Nearly one in four female undergraduates responding to a survey conducted by the Association of American Universities said that they had been the victim of sexual assault or misconduct, according to eagerly anticipated findings released on Monday.
At the same time, fewer than a third of the respondents reported the incidents, even when they involved rape, to campus or local authorities. The most common reason? The students who didn’t come forward didn’t feel their experiences were serious enough to warrant such a report.
At first glance, the association’s report on its survey would seem to validate the one-in-five figure that other studies have found for the prevalence of sexual assault on college campuses. But most of those previous studies arrived at that statistic looking only at rape and attempted rape, according to several sexual-assault experts interviewed on Monday. The AAU reached that number by including other behaviors, including unwanted touching and kissing.
So it’s unclear whether the new study will put to rest some skeptics’ persistent questions about the one-in-five statistic or whether, instead, it will raise even more questions about how to define, and measure, unwanted sexual contact.
The survey represents one of the largest efforts to gauge the attitudes and experiences of college students with respect to sexual assault and misconduct, AAU officials said on Monday. And they said the 288-page report does, in fact, provide a more-nuanced look at one of the most vexing problems campuses face today, at a time when their responses are being sharply scrutinized by the federal government and criticized by both accusers and the accused.
More than 150,000 students at 27 universities — 26 AAU members and one nonmember, Dartmouth College — responded.
In a call with reporters, the association acknowledged the study’s limitations. With a 19-percent response rate, it left out the experiences of many students, and those who did respond were probably slightly more likely to have experienced sexual violence or misconduct.
Fewer than half of the association’s 62 member institutions participated, with many opting out because they planned to conduct their own studies.
AAU researchers pointed out that the report and its accompanying tables separate the behaviors that some have accused them of lumping together in their findings.
The report provides separate estimates of two types of nonconsensual sexual contact — penetration and sexual touching or kissing. It also looks at four tactics employed by sexual aggressors — actual or threatened physical force, drugs and alcohol, nonphysical coercion, and absence of affirmative consent. And it examines incidents of sexual harassment, stalking, and intimate partner violence.
Tailored or Blurred
Breaking behaviors down in that way will allow campuses to tailor their responses more appropriately, the researchers said.
Still, some outside scholars said those distinctions are blurred by one of the association’s key findings and its version of the one-in-five statistic — that 23 percent of undergraduate women experienced sexual assault or misconduct.
When the casual reader sees that, "they’ll think that means rape, but they don’t realize it might mean some guy rubbed up against you and might have touched your breast with his shoulder," said Mary P. Koss, a professor of public health at the University of Arizona who is a veteran sexual-assault researcher.
Combining so many behaviors in a single statistic makes it hard to compare the AAU’s findings with others, like her own, that produced similar statistics after looking more narrowly at rape and attempted rape, she said.
Among the specific findings in the AAU report:
- Over all, 11.7 percent of respondents reported having experienced "nonconsensual sexual contact by physical force, threats of physical force, or incapacitation" since they enrolled at the university. For females, the rate was 23.1 percent, including 10.8 percent who experienced penetration.
- Only 5 percent to 28 percent reported such an incident to law-enforcement or other authorities. Aside from thinking the problem wasn’t serious enough, students often said they had been embarrassed or ashamed or had felt it would be too hard emotionally to talk about. Many also said they didn’t think anything would be done about their complaint.
- Still, more than six in 10 believed campus officials would take their complaints seriously and 56 percent felt confident that those officials would take steps to keep them safe.
- The rates of sexual assault and misconduct were highest among undergraduate females and those identifying as "transgender, genderqueer or nonconforming, or questioning."
Among those closely watching the results was Jennifer J. Freyd, a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon who conducted a campus-specific study that found that 13 percent of undergraduate women at her university said they had been raped while at the university and more than a quarter had experienced at least one nonconsensual sexual encounter.
She is among dozens of sexual-violence researchers who criticized the AAU study for releasing only aggregate data, not campus-specific findings, and for not, in their view, making the process transparent enough.
Although she disputed the survey’s methodology, Ms. Freyd said she hoped its conclusions would "put to rest this constant chatter of denial" about the prevalence of sexual assault.
One researcher who’s familiar with how touchy statistics can be is John D. Foubert, a rape-prevention advocate and professor of higher education and student affairs at Oklahoma State University.
He helped form a nonprofit organization, One in Four, based on a study that found that that many women survived rape or attempted rape in college.
"When we throw ‘unwanted sexual contact’ into the mix, we risk equating a forced kiss (which is a bad thing obviously) with rape (which is a fundamentally different act)," Mr. Foubert wrote in an email to The Chronicle on Monday.
A Worse Alternative
One reason the association pushed ahead with the survey despite resistance from some of its members is that it felt the likely alternative — a one-size-fits-all survey, developed and mandated by the federal government — would be worse.
The association’s survey was conducted by Westat, a social-science research group, in April and May at 10 private and 16 public universities. Westat hired Bonnie S. Fisher, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Cincinnati, to provide oversight.
They were assisted by a multidisciplinary research team assembled by the AAU and led by Sandra L. Martin, associate dean for research at the Gillings School of Public Health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
The survey was administered to undergraduate, graduate, and professional students, but not to faculty members or administrators. Campus-specific data were provided to each participating institution, which could decide whether, or how, it wanted to disseminate the information.
Universities that have been in the spotlight recently over their handling of sexual-assault allegations were among some of those colleges that released their findings on Monday.
The University of Oregon’s results were similar to the national picture, while the University of Virginia’s painted a bleaker picture, with nearly twice as many students at Virginia viewing sexual assault or misconduct as a serious problem at their institution as the rate reported in the national study. (Also on Monday, UVa resolved a long investigation by the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights, which found that the university had a sexually "hostile environment" as recently as 2012 but had since taken steps to correct that situation.)
UVa’s president, Teresa A. Sullivan, said in an interview that the AAU’s findings might have been influenced in part by the Rolling Stone debacle and the university’s subsequent efforts to improve procedures for handling complaints.
The AAU survey was based, in part, on the survey instrument developed by a White House task force to protect students from sexual assault.
Katherine Mangan writes about community colleges, completion efforts, and job training, as well as other topics in daily news. Follow her on Twitter @KatherineMangan, or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.