One in four female undergraduates at leading campuses across the country say they have been sexually assaulted by force or because they were passed out, asleep or incapacitated by alcohol or drugs and unable to consent, according to a national survey released Tuesday.
USC reported higher numbers, with 31% of female undergraduates saying they were sexually assaulted sometime during their college years. In California, Caltech and Stanford also participated in the survey of 181,752 students conducted for the Assn. of American Universities, an organization of the nation’s 62 leading public and private research universities. Caltech and Stanford were set to release their statistics on Tuesday.
The University of California conducts its own sexual misconduct survey and did not join the AAU effort.
The survey by AAU and Westat, a leading social science research firm, represents the nation’s largest ever effort to examine college sexual assault and expands on its initial groundbreaking study in 2015. The survey, conducted last spring at 33 public and private campuses, received a 21.9% response rate.
Among other things, it examined the prevalence of nonconsensual sexual contact — penetration and touching — along with sexual harassment, stalking and other misconduct.
Since the Obama administration began cracking down on college sexual misconduct in 2011, universities across the country have scrambled to improve education, training and support for victims. Despite the attention, the survey found that reports of sexual assault have increased slightly — 3% among undergraduate women. The vast majority of cases involved alcohol.
In addition, nearly two-thirds of students lacked basic knowledge about sexual assault, including how to define it and where to get help.
“The results provide cause for both hope and continued concern,” AAU President Mary Sue Coleman said in a statement. But she said the large-scale effort is “a testament to the commitment that America’s leading research universities have to fighting these problems and improving the campus climate around these issues.”
The AAU survey found that student experiences with sexual misconduct varied widely by college, program and gender. Overall, 13% of students surveyed said they had been victims of nonconsensual sexual contact.
Undergraduate women reported the highest prevalence of sexual assault — 25.9% compared to 9.7% of female graduate or professional students, and 6.8% for undergraduate men.
Among undergraduate students who identified as TGQN — transgender, nonbinary/genderqueer, gender questioning or who did not list a gender — 22.8% said they had been victims of sexual assault.
In addition, undergraduate TGQN students reported the highest rate of sexual harassment — behavior defined as acts with sexual connotations that interfered with academic or professional performance, limited participation in an academic program or created an intimidating or hostile environment. The rate of students who experienced both harassing behavior and said it created a hostile environment was 46.3% for TGQN students, 31.3% for undergraduate women and 18.9% for all students.
On the upside, the survey found that student knowledge about sexual assault, while still low, has risen significantly in the last four years. But most still do not report incidents or use university resources for support. Victims of sexual assault told researchers they did not report their experiences to campus authorities because they thought they could handle it themselves, did not consider it serious or were embarrassed or ashamed.
At USC, Sarah Van Orman, associate vice provost for student health, said she could not say whether her school’s higher numbers were tied to mass allegations of sexual assault by a former campus gynecologist, Dr. George Tyndall.
She said she was concerned that knowledge about sexual assault decreased since 2015, in contrast to national trends. In addition, USC undergraduate women reported far less confidence that the university would take their reports seriously than did their peers at other campuses surveyed, 38.6% compared to 53%.
“What this tells us is that we have more work to do on this campus,” said Van Orman, who is a physician. “We haven’t shown the kind of movement over the last four years that I would have wanted to see.”
But she said she was heartened that the percentage of undergraduate women who sought campus help had more than doubled, from 14.5% in 2015 to 32.8% in 2019. In addition, far more USC students were reporting sexual assault, more than doubling from 13.9% to 31.5% during that same time period.
Van Orman said the university has recently launched several new efforts to guard against sexual misconduct. In the last six months, USC has hired four full-time staff members and four part-time students to focus exclusively on prevention education and training. The university is also in the process of hiring four people as confidential advocates, available 24/7 to give emotional and logistical support to victims.
USC is also rolling out its first-ever mandatory, in-person training to all incoming first-time undergraduates on affirmative consent, which is now required by law for every sexual act. While the university already requires online training about sexual misconduct for all students during the registration process, Van Orman said the in-person program will help build on that knowledge.
In addition, USC is expanding a voluntary training program for student leaders on bystander intervention, which encourages those who witness situations that could lead to sexual assault to step in. The survey found that three-fourths of USC students who witnessed such situations intervened, a far higher percentage than the national average of 45.1%.
“We know prevention is most effective with multiple doses,” Van Orman said.