Bad News, Good News for Sexual Assault

by Lauren Barbato

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology just took an unprecedented step in combating on-campus sexual assault: On Monday, MIT publicly released an in-depth sexual assault survey that details nearly every aspect of one of the most prominent issues currently facing higher-education institutions. According to the final report, the survey was sent to all enrolled MIT students this year, and yielded a 35 percent response rate. Despite the small sample size, the results were mostly consistent with past federal surveys, but included some questions left out of most on-campus sexual assault data. As a result, the MIT report crafts a comprehensive, if somewhat troubling, tale of on-campus sexual assault — and what policies might be on the horizon.

Of the 35 percent of MIT students who responded to the survey, 17 percent of female undergraduates and five percent of male undergraduates said they've experienced a form of non-consensual sexual behavior, ranging from penetration or attempted penetration and oral sex to "sexual touching or kissing," that used force, threat or incapacitation. These numbers are mostly consistent with the oft-quoted 2007 sexual assault study from the Department of Justice, which found that 19 percent of female undergraduate students nationwide have experienced sexual assault in college. Other recent studies, including a 2010 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have come to similar conclusions.

The report then combines the sexual assault stats with overall sexual misconduct, which includes unwanted sexual behavior not involving force, threat or incapacitation, and sexual harassment. The numbers jumped much higher, with 35 percent of female undergraduates and 14 percent of male undergraduates experiencing some form of sexual misconduct.

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Unfortunately, the stats get worse. Fewer than five percent of respondents who experienced sexual assault or any other form of unwanted sexual behavior reported the incident to authorities or school officials. When asked why they didn't report the crime, 72 percent of respondents said they didn't "think the incident(s) was serious enough to report." What's even more worrisome is 44 percent said they felt they were "at least partially at fault" or the perpetrator wasn't "totally at fault."

Why would students feel responsible for the rape, sexual assault, or sexual misconduct against them? Well, the murky attitudes surrounding what sexual assault is and how it's committed could be part of it. The MIT survey found that 31 percent of female undergraduates and 35 percent of male undergraduates either agree or strongly agree that sexual assault happens when "men get carried away in sexual situations once they've started" — an indicator that the "boys will be boys" philosophy still prevails.

It seems like college students — especially undergraduates — also believe that consent is tricky, and possibly nonexistent, when both parties are intoxicated. More than 50 percent of both female and male students think "rape an sexual assault can happen unintentionally" when alcohol is involved. Considering rape and sexual assault are acts that require force, it's strange to think someone can be "unintentionally" committing a crime that violates someone's body.

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These stats are rather dismal, but they may also provide more context for sexual assault awareness education and future policies at MIT and beyond. In a letter to the MIT community, Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart announced that the survey has already compelled the university to take the next step in improving sexual assault reporting, including removing any barriers that may stop victims from coming forward:

To help reduce the barriers to reporting, we have clarified the policies and procedures, updated the website dedicated to sexual assault and misconduct, hired new staff, increased training of the Committee on Discipline, made significant changes to the Committee on Discipline processes for handling sexual misconduct case.

Barnhart said the university has also created a task force that will advise the administration on further policies and programs. The school has also launched an additional task force, composed of students, staff and faculty, to focus on outreach and education initiatives. Says Barnhart:

[The Sexual Assault Education and Prevention Task Force] will begin by engaging the community in dialogue about what constitutes sexual assault and consent, developing new programs for residence halls and other MIT living and learning groups, coordinating the student-run “It’s on Us, MIT” campaign, and engaging faculty, staff and students in the invention of new technologies to help prevent these dangerous behaviors.

Although universities have shouldered much of the blame for improperly reporting and handling sexual assault cases — and mistreating victims — the MIT survey shows that the community is just as responsible for fostering a culture that supports victims and prevent violence. After all, how can victims come forward when their peers believe they were responsible because they were "too drunk" or it wasn't "serious enough," anyway?

If there's any bright spot to be found, it's that the attention to on-campus sexual assault has sparked a movement — from both school administrations to the students — to change the atmosphere. On Wednesday, students at more than 130 U.S. colleges carried mattresses across their campuses, in solidarity with Columbia University student Emma Sulkowicz, who's been challenging her school's administration since she was allegedly raped in 2013. These students' message? Carry that weight together.

Images: Getty Images (3), Carry That Weight Together/Facebook