09/24/2015

Sexual assault survey could spur action

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A new survey of sexual assault on college campuses shows that nearly a quarter of female college students experience nonconsensual sexual contact, confirming the "1 in 4" statistic so widely published by others who study the problem. The survey, published by the Association of American Universities, included 150,000 participants at 27 research-intensive universities.

While AAU is releasing only aggregate results, most participating schools have published the study's campus-specific statistics for their institutions. These include the five that have faculty and/or staff represented by AFT affiliates: Michigan State University, the University of Florida, the University of Michigan, the University of Oregon and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The survey, designed to help institutions develop preventive policy and services for survivors, could inform programming with statistics such as how frequently alcohol is involved in sexual assault, student experiences around reporting incidents, rates of bystander intervention and whether students are familiar with the resources available to them.

"No member of our community should be threatened by sexual violence," wrote MSU President Lou Anna K. Simon in a statement. "We will continue to use a variety of sources of information to guide policy and program improvements."

Apryl Pooley, a member of MSU's Graduate Employees Union and a sexual assault prevention activist, is particularly concerned about how students can report offenses. The school currently requires nearly all employees, including graduate workers, to report incidents brought to their attention, even when the victim requests confidentiality. GEU suggests anonymous reporting would both capture important information about patterns of sexual assault and protect victims from unwanted exposure. Those who want to pursue further action could report to designated, trained staff.

"Sexual assault is a huge problem on MSU's campus—not just that it happens, but that victims often have nowhere to turn for help and the preventive efforts available are ineffective," says Pooley. GEU is advocating for a mandatory, multiworkshop series for incoming students to address issues of consent, bystander intervention and trauma.

At the University of Oregon, the Graduate Teaching Fellows Federation has worked with United Academics (UO's faculty local), the Coalition to End Sexual Violence and other collaborators on rallies, testimonials and campus meetings. It has published a statement of support for university counselors and is working on a list of demands to make the campus a "space that is accessible and safe for everyone," says Dana Rognlie, a GTFF member and co-chair of the AFT's Alliance of Graduate Employee Locals.

"Surveys such as the AAU study and University of Oregon psychologist Jennifer Freyd's campus climate surveys are a necessary part of trauma work," says Rognlie, referring to a campus-specific survey that preceded AAU's. "They make plainly and irrefutably visible the reality of sexual assault in our communities."

Overall, AAU reports that 11.7 percent of all student survey respondents—both male and female—say they have experienced "nonconsensual sexual contact by physical force, threats of physical force, or incapacitation" since enrolling at their university. For female undergraduates, that number goes up to 23.1 percent. Among those, 10.8 percent report penetration.

The survey also shows students are often reluctant to report sexual assault—just 5 to 28 percent of incidents are reported. Assault numbers are highest among undergraduate females and students who identify as transgender, gender-queer, nonconforming and questioning.

There is some controversy over the survey, with critics pointing to a low 20-percent response rate. But the survey remains one of the largest and most comprehensive on the subject to date and seems to be inspiring action, or at least serious discussion, on a number of campuses.

[Virginia Myers]