Twenty percent of young women who attended college during the past four years say they were sexually assaulted, according to a Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll. But the circle of victims on the nation’s campuses is probably even larger.
Many others endured attempted attacks, the poll found, or suspect that someone violated them while they were unable to consent. Some say they were coerced into sex through verbal threats or promises.
In all, the poll found, 25 percent of young women and 7 percent of young men say they suffered unwanted sexual incidents in college.
The Post-Kaiser poll, one of the most comprehensive to date on an issue roiling the nation’s colleges, provides evidence that sexual assault is often connected to factors woven deeply into campus culture. Most notably, two-thirds of victims say they had been drinking alcohol just before the incidents.
Other potential risk factors, the poll found, are casual romantic encounters known as “hookups” and the presence on campus of fraternities and sororities.
The findings illuminate the difficulty colleges face in preventing violence that is widespread but rarely reported to authorities. Cases that do land on the dean’s desk or in the criminal justice system raise what often proves a vexing question: Did both people involved agree to have sex?
The poll yields insights from current and recent students on that issue and others:
- They are torn over sexual consent. Forty-six percent said it’s unclear whether sexual activity when both people have not given clear agreement is sexual assault. Forty-seven percent called that scenario sexual assault.
- They do not put sexual assault atop a list of possible concerns about their school. Thirty-seven percent described it as a problem on campus. By contrast, 56 percent viewed alcohol and drug use as a problem.
- They express confidence in how colleges deal with sexual-assault reports. More than two-thirds gave their schools an A or a B for their handling of complaints. Just 8 percent gave their schools a D or an F.
The Post generally does not identify victims of alleged sexual crimes, but numerous poll participants who were interviewed chose to be named.
Conducted by telephone from January through March, the poll surveyed a random national sample of 1,053 women and men ages 17 to 26 who were undergraduates at a four-year college — living on campus or nearby — or had been at some point since 2011. They attended more than 500 colleges and universities, public and private, large and small, elite and obscure, located in every state and the District of Columbia.
Post reporters also conducted dozens of follow-up interviews with men and women who say they experienced completed, attempted or suspected assaults. Their accounts reveal anguish, fury and confusion about incidents, on and off campus, that haunt a time of discovery and growth. In their first years away from home, while exploring the freedom and opportunity of college life, these students learned the pain of sexual violence.
A 21-year-old at a public university in the Southeast who participated in the poll said she was raped by a male student who escorted her out of a nightclub after she suddenly became woozy and separated from a group of friends. Someone, she suspects, had slipped a drug into her rum drink.
“In the morning, I woke up and my lip was so swollen,” the woman said. “I just remember sobbing and sobbing and sobbing the next day. You learn a lot of lessons.”
Like most who said they had been assaulted, the woman did not report the incident to university officials or police. She said she worried about whether she would ruin the man’s future and wondered what to make of what had happened: Had there been a misunderstanding? Should she have been more vehement in saying no? She remembers clearly crying during the attack. She knew it was rape. But how would others see it?
“Something very wrong happened,” she said. “I would never wish what happened to me to happen to anyone.”
The poll defined sexual assault to include five types of unwanted contact: forced touching of a sexual nature, oral sex, vaginal sexual intercourse, anal sex and sexual penetration with a finger or object.
After they were read this definition, 5 percent of men and 20 percent of women said they had been sexually assaulted in college. Their assailants used force or threats of force, or they attacked while their victims were incapacitated.
The effect on campuses is even broader. Three in 10 said friends or acquaintances had confided to them in college that they were victims of sexual assault.
Katie MacPherson, 20, a student at Kent State University in Ohio, said she was heading to a concert one evening when a drunk friend attacked her inside a car.
She was in the front passenger seat. Suddenly he lunged forward, MacPherson recalled, grabbed her head and hair violently and tried to kiss her. “Get your hands off me!” she yelled.
The struggle continued until MacPherson managed to open the door and flee. “Immediately I knew,” she said. “That was sexual assault.”
She didn’t report the attack to authorities. But through an intermediary, she told the man’s fraternity. “I wanted him to get a wake-up call,” she said. “I never expected that from my friend.”
SOURCE: Nick Anderson, Scott Clement
The Washington Post