Nearly a quarter of undergraduate women have been victims of sexual assault while enrolled in college, but few incidents are ever formally reported to authorities, according to a massive new study of American universities. The findings, released Monday, are just the latest reminder of an uncomfortable truth facing university leaders nationwide: Sexual violence is alarmingly common on college campuses, and most universities are ill-prepared to deal with it.
The Campus Climate Survey by the Association of American Universities is one of the largest studies ever conducted on the topic of college sexual violence, compiling responses from more than 150,000 students at 27 top universities across the country. Overall, 23 percent of undergraduate women said they had been physically forced or threatened with force into unwanted sexual contact. By the time women reached their senior year of college, that figure rose to more than 33 percent. For undergraduate men, about 5 percent said they had been victims of unwanted sexual contact.
“It is shockingly bad, but it is the truth,” U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan told The Washington Post. He described the number of students who experience sexual assault as “unacceptably high,” adding: “We can either hide from that reality or not.”
Though sexual assault has been a pervasive problem on college campuses for decades, it was not until 2007 that university leaders began to recognize the issue as a crisis. That was the year when the National Institute of Justice released its Campus Sexual Assault Study, the landmark report that first gave us the grim “1 in 5” statistic — a figure that was cited last year by the White House’s “It’s On Us” campaign to prevent sexual assault on college campuses. But the AAU survey — one of the first studies of college sexual assault to have both a relatively large number of campuses and a large sample of students at each — puts the incidence even higher, at 1 in 4.
The survey, conducted over a two-week period in April, also offers the most detailed look yet at college students’ experiences with different types of victimization, including nonconsensual sexual contact involving penetration and touching, as well as sexual harassment, stalking, and intimate partner violence.
Some other notable findings from the report:
- Two-thirds of undergraduate females had experienced sexual harassment. No university had fewer than 49 percent of female college students in the survey who had experienced sexual harassment.
- 11 percent of college females had experienced nonconsensual sexual penetration.
- 11.7 percent of all students had experienced sexual assault or battery by force, threat of physical force or incapacitation since enrolling in college.
- One in 10 students in some form of a relationship experienced intimate partner violence, with significantly higher rates among females.
- LGBTQ students experienced far higher rates of sexual assault and harassment. More than 75 percent of LGBTQ students had experienced sexual harassment. By senior year, 39 percent of LGBTQ students had experienced unwanted sexual contact.
- LGBTQ students were twice as likely to have experienced intimate partner violence.
The results of the survey are on par with a number of peer-reviewed studies of campus sexual assault dating back to 1987, when Dr. Mary Koss and colleagues published the first prevalence estimates from a study of 32 American universities, which found that about 25 percent of women had experienced sexual assault during college. More recent studies, like the 2015 Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll, have reported nearly identical findings.
The study also revealed problematic patterns in reporting practices and related beliefs. Only a small percentage of serious incidents—5 to 25 percent—were reported to university officials or another group, such as law enforcement. The most common reason why students didn’t disclose the incident to a person of authority was that they didn’t think the situation was serious enough. And overall, just 39 percent of students thought reporting sexual misconduct would result in campus officials taking action.
The AAU only published the aggregate results from its survey, letting each university decide what they wanted to do with their individual pieces of the dataset. In a surprising move, several of the participating colleges released their campus-specific data this week, with many calling the results “disturbing” and pledging to use the information to guide prevention efforts moving forward.
“The data from these surveys are critical to our work,” said Holly Rider-Milkovich, director of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center at the University of Michigan, where 30 percent of women reported experiencing nonconsensual sexual contact. “The more we know about our community, the better we are able to tailor our programs to be most effective.”
*Check back for updates and additional commentary on the reports. As I’ve mentioned in previous articles, several of my current research projects involve the evaluation of campus sexual assault prevention programs, so I will have a lot more to say about the AAU report in the coming days.