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Sexual Assault on College Campuses Reaching Epidemic Proportions

AAU Study Finds 23% of Women Report Sexual Assault in College

A new survey of college students by the Association of American Universities (AAU), one of the largest ever focusing on sexual assault and sexual misconduct, has shed light on the scope and severity of the problem of sexual assault on college campuses.

Among female college students, 23% said they experienced some form of unwanted sexual contact -- ranging from kissing to touching to rape, carried out by force or threat of force, or while they were incapacitated because of alcohol and drugs, according to the AAU survey. Nearly 11% said the unwanted contact included penetration or oral sex.

"I think one takeaway is that this problem is a broad problem within society as well as on campus, so I think it's something all of us have to be concerned about," said AAU President Hunter Rawlings.

My view is this is an important observation because it highlights the societal problem as well as the one specific to college campuses. On college campuses, the backdrop for the problem is: the way in which sexuality is portrayed on realty television shows; the negative influences of social media; lack of responsibility for one’s actions is epidemic in society (think Affluenza teen); a decline in civility; and an increasingly immature approach to life of teens and young adults.

The survey's findings are fairly consistent with those of other recent studies. The significance of this latest effort is its size: More than 150,000 students participated from 27 universities, including some of the most prominent schools across the country.

For college women seniors, the number reporting nonconsensual sexual contact of any kind carried out by force or while incapacitated was even higher than the 23% for all female college students: 26% of female seniors said they had experienced it at some point during their four years in college. At some of the country's most elite schools, that number climbed even higher: 34% for University of Michigan female seniors, 32% at Yale and 29% at Harvard.

"The results warrant the attention and concern of everybody in our community," Drew Faust, president of Harvard, said in a statement". Sexual assault is intolerable, and we owe it to one another to confront it openly, purposefully and effectively. This is our problem".

Faust said Harvard has doubled its staff for its Office of Sexual Assault and Prevention, expanded orientation and training on sexual assault and created an office charged with investigating reports of misconduct. She has also requested a task force to come up with recommendations by January 2016. "We must commit ourselves to being a better community than the one the survey portrays", she said.

Three results of the survey are especially troubling for me:

  • Overall rates of reporting to campus officials and law enforcement or others were low, ranging from five percent to 28 percent, depending on the specific type of behavior.
  • The most common reason for not reporting incidents of sexual assault and sexual misconduct was that it was not considered serious enough. Other reasons included because they were “embarrassed, ashamed or that it would be too emotionally difficult”, and because they “did not think anything would be done about it".
  • More than six in 10 students (63.3 percent) believe that a report of sexual assault or sexual misconduct would be taken seriously by campus officials.

Dedicated campus offices to educate, train, and monitor sexual behavior and assaults on campus are a good start. Task forces are fine. Studies have a role to play. But, none of these steps alone will change the culture on all-too-many college campuses. There needs to be a serious commitment to teaching ethics and personal responsibility on college campuses. These are characteristics of a foregone society. K-12 schools rarely address these issues. Parents either don’t want to discuss these issues with their kids – basic respect towards others and accepting responsibility for one’s behavior – and/or don’t think it needs to be discussed (i.e., it will never affect my kid) – and/or are in denial about the scope and seriousness of the problem.

Sexual assault cuts to the very core of the soul of the assaulted person. The assaulted person becomes deeply introspective and asks: What did I do to provoke such behavior? Am I to blame? Whereas the real question is: What’s wrong with our society that sexual assault on college campuses is so widespread?

Blog posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on January 14, 2016. Professor Mintz is on the faculty of the Orfalea College of Business at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He also blogs at: