Carry That Weight: Report Confirms Troubling Statistic About Campus Sexual Assault

The Association of American Universities survey arrives during the part of the year known as the Red Zone.

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Sep 21, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Jennifer Swann is TakePart’s culture and lifestyle reporter.

Columbia University student Emma Sulkowicz became the face of campus sexual assault last fall when she began carrying her 50-pound dorm room mattress around the Ivy League school—a performance she continued until in May, when she dragged the mattress across the graduation stage. The act of protest against her school’s handling of her alleged rape was frequently referred to in the national media alongside one key figure: One in five women has been sexually assaulted during her time at college.

The federal statistic is nearly as disputed as it is widely cited, but a new survey not only offers some validation but also suggests that the number of college women who experience sexual assault is higher than previously estimated. Twenty-three percent of female undergraduate students—close to one in four—reported experiencing sexual assault since enrolling in college, according to the report, which was released Monday by the Association of American Universities.

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The nonprofit organization polled more than 150,000 students last spring at 27 public and private universities, including Columbia, Cornell, Yale, Harvard, and Brown. The survey is one of the first and largest to offer a uniform statistical analysis across a number of higher-education institutions.

It also includes statistics that account for attempted but not completed acts of sexual assault, along with figures based on gender identity. For example, the total number of undergraduate women who experienced either attempted or completed sexual assault is 27 percent, and that figure jumps to 30 percent for students who are transgender, genderqueer, nonconforming, or questioning.

It's worth noting that while the AAU survey encompasses a far larger number of respondents across many more institutions than the 2007 Department of Justice survey from which the “one in five” statistic was gleaned, the response rate to the former was much lower. On average, the AAU survey had a response rate of 19.3 percent, compared with the governmental survey’s 42 percent of a much smaller sample size. But according to the AAU, a low response rate does not indicate a bias in any one particular direction.

The report comes during the part of the school year commonly referred to as the Red Zone. Defined as the period between new student orientation and Thanksgiving break, it is statistically the time when college students face the highest risk of sexual assault. The percentage of female students who experienced sexual assault—defined in the survey as nonconsensual sexual contact involving physical force or incapacitation—varied from university to university, as did the response rates and participant incentives at individual campuses. Fairly consistently, however, female undergraduate students who experienced nonconsensual penetration accounted for just under half of the total percentage of women who reported experiencing sexual assault across the various college campuses.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean students reported these incidents to their college administration or to law enforcement. The rates of students who reported their assault ranged from 5 to 28 percent, with a large percentage of students saying they declined to report it because they were either embarrassed, ashamed, or feared it would be too emotionally difficult. More than half the survivors of even the most serious assaults said they didn’t report it because they didn't think it was “serious enough.”

At the same time, about half of students said it’s very likely that their university would conduct a fair investigation if a student reported an incident of sexual assault or misconduct to a school official. Sulkowicz maintains that was not the case with Columbia University, which she alleged made errors during her hearing process and generally displayed skepticism toward her assault claim.

A law passed in New York in July seeks to create a uniform reporting system on all college campuses statewide and guarantees students the right to report an incident of sexual assault to either school authorities or local law enforcement. It comes on the heels of a similar “yes means yes” law in California that seeks to crack down on—and legally define—campus sexual assault by establishing a uniform policy that requires clear consent between sexual partners.

In a statement obtained by Columbia’s campus newspaper, university president Lee Bollinger said the new report’s core data confirms that “sexual harassment and assault take place at unacceptable rates and cause harm both to individuals and to our community. As members of a university community, each of us must recognize this happens in our midst, act to prevent it, and provide support when incidents occur.”