This week, the Association of American Universities released the results of a nationwide campus climate survey exploring campus violence. This survey was the largest of its kind and reached 150,000 students from 27 colleges and universities. We applaud the AAU and the individual campuses for investing the time and resources into this thoughtful survey that continues to illuminate our understanding of campus sexual violence.
The survey confirmed much of what we already know: sexual violence is unacceptably high on college campuses. It found that 16.5 percent of seniors experienced sexual contact involving penetration or sexual touching as a result of physical force or incapacitation. The rates for women and students identifying as TGQN were higher; 26.1% and 29.5% respectively.
But what makes this survey interesting – and potentially game-changing – goes beyond this attention-grabbing (though not new) headline. The survey confirmed that not all campuses are created equal when it comes to sexual violence.
- Sexual violence is more prevalent on some college campuses than on others, The rates of prevalence for sexual violence across the 27 campuses surveyed by the AAU ranged from 13% to 30%.
- Reporting rates vary from campus to campus as well. For example, overall, victims reported physically forced penetration at 25.5%, but with variations from 17% to 53%, depending on the campus.
While there is clearly a need for improvements across the board, these findings indicate that some campuses are doing better at creating climates that prevent and respond to sexual violence. What can we learn from the campuses who are clearly doing something right? How do we balance learning best practices and identifying bright spots with taking corrective action through government or legal action?
The survey also illustrated the importance of educating and training all students on campus to respond and prevent sexual violence. While formal reporting rates were low, over half of victims (50-85%) reported the incident to a friend or other unofficial ally. These community members and friends can be an important part of a survivor’s pathway to healing and justice. Additionally, a significant percentage of students reported witnessing a drunk student heading for a sexual encounter or an incidence of sexual violence or misconduct. More than half did nothing at all. Bystander intervention is 100% teachable, but it’s not going to happen in an hour-long orientation during freshman week.
Finally, it’s important to mention two critical pieces that this survey left out:
- First, the survey doesn’t ask anything about off-campus resources that students may have accessed to provide support, advice, or counseling as a result of sexual violence that took place on campus. This omission reveals a missed opportunity for many college campuses – partnerships with local organizations with deep experience supporting survivors of sexual violence. For example, in Boston, I know that the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center is a key partner for college administrators and student groups. On a daily basis, they interact with college students and alumni coming to terms with sexual violence that takes place on campus. This is an untapped resources for many college campuses with a local rape crisis center.
- Second, many students come to campus already having been sexually abused or assaulted. This survey does not explore or confirm the degree to which campus services ought to consider these experiences, and create a supportive and healing environment. Off-campus organizations like the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center can also offer services for survivors of all kinds of sexual violence, whether it takes place in college, high school, or as a child.
We know that no single survey can answer every question about a sensitive issue like sexual violence in definitive ways. That’s why we hope leaders will keep pushing for data, climate assessments, and other ways of understanding this issue.
If you are a leader in the field, take a moment to read the full report this week. It’s critical information that will inform the movement in the coming months and years. And if you are an interested student or alumnus, I’d encourage you to at least read the executive summary.