COLUMBIA — About three in 10 MU female undergraduates reported being victims of nonconsensual sexual contact involving physical force or incapacitation by their senior year, according to a new MU Report on the Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct.

"I think that number shows that we have a lot of education to do about what consent is and what kind of behaviors are appropriate on campus," said MU Title IX Administrator Ellen Eardley. "We would not want any of our students to experience that conduct, and the 30.8 percent of female senior undergraduates is too high."

MU's survey results from female undergraduates who experienced nonconsensual sexual contact are higher than the average results of the Association of American Universities' survey, which compiled the data from participating universities in its report, also released Monday. The AAU report found 26.1 percent of senior females experience this type of nonconsensual sexual contact, which can range from nonconsensual kissing to nonconsensual sex.

MU was one of 27 universities to participate in the one of the largest surveys studying the climate of sexual assault and conduct at higher education institutions. The April 6 to 27 survey was conducted by Westat, a social science research firm with the AAU. Westat also compiled the survey results from the 27 universities in its 288-page report; all AAU surveys were done in April and May.

The MU and AAU reports estimated the prevalence of different forms of nonconsensual sexual contact, harassment, stalking and intimate partner violence; collected information about student views related to the climate on sexual assault and misconduct; and assessed student knowledge of school resources and procedures when responding to incidents of sex discrimination. 

"Unfortunately we know that the numbers range on each campus, but all of the numbers are too high," Eardley said. "Our number is something that shows that we have work to do, and so do the other campuses."

The reports came less than a week after the release of the MU Title IX report, which focused solely on students' experience of sex discrimination as reported to the year-old Title IX Office. The 133-page MU report includes faculty and staff in its analysis and surveyed any students on campus who would respond, so numbers in the two reports do not necessarily compare.

"The survey is an opportunity for us to take a closer look at what the climate actually is here and helps us as we think about moving to improve our prevention and education measures on campus," Eardley said.

Numbers and trends

National data by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that more than a third of female rape victims were first raped during their college-age years; about 37 percent of female rape victims were first raped between the ages of 18 and 24, according to a 2012 survey. About 19 percent of female undergraduate students experienced attempted or completed sexual assault since entering college, according to the survey.

Among the different demographics cited in MU's report, female undergraduate students reported the highest rates of experience with sexual assault and misconduct by physical force and incapacitation. About 27 percent of female undergraduates reported experiencing completed or attempted nonconsensual sexual contact at MU, which is about four times higher than the male undergraduate rate. Female graduate students also had a rate that is about four times higher than their male graduate counterparts, according to the study.

In a single year, female undergraduate freshmen had the highest rates of sexual assault and misconduct. Those rates dropped significantly for sophomores. But seniors reported the highest rates of sexual assault and misconduct overall because they had been on campus longer.

About 12 percent of female undergraduate student respondents reported penetration involving force or incapacitation, which is considered to be the most serious type of sexual assault and misconduct, according to MU's report. For the 2014-15 academic year, about 1,700 students experienced this type of rape.

A startling 78 percent of the more than 1,700 female victims who experienced penetration by force did not report it to MU officials, according to MU's report.

This number is higher than the AAU average, which found 25.5 percent of victims of penetration by force did report it to an agency or program. The most highly cited reason for why students did not report the incident was: "I did not think it was serious enough to report."

"One thing that we saw both in the MU report and the AAU report about colleges and universities across the country is students don't understand that what is happening to them is important or severe enough to report," Eardley said. "They don't know that it's a policy violation. So our education and prevention measures need to do more to help students understand what sex discrimination really is."

Overall at MU, about 52 percent of students reported being victims of sexual harassment, which is is about 4 percentage points above the AAU statistic. Female undergraduates reported most often (about 64 percent), and male graduate students reported the least amount of sexual harassment experienced (34 percent).

Bystander reports

About 55 percent of students reported witnessing a drunken person heading towards a sexual encounter — which is 10 percentage points higher than the overall AAU report — and more than 71 percent reported that they took no action.

"Unfortunately, we know students have drunk sex," Eardley said. "So we have to teach them about how to be responsible in any kind of relationship, how they can be sure that they are both consenting or the partners are consenting to any kind of sexual encounter and to make sure that they have the ability to establish their sexual health boundaries when they are drunk."

The two main reasons students did not take action, according to the report, were that students did not know what to do (21.7) and that they did nothing for another reason (49.6). These numbers are somewhat consistent with the overall AAU report.

