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Columbia Spent $2.5 Million to Study Sexual Assault on Campus

After a national study found one in four college women have experienced sexual assault, Columbia University decided to do something about it.
Drew Schwartz
Brooklyn, US
Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Researchers at Columbia University wrapped up a two-year study of students' sex lives on Thursday, pouring $2.5 million into a project designed to help put an end to sexual harassment and violence on campus, the Columbia Spectator reports.

The school launched the Sexual Health Initiative to Foster Transformation (SHIFT) study in 2015, just after the Association of American Universities estimated that one in four women at universities across the country experience some kind of sexual assault while in college. That same year, Emma Sulkowicz, a Columbia student, carried a mattress everywhere she went to protest the university's refusal to kick her accused rapist off campus—even going so far as to lug it across the stage when she graduated.


In the SHIFT study, researchers tried to dissect what contributed to a culture of harassment on campus. They hosted focus groups and interviews with more than 1,600 undergrads at Columbia and Barnard and asked them about their sex lives and experiences with assault. The researchers' most impressive strategy—and also, perhaps, their strangest—took sociology professor Shamus Khan and his colleagues to parties and bars to get a firsthand look at how students interact romantically, according to Politico.

"My life over the past two years has been thinking about college students and sex, and it's both really boring and really disturbing in sort of twin ways," Khan said Wednesday.

The principal investigator, Jennifer Hirsch, told the Spectator that her team will publish 26 journal articles on the subject by December. Along with the findings, the studies are expected to offer some solutions on how the university could do a better job of preventing sexual assault, something Hirsch said won't come down to one single strategy.

"Effective prevention of unwanted sexual touching by strangers, for example, might differ from strategies to prevent rape in the context of an ongoing hookup," Hirsch told the Spectator. "To be effective with prevention, it's important to focus in a more targeted way on the specifics of what we are trying to prevent."

Columbia's not the only university working to put a stop to rape culture on campus. After conducting a similar intensive study, Indiana University Bloomington—a school with a top-notch sports program—announced Thursday that it's implementing a new policy that bans any current, incoming, or transfer student with a criminal history of sexual or domestic violence from joining any of its athletic programs.

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