National Survey Finds More Than One in Five College Women Have Been Sexually Assaulted

The majority of students surveyed didn't report assaults to them because they didn't think it was "serious enough."

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Sep 22 2015, 1:00pm

"Mattress Girl" Emma Sulkowicz at her graduation from Columbia University. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

The Department of Justice's 2007 estimation that one in five college women will experience sexual assault during her time on campus has been controversial—one of the authors of the DoJ's report has even said that the researchers "don't think one in five is a nationally representative statistic." Statistics based on crime reports of sexual assault have placed the figure much, much lower, and some critics have gone so far as to argue that campuses are "overreporting" their rates of sexual assault.

But a sweeping new study released Monday by the Association of American Universities (AAU) found that the one in five estimate may not be high enough. According to their survey, the number might actually be closer to one in four, which would mean it's more likely that a woman will be sexually assaulted during college than it is that she will get the flu.

The AAU survey is the biggest of its kind, covering 150,000 students at 27 schools. Of the college women surveyed, 23 percent reported that they had experienced some kind of sexual assault or misconduct carried out by physical force or incapacitation. The rates were even higher among students who identified as transgender, gender queer, or non-binary.

Another 11.4 percent of women, as well as 14.8 of trans or non-binary students and 2.4 percent of men, reported experiencing sexual assault because a partner failed to obtain consent—in other words, that they had never actively said "yes" to the sexual encounter.

Read: How Campus Rape Became a National Scandal

The survey also found that most students did not report their experiences to local police, campus police, or other university agencies responsible for handling sexual assault cases. The numbers varied depending on the type of sexual assault; while 28 percent of students who experienced stalking reported it, just 5 percent of students who said they'd experienced unwanted sexual contact by incapacitation told police or university agencies about the assault. The majority of students said they did not report what happened to them because they didn't think it was "serious enough."

The survey comes just over one year after a White House task force on campus sexual assault released its initial report with recommendations on how to combat the epidemic. The authors wrote that "the first step in solving a problem is to name it and know the extent of it," and suggested that this could be accomplished by a campus climate survey, much like the one conducted by the AAU.

Since the survey's release on Monday, many university presidents have issued statements on its findings. Harvard University President Drew Faust called the results "deeply disturbing," and called on the community to do more to combat the problem. Lee Bollinger, the president of Columbia University—which has been in the national spotlight for campus rape—called the rate of sexual assault "unacceptable" in an email to the campus.

The University of Virginia, which is still recovering from false allegations of sexual assault detailed in Rolling Stone, also released a statement from its president, declaring that the results provided a "baseline of information that will enable us to measure and track our efforts as we continue to enhance the safety of our community."

More than half of AAU's 60 member universities declined to participate in the study. The 27 schools that did participate ranged from elite private institutions like Harvard, Yale, and Columbia, to giant public schools like the University of Wisconsin. The rate of sexual assault on individual campuses ranged from 30 percent at the University of Southern California and the University of Michigan to 13 percent at Caltech—which, while significantly lower than the average, is still too high.

You can download the full American Association of Universities report here.

Follow Arielle Pardes on Twitter.

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