How Prevalent Is Sexual Misconduct on College Campuses?

It is commonly reported that one in five women is sexually assaulted in college. That statistic has been widely publicized but also widely criticized.

As increasing awareness is raised about the problems of sexual assault in on college campus, more people inside and outside the college community want to know exact the nature and extent of the problem. Is the 1-in-5 statistic accurate? Is it high? Or is it low?

Just last year in its “First Report of the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault” the White House called for campus climate surveys and offered a toolkit to help colleges and universities design a survey for their campuses. Senators Claire McCaskill and Kirsten Gillibrand have also pushed for annual surveys on sexual assault with Sen. McCaskill sending a survey of her own to 350 colleges and universities to gather information not just on prevalence of sexual assault but also on prevention and response efforts. The American Association for Universities (AAU) created its own campus climate survey and 27 colleges and universities participated in it. The AUU released its findings yesterday, as did several participants, including the University of Arizona.

So, is 1-in-5 high, or is it low?

The answer is, it’s complicated. Also, definitions and language matter.

The broader AAU report found: “The percentage of students who report nonconsensual sexual contact varies greatly by the type of sexual contact (penetration or sexual touching) and whether or not it involves physical force, alcohol or drugs, coercion, or absence of affirmative consent.” According to the survey results, about 1 in 5 students overall reported they experienced some form of unwanted sexual contact. About 1 in 10 reported assault involving penetration.

The University of Arizona’s numbers are fairly in line with the broader survey results. At the U of A, about 13% of students reported experiencing sexual assault or sexual misconduct.

Apart from giving overall numbers that are both staggering to think about and consistent with past studies, the survey have also highlighted that the number of students who report experiencing some form of sexual misconduct does not match the number of students who report their concerns to the school, to law enforcement, or to both. It tracks with the National Institute of Justice which notes that “[m]any experts believe that rape and other forms of sexual assault are among the most underreported crimes.”

There are many reasons individuals who experience sexual misconduct do not report the incident. A TIME article on “Why Victims of Rape in College Don’t Report to the Police” identifies four major reasons related to police that are also applicable to reporting to schools: 1) not wanting anyone to know/fear of social retaliation; 2) not understanding whether what happened constitutes “rape”; 3) being afraid they won’t be believed; and 4) not knowing how much control they will have over the process.

One particular statistic from the University of Arizona stands out in relation to the second and fourth reasons. According to the survey results, only about 8.3% of students reported knowing what happens when a student makes a report of sexual assault or sexual misconduct.

Under Title IX, every school must have policies and procedures in place for responding to reports of sexual misconduct. That the policies exist does not necessarily mean that individuals know where to go and what will happen to them after they report they have witnessed or experienced sexual misconduct or after they have been accused of misconduct.

If students do not know what will happen after a report of misconduct, what does that say about what they understand about their rights and the school’s responsibilities in handling a report? Do they know what support and assistance options are available to them if they have been impacted by sexual violence? Do they understand, let alone have confidence in, the process that will investigate the allegations? Do the students understand their options, not only for reporting, but for situations where the school does not appropriately or adequately handle the report?

The survey results are an important step in identifying the nature and scope of the problem. However, the survey is only one step in a journey to ensuring students, faculty, and staff live, work, and learn at colleges and universities that work tirelessly to keep them safe and treat them fairly.

By Alexandra Tracy-Ramirez, HopkinsWay PLLC. | © HopkinsWay PLLC 2015. All rights reserved.

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