Students don’t report because they aren’t sure it was even sexual assault
Colleges and universities that participated in the Association of American Universities’ recent sexual assault survey are sharing their own results this week, and some are even more shocking than the highly misleading “1 in 4” number for women undergraduates nationally.
The University of North Carolina reported a 1-in-3 rate of “nonconsensual sexual contact” for women undergraduates, according to WRAL.
Like other media outlets, the North Carolina TV station evidently didn’t look at the definitions in the report, which tells students that consent is nullified by “incapacitation” (undefined) and when their partners miss their “cues to stop or slow,” among other qualifiers. It does not specify what level of “cue” is unambiguous, or even define the term.
By telling students that anything that bothered them about their sexual encounter renders it nonconsensual, UNC and the other participating schools are massively inflating their actual sexual assault problem.
This doesn’t even get into the problems with the “sexual touching” definition, which would count an unwelcome shoulder graze as sexual misconduct, and the broader problem of treating self-reported, low-response surveys as gospel.
Because the journalists at WRAL didn’t consider it worthwhile to tell readers how terms were defined or the survey was designed, they focused on other results that are meaningless without reasonable definitions:
About 85 percent of the assaults occurred during the school year, and about two in five were in a campus residence hall or fraternity house.
About two-thirds of those reporting some form of assault said they had been drinking before the incident, and a majority said the assailant had been drinking [note: “incapacitation” is what’s relevant, not “drinking”]. Nine