Rape on campus: 1 in 4 women report enduring sexual assault, survey finds

An extensive survey of 150,000 students at 27 universities suggests that nearly 25 percent of college women have endured nonconsensual sexual contact while in college.

Paul Vernon/AP
Vice President Joe Biden holds up a shirt before speaking at an It's On Us event on the Ohio State University campus in Columbus, Ohio, Sept. 17. Mr. Biden was speaking about the importance of preventing sexual assault on college campuses. A major new study finds that a quarter of undergraduate women at more than two dozen universities experienced unwanted sexual contact at some point during their college career. The survey by the Association of American Universities comes at a time of heightened public awareness and increased scrutiny of what schools are doing to combat sexual assault on campus. More than 150,000 undergraduate, graduate and professional students at the organization’s member schools participated.

A survey on sexual assault and misconduct that included responses from more than 150,000 students at 27 universities shows that nearly a quarter of women reported nonconsensual sexual contact by physical force, threats of physical force, or incapacitation while enrolled at a university.

Conducted in April and May of this year and released Monday, results showed that 11.7 percent of students overall experienced misconduct with the incidence among undergraduate females at 23.1 percent and 5.4 percent for male undergraduates. About 1 in 10 female students say they have experienced sexual assault involving penetration, by force or incapacitation, while in college.

The survey, created by the social sciences firm Westat and implemented by the Association of American Universities (AAU), is one of the largest surveys ever done on campus rape and shows a slightly higher prevalence than the oft-cited 1 in 5 percentage found in previous studies (though survey data sets are notoriously difficult to compare because of margins of error and differences in methodology). The new study fell generally in line with past surveys' findings that alcohol and drugs often play in sexual assault and misconduct.

AAU President Hunter Rawlings says university leaders hope the results will help policymakers as they develop legislative and administrative responses to combat sexual assault on college campuses. It is that hope that caused pushback from critics, who called the survey rushed, and questioned the $85,000 per school price tag.

Sarah Cook, a researcher who has criticized the AAU survey and associate dean of the honors college at Georgia State University, said the study was being deployed "awfully fast" back in April, in an interview with the Huffington Post, which reported extensively on the survey’s implementation.

"Given what [AAU President] Hunter Rawlings said in terms of using this opportunity to get ahead of federal mandates, it doesn't seem that the survey is being conducted for the purpose of understanding, but in terms of checking the box off in terms of compliance," she said, referring to Mr. Rawlings' statement that he wanted the AAU to conduct its survey before a "one size fits all" version was federally mandated.

Following the release of the survey results from the first 27 participating schools, the AAU has said it will offer its survey tools for free going forward.

"We hope the data our universities have collected in this survey will help guide their policies and practices as they work to address and prevent sexual assault and sexual misconduct on campus," AAU Rawlings said in a statement, "and to ensure that reports of sexual assault and sexual misconduct are handled with care, compassion, and a commitment to fair, prompt, and impartial review and resolution."

The AAU is letting each participating university to decide if and when to release survey results of its specific campus. Huffington Post reports that 24 of the 27 schools planned to release individual results as of Monday.

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