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MIT Releases Student Survey on Sexual Assault Experiences

MIT Releases Student Survey on Sexual Assault Experiences

October 29, 2014 — At least 17% of female undergraduate students and 5% of male undergraduate students said they had been sexually assaulted while at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but only 5% reported the assaults to campus officials, according to an MIT survey, the New York Times reports (Pérez-Peña, New York Times, 10/27).

MIT emailed the survey to 10,831 undergraduate and graduate students on April 27, two days before the White House released guidelines addressing on-campus sexual assault. According to Reuters, the survey had a response rate of 35% (Herbst-Bayliss, Reuters, 10/27).

Survey Focus

The survey asked students if they had experienced a range of unwanted sexual behaviors while at MIT, both involving or not involving "use of force, physical threat or incapacitation." MIT also asked how often students reported such issues to friends or school officials and why and whether they considered such incidents to be sexual assault. The survey also asked students about whether they had experienced sexual harassment.

Key Findings on Sexual Assault

The survey found that 17% of women and 5% of men said they have experienced unwanted sexual contact "involving use of force, physical threat or incapacitation." The survey also showed that an additional 12% of women and 6% of men said they had experienced unwanted sexual contact without the use of force, threat or incapacitation, which could be classified as sexual assault depending on the circumstances, according to the Times. However, only 11% of women and 2% of men said "yes" on the survey when asked if they had been raped or sexually assaulted.

Further, the survey found that more than 50% of the respondents who said they had experienced unwanted sexual contact but did not report the contact to campus officials said they did not believe the incident was sufficiently serious and that the assailant did not intend any harm. Nearly 50% of respondents who did not report the incidents partially blamed themselves for the assaults.

The survey also found that, among undergraduate students, about two-thirds said that "rape and sexual assault can happen unintentionally, especially if alcohol is involved"; about one-third said sexual assault might happen "because men get carried away"; about one-fifth said sexual assault often occurred because people were not clear enough about refusing consent; and about one-fifth said that survivors who had been intoxicated were "at least somewhat responsible" for sexual assaults.

Compared with undergrads, graduate students were both less likely to report being sexually assaulted and less likely to hold the view that assaults are not completely the fault of the assailant, according to the survey.

Key Findings on Sexual Harassment

The survey also found that more than 33% of respondents had a crude sexual remark directed toward them and that a vast majority of respondents had heard someone say something inappropriate about someone's body or make a sexist remark at MIT. A smaller number of students had received offensive digital messages. Further, the survey found that one in six female respondents had been repeatedly asked on dates after prior refusals.

However, the survey found that only 15% of female undergraduates and 4% of male undergraduates said they had been victims of sexual harassment. According to the survey, 14% of women reported having been stalked, while 8% indicated that they had been in a relationship that was abusive or controlling.

Reaction, Next Steps

MIT Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart said the survey demonstrated that "there is confusion among some of our students about what constitutes sexual assault" (New York Times, 10/27). She said that reports of sexual assaults have increased over the past few months, in part because of increased awareness. She added that MIT is taking steps to further address the issue, including conducting follow-up surveys, expanding prevention and education services, and providing more resources for sexual assault survivors (Reuters, 10/27).

John Foubert, an Oklahoma State University professor of higher education who researches campus sexual assaults, praised MIT for publicly releasing the data. However, he noted that it is difficult to make comparisons because different surveys ask different questions and use other methods. For example, he said that a survey of a random sample of students might be more accurate than a self-selected survey such as MIT's (New York Times, 10/27).