Sexual Misconduct on Campus

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Sexual misconduct is a problem in American colleges and universities, and Penn is no exception. That is the upshot of a massive survey commissioned by the Association of American Universities (AAU), which was released in September. The survey, which encompassed 150,000 students at 27 universities—including every Ivy League institution except Princeton—offers an unsettling picture of sexual assault and harassment on some of the country’s most prestigious campuses.

“The survey results confirm our deepest concerns,” wrote Penn President Amy Gutmann and Provost Vincent Price in a letter to the University community on the day of the report’s publication. “We must not and we will not rest until we effectively tackle this problem as a campus community.”

Approximately 30 percent of Penn’s undergraduates, and 25 percent of its graduate and professional students, responded to the survey, which went out to all students. The University released a 249-page report detailing results specific to Penn, as did a majority of the other participating colleges. (For the last year, Gutmann has served as chair of the AAU.) Although the response rate both at Penn and overall was substantially lower than many previous surveys—raising the possibility that a selection effect could have skewed the data—the results indicate that students face real hazards on American campuses.

Although men are not immune from sexual assault and harassment, women suffer far more of it. Twelve percent of female undergraduates surveyed at Penn reported experiencing nonconsensual penetration involving force or incapacitation since entering college—about one percentage point higher than in the study as a whole. (The rate among Penn undergraduate men was 1.5 percent, slightly less than in the study overall.) Some 20.8 percent of undergraduate women at Penn reported suffering unwanted sexual touching by force or incapacitation in their years of college, versus 17.7 in the study overall.

At Penn, as elsewhere, freshmen reported the highest rates of unwanted sexual contact, whose incidence decreases in step with class year and drops further among graduate students.

LGBT students suffer higher rates of assault and harassment than heterosexuals; at Penn, they are twice as likely to experience nonconsensual penetration or sexual touching than their heterosexual peers.

The AAU survey revealed that undergraduates in private colleges are more likely to experience unwanted sexual penetration or oral sex in the absence of affirmative consent than those in public schools—15.1 percent versus 10.8 percent among women.

Private and smaller schools also tended to report higher rates of sexual harassment— broadly defined to encompass “crude” and “inappropriate” comments of one sort or another. At Penn, 67 percent of the undergraduate women surveyed, and 50 percent of men, reported enduring such treatment—which was in line with other private institutions.

Although the AAU survey focused exclusively on students, previous evidence indicates that non-students between the ages of 18 and 24 suffer higher rates of sexual assault. A 2014 report by the US Department of Justice concluded that, among college-age females, the rate of rape and sexual assault for non-students was 1.2 times higher than for students. That study also reported far lower levels of campus rape and sexual assault than the AAU survey: 6.1 per 1,000 among female students on an annual basis, and 7.6 per 1,000 among nonstudents. That may be due to the Justice Department’s reliance on the National Crime Victimization Survey—whose exclusive focus on criminal acts is narrower than the AAU study, which framed its questions around the idea of conduct rather than criminality.

Among the most serious offenses measured by the AAU study—those involving unwanted penetration and/or oral-genital contact—three striking, if unsurprising, trends were clear among Penn undergraduates:

• Nearly two-thirds of victims reported that they had been violated by friends or acquaintances, including present or past romantic partners.

• Three-quarters of the reported incidents happened on campus or affiliated properties, with dorms and fraternity/sorority houses being the most common settings.

• The overwhelming majority of both victims and offenders were voluntarily drinking alcohol at the time of the incident. (Other drugs were far less likely to be involved.)

Equally striking is the low rate at which victims formally report criminal violations—not just to police (which is a trend among sexual-assault victims in all parts of society), but to support organizations on campus.

At Penn, 73 percent of the undergraduate women who had been victims of unwanted penetration or oral-genital contact by force or incapacitation said that they had not reported the incident to a support program. The most common reason—cited by 63 percent of victims—was, “I did not think it was serious enough.” Yet 77 percent of these victims reported suffering “bruises, black-eye, cuts, scratches or swelling,” and 56 percent reported “internal injury from the sexual contact.” Nightmares, difficulty studying, and feelings of numbness or detachment were also common among victims.

It is hard to square these consequences with victims’ own claims that the underlying acts were insufficiently serious to report. (On the other hand, more than 80 percent of these victims said they had talked about the incident with a friend, and about 20 percent said they’d talked with a family member.)

Victims who did seek help from a support program generally considered it useful. About 74 percent of those who sought help from Penn’s Counseling and Psychological Services found it either “somewhat,” “very,” or “extremely” helpful. Nearly 70 percent of the victims who reported incidents to the Penn Women’s Center found it “very” or “extremely” helpful. Penn’s Division of Public Safety and Student Intervention Services received similar ratings.

The AAU survey revealed that many Penn students are also uncertain about where to seek help. (About 22 percent of female penetration victims cited that as a reason they didn’t report an incident, and 31 percent said they “did not think anything would be done.”)

Gutmann and Price cited these findings as “striking and useful.”

“Despite our determined efforts,” they wrote, “a majority of students in the Penn survey report that they do not know where to find help here on campus if they or a friend are victims of sexual assault or sexual misconduct … We clearly must do more, beginning immediately, to make all students aware that they have immediate recourse for help.”

“A core principle of all great educational institutions, indeed of every decent society, is respect for all individuals,” they added. “Every instance of sexual harassment and assault directly undermines this, and is simply unacceptable. We will do everything in our power to address this issue on our campus. This includes all-out efforts aimed at prevention and extends to ensuring fair means of responding to all instances of sexual assault and harassment.”

Gutmann and Price said the administration planned to arrange meetings with student groups, College Houses, cultural groups, athletic teams, and fraternities and sororities to discuss the steps that should be taken next.

“We have long held that any harassment or assault on our campuses is absolutely unacceptable,” they wrote. “The climate survey we undertook confirms just how great a problem we confront.” —T.P.

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