misconduct, and investigating allegations of sexual misconduct. The language of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 does not expressly address the term sexual misconduct, but the law’s prohibition against discrimination on the basis of sex includes sexual harassment and other forms of sexual misconduct. The law states that “no person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” 

Colleges and universities across the country have incorporated prohibitions against discrimination under Title IX into codes of conduct, including policies about student sexual misconduct. When a college or university refers to sexual misconduct or addresses the consequences of sexual misconduct, you might be wondering what types of behavior are included. More immediately, you may be wondering what kinds of sexual misconduct colleges can punish. 

Sexual Misconduct is a Broad Term That Can Include a Wide Range of Actions

When colleges and universities develop policies concerning student sexual misconduct, they are often referring to a wide range of actions or behaviors that can be punished under the student code of conduct or by other mechanisms at the institution. Some colleges and universities expressly defined what constitutes sexual misconduct in their student handbooks or in a code of conduct, while others may simply clarify that Title IX prohibits sexual misconduct and that students can face consequences if they are found responsible for sexual misconduct.

According to the American Association of University Women (AAUW), definitions of sexual misconduct under Title IX can be understood to include all of the following:

  • Sexual harassment
  • Sexual violence
  • Rape
  • Sexual assault
  • Unwanted sexual conduct
  • Unwanted sexual advances
  • Requests for sexual favors
  • Verbal conduct of a sexual nature
  • Nonverbal conduct of a sexual nature
  • Physical conduct of a sexual nature
  • Verbal aggression
  • Nonverbal aggression
  • Physical aggression
  • Intimidation based on sex
  • Hostility based on sex
  • Sex stereotyping

Some states require student codes of conduct to include a requirement of affirmative consent prior to any sexual activity. Without affirmative consent, a student could face sexual misconduct allegations and could be found responsible for sexual misconduct at their college or university. A variety of states have adopted affirmative consent laws, including California, Connecticut, Illinois, and New York.

Consequences for Sexual Misconduct

Students are typically punished for sexual misconduct when a complainant files a Title IX complaint or makes a report. Institutions must have processes for investigating Title IX violations. Accordingly, allegations of any of the above forms of sexual misconduct, or any other acts that a school specifically identifies in a policy or code of conduct, can result in a student being found responsible for a Title IX violation.

Punishment for a Title IX violation involving sexual misconduct can include suspension or expulsion in additional to a number of other penalties. If you have been accused of sexual misconduct, it is important to seek advice from a college sexual misconduct attorney.