Facebook Twitter

The disturbing reality of unwanted sex on college campuses

A new survey on sexual assault and misconduct on college campuses says 13% of respondents experienced sexual contact to which they had not consented since enrolling in college.

SHARE The disturbing reality of unwanted sex on college campuses
merlin_15043.jpg

McKenzie Jensen explores the Clothesline Project at Utah Valley University in Orem on Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2018.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — A new survey on sexual assault and misconduct on college campuses says 13% of respondents experienced sexual contact to which they had not consented since enrolling in college.

And while more students know how to report sexual assault than did in a 2015 survey, most still do not report it to law enforcement. Nor do they in high numbers avail themselves of campus programs offered to assault victims.

The survey results are both heartening and disturbing, according to Association of American Universities president Mary Sue Coleman, who wrote in the foreward that the rate of sexual assault and misconduct has increased slightly, based on self-reports, over the last four years. “Some groups of students — including women, non-cisgender students and others — continue to be victimized at disproportionately high rates,” she said.

“The 2019 Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Misconduct” focused on nonconsensual sexual contact involving physical force or the inability to consent. The report, conducted by the Association of American Universities, follows a similar survey in 2015 to assess the prevalence of sexual assaults at colleges nationwide. The recent survey included responses from 181,752 students at 33 colleges and universities, but the report authors note the numbers cannot be generalized to all colleges nationwide.

Problematic sex on college campuses is not limited to physical assault or being unable to give consent, either. Tuesday, the Council on Contemporary Families published an online symposium under the banner “Defining Consent,” with experts from different universities looking at different aspects of nonconsensual sex on college campuses.

That’s a topic more nuanced than some consider, said Stephanie Coontz, the director of research and education for the council. While rape and physical force are sexual crimes requiring swift punishment, unwanted sex and even sexual misunderstandings can create upheaval and long-term impact for those who experience it.

“We need to come up with a much better toolkit to deal with and hopefully prevent different kinds of sexual harms on campus,” she added.

Campus count

Of the 21 campuses in both association surveys, sexual assault by force or inability to consent actually rose between 2015 and 2019, though the report said it could be a matter of more awareness.

In those schools, 26.4% of undergraduate women responding said they had experienced nonconsensual sex through force or inability to consent (up 3%). The rate for graduate and professional women was 10.8% (up 2.4%). Undergraduate men reported an increase of 1.4% to 6.9% in 2019. The rates for students who don’t identify as cisgender were unchanged at 23.1% for undergraduates and 14.6% for graduate/professional students.

merlin_15047.jpg

Nonconsensual sexual contact at college, 2019

Association of American Universities Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct

According to Coleman, it’s especially important to aim educational efforts at incoming freshmen who are “clearly more vulnerable to sexual assault and misconduct than their older classmates.”

The council symposium noted large variation in campus sexual assault counts, ranging from 1 in 5 to 1 in 3 women and 1 in 6 men. One study in the series said just 2% of cases are prosecuted by universities or law enforcement.

College-age women are less likely than most to report any unwanted sexual contact for various reasons, Coontz said. Those reasons could include that the victim may have been drinking or may share a friend network with the other individual. And college is a tricky time for emerging adults. Not counting outright, predatory rape or sexual assault, many young people find themselves in a new situation, transitioning to adulthood and exploring erotic interactions. Some may not figure out how to disengage from an interaction that has gone further than the individual is comfortable with, she said.

Because the link between sexual assault and drinking is well-known, Coontz said some campuses have outlawed alcohol, raising concerns that doesn’t address the problem but drives it “off-campus to more dangerous locations.” And it increases the risk, she said, that individuals won’t report sexual assault on campus if they fear being disciplined for reporting details about the assault that include drinking.

A public health dilemma?

Columbia University experts suggest taking a public health, prevention-focused approach to sexual assault on campus, which is “not one thing, it is many things.” Jennifer S. Hirsch, professor of Sociomedical Sciences, and Shamus Khan, professor and chairman of the Department of Sociology, said campuses typically focus on two ideas. The first is that campuses are a “hunting ground” and if you can find and deal with sociopath predators, all will be well. This second is coming up with fair adjudication in “he said/she said” cases, such as those where the parties agree sex occurred but tell different versions of consent.

It is also important to look at young people’s relationships in terms of patterns of harmful behavior and the systems that create or influence them, they said. They liken it to tackling smoking: You go after why people smoke, and where they smoke, and what will lead people to not start smoking or to quit.

Their broadened look at why assaults occur included sexual knowledge, the attitudes and behaviors about sex young adults learned growing up, students’ relationships in campus communities and power dynamics in relationships. They also looked at “how physical spaces, drinking patterns and peer groups create particularly types of opportunities for sex while affecting how sex is interpreted and defined by those having it.”

For instance, if the only place young people can hang out on campus after-hours is a dorm room with a single bed, that’s potentially problematic. Columbia University has one dining hall on campus that’s open all night “providing a warm and welcoming atmosphere for students who want to hang out together and now have someplace to do so other than one person’s bedroom.”

Teaching women how to reject sex reduces unwanted sex as well. They wrote that “refusal-skills training” halved the one-year risk of being raped, according to one Canadian study, compared to those with no such training.

Stalking and other campus worries

merlin_15051.jpg

Nonconsensual sexual contact at college, 2019

Association of American Universities Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct

The association report also looked at sexual harassment, intimate partner violence and stalking. The report noted that among all students at the 33 schools, nearly 42% said they’d experienced at least one sexually harassing behavior since enrollment. Nearly 1 in 5 reported a degree of harassment that “interfered” with their school or work lives, made them less active in their academic program or created an intimidating, hostile or offensive environment.

Ten percent said they experienced some form of intimate partner violence. And nearly 6% reported having been stalked.

The online symposium also examines restorative justice, consent vs. “consentualish” response by someone who doesn’t want sex but doesn’t know how to express that and other related topics.