"All of this is part of our education and we need to understand what students are thinking when they see someone else heading towards a sexual encounter when they're drunk," Eardley said. "Do they assume that that's what the parties both want? Have they had conversations with those people and they know they're in a relationship? What did that instance look like and why did a student not speak up? And what would it mean if they did?"

Only about 10 percent of students who witnessed a drunken person heading toward a sexual encounter directly intervened to stop the incident. Other students reported speaking to someone else to seek help or doing something else to prevent the sexual assault or misconduct from occurring.

About 23 of MU student respondents reported witnessing someone acting in a sexually violent or harassing manner. Female undergraduates reported this at higher rates (27.1 percent) than any other demographic.

Among bystanders who witnessed sexual violence or harassment, about 50 percent took no action.

"The sexual harassment numbers are also something that we need to take a hard look at," Eardley said. "If we have a climate where sexual harassment occurs and is accepted, then that is going to create a climate where sexual violence is acceptable as well."

"They're all intertwined," she said.

Types of victims

The study broke down sex discrimination victim demographics by graduate and undergraduate students, by gender — male, female, transgender, genderqueer, nonconforming, questioning or not listed — and by sexual orientation.

Nearly 6 percent of male undergraduates experienced nonconsensual penetration or sexual touching since they started at MU, and 4.5 percent of undergraduate males experienced nonconsensual sexual touching by force or incapacitation.

Non-heterosexual students also experienced victimization by physical force or incapacitation almost twice as often as heterosexual students (24.8 percent vs. 14.8 percent). These rates are somewhat consistent across gender and enrollment characterizations.

Students who registered with the university as having a disability also had a prevalence rate for victimization by force or incapacitation that was higher than those without a disability (25.3 percent vs. 15.1 percent). This rate was the same across gender and enrollment status groups, according to MU's report.

Prior surveys show that people who identify as transgender, genderqueer, nonconforming and questioning have significantly higher rates of victimization due to coercion or absence of affirmative consent. Overall, more such students reported being victimized since entering MU. They also reported higher rates of harassment, stalking and intimate partner violence.

Prevention and education measures

"We're going to take a harder look at our survey results as well as the AAU survey results and think about ways that we can improve our education and prevention efforts," Eardley said. She cited a developing task force as one way that would happen.

MU Provost Garnett Stokes recently created the Sexual Violence Prevention and Campus Climate Task Force, which will study the results of the survey and its report, develop focus groups and outreach efforts and construct strategic plans to fight against sex discrimination at MU.

The task force will include the coordinator of the Relationship and Sexual Violence Prevention Center, faculty members, student members, graduate members and staff members, Eardley said. The task force membership has not yet been finalized.

Current resources on campus include the RSVP Center, the Student Health Center, the MU Counseling Center and the Title IX Office. The RSVP Center hired three additional staff members this year to increase education and prevention efforts on campus.

An online education program developed and recently put in place by the Title IX Office is called Not Anymore. All incoming freshmen starting in the 2015-16 academic year are now required to complete the program, which provides basic training on what sexual assault looks like, what consent is and what healthy relationships look like. It also provides information about students' rights and options in combating sex discrimination on campus.

"One of the most important messages of Not Anymore is bystander intervention techniques," Eardley said. "That teaches students how to stand up and say something when they find themselves or their peers in a situation that's unacceptable."

The survey results will also be used to build on the Not Anymore training and future training of students.

Eardley also cited peer educators as a way that the university was educating.

"Students want to learn from each other about how to interrupt and stop this behavior," Eardley said. "And when they can have really frank and honest discussions with one another — about how they have successfully intervened, how they have stood up for their peers, what they did to call someone out — I think it empowers them to take action on our campus."

The RSVP Center participates in peer education, along with the MU Interfraternity Council, which has a team of peer educators who teach  fraternity men about sex discrimination. The Student Health Center also has a program called Sexual Health Advocate Peer Education that informs students about healthy sexual boundaries and relationships.

"We will want to monitor the climate on campus," Eardley said when asked about possible future surveys. "We'll have to determine whether we'll participate in an AAU survey like this. But that's one of the tasks of the task force is to determine what the next steps are in terms of evaluating our climate as well as metrics that we can use to monitor for progress."

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.

  • Education reporting team, fall 2015 Studying print and digital journalism Reach me at eev728@mail.missouri.edu, or in the newsroom at 882-5720

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