One in Four?

AAU survey of 150,000 students finds that nearly a quarter of female students have experienced some kind of sexual assault in college. Survey backs controversial 1-in-5 statistic, but critics have concerns over survey's response rate and sample.

 

September 22, 2015
 

Nearly one-quarter of female undergraduate students who responded to a survey created by the Association of American Universities said they have experienced a sexual assault of some kind since enrolling in college. While the survey includes a broader definition of sexual assault than some researchers on the topic advocate using, it also breaks down types of sexual assault and found that 11 percent of female students reported that the sexual assault involved penetration.

The survey found that 11.7 percent of students of all genders at the 27 institutions who participated in the study said they have been assaulted, with the highest rates being among undergraduate women and students who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, nonconforming or genderqueer. About three-quarters of sexual assault cases were never reported to law enforcement or university officials.

More than 24 percent of undergraduate students identifying as genderqueer reported experiencing a sexual assault, as did about 5 percent of male students. Half of all respondents said they have been sexually harassed.

In addition, the survey asked students about incidents of sexual assault specifically involving a lack of affirmative consent, a definition of consent that a growing number of colleges are adopting. The survey asked if students experienced "penetration or oral sex without [their] active, ongoing voluntary agreement." More than 11 percent of female undergraduate students said they had been assaulted in this fashion, as well as nearly 15 percent of students identifying as transgender or genderqueer.

"We didn't have a clear sense what the results would turn out to be," Hunter Rawlings, president of the AAU, said Monday. "This whole area is new in terms of real research, so we're trying to add to a body of research that's really just beginning to be understood. I do think most presidents and chancellors did not have clear expectations of what students would actually say. That's why we're appreciative of the extent of these questions, and particularly by the very careful definitions."

The AAU announced in November that it had contracted with a research firm, Westat, to develop and carry out the campus climate survey for any of its member institutions that wanted to participate. The association said at the time that one goal of the project was to fend off congressional efforts to require colleges and universities to annually survey their students about the prevalence of sexual assault.

When the survey was first announced, it was criticized by several dozen scholars who study sexual violence as well as some victims’ advocates for, among other things, not pledging to release campus-by-campus data and instead sharing only aggregate data. The majority of those institutions do plan on releasing individual survey results in the coming weeks, and several colleges released their results on Monday.

Critics also said the process lacked transparency and input from enough scientists who study sexual assaults on campuses. The survey's design committee did include several researchers from participating institutions. Students at some institutions complained that the survey questions were too detailed and sexually explicit, though other sexual assault researchers generally supported the use of the more specific language.

Mollie Benz Flounlacker, AAU's associate vice president of federal relations, said that the association's results demonstrate the importance of campus climate surveys, but that the AAU and its members are still worried about federal efforts that would mandate such surveys.

"We have concerns with the way current legislation would basically mandate the Education Department, without any outside expertise, to develop one survey for all of higher education across the country," Flounlacker said. "We want to make sure at the end of the day that any reference in the legislation to surveys is such that it's credible, accurate and useful for the public."

Only 26 of the 60 AAU member campuses, plus nonmember Dartmouth College, decided to participate in the survey.. Even with just 27 participating institutions and a response rate below what the researchers had hoped for (less than 20 percent of students responded), the survey still collected responses from more than 150,000 students, making it one of the largest research efforts of its kind.

While some, including Arne Duncan, the U.S. secretary of education, praised the large undertaking, others pushing for changes in how campuses handle sexual assault were less impressed.

“I read any study with a healthy dose of skepticism, in order to avoid any knee-jerk reaction on my part if what I know currently is being validated or questioned,” said John Foubert, a professor of higher education and student affairs at Oklahoma State University and founder of the sexual assault prevention program One in Four. “By design, an AAU report is taken only from schools in the AAU. This biases the findings toward more elite, large institutions.”

The AAU and Westat researchers similarly cautioned against viewing the results as a national or random sample. Foubert also criticized the survey for its low response rate and for “throwing unwanted sexual contact into the mix,” adding that he believes doing so "risks equating a forced kiss with rape."

The survey used a broad definition of sexual assault -- referred to as “nonconsensual sexual contact” -- that included sexual touching or kissing, as well as penetration. Like other surveys that use this definition, the results bolster the widely used though often debated one-in-five statistic. Separate surveys at the University of Michigan and Rutgers University recently reached similar conclusions.

Unlike many other campus climate surveys, however, the AAU report also includes data specifically about sexual assault involving penetration.

About 23 percent of female undergraduate students across the 27 institutions reported experiencing “nonconsensual penetration or sexual touching by force or incapacitation” since enrolling. Nearly 11 percent reported experiencing sexual assault involving penetration.

“This confirms that when doing these kinds of surveys, it’s important to make those distinctions when publishing victimization rates,” said David Cantor, vice president of Westat. “Providing this level of detail is fairly unique among campus climate surveys. We had requests from the universities to try and differentiate between incidents that are clearly quite different in nature.”

While the aggregate data for the 27 campuses point to nearly a quarter of undergraduate women experiencing sexual assault of some kind while enrolled in college, results varied by institution. The AAU report does not list individual survey results, but it does state that rates of sexual assault for undergraduate women at the participating institutions ranged from 13 percent to 30 percent.

About half of the institutions reported rates of 19 to 24 percent.

Several of the participating colleges also released their campus-specific data this week, with many saying that the results were “disturbing” and that the information would be used to guide prevention efforts moving forward. Officials stopped short of announcing any new policies based on the survey's findings.

“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.”

Laura Dunn, founder of victims' advocacy group SurvJustice, said it is “heartening” to see a survey measure rates among different types of students on campus, such as those identifying as gay or transgender. Dunn said the survey falls short, however, in helping institutions know more about one particular group: the students committing sexual assault.

Focusing on just victimization, she said, only reveals information about the "symptoms rather than the cause of sexual violence," so surveys should also include questions about who is committing the assaults, as well as when and where. 

“Noticeably missing for collected data was information about perpetrators, which is an essential data point for fashioning effective prevention education efforts,” Dunn said. “That data would also have implications on necessary training for campus investigators and adjudicators. Unfortunately, the AAU survey, like several studies before it, focuses squarely on victims to gain information on sexual assault. We should invest in addressing this epidemic at its roots rather than merely pruning the limbs of its aftermath."

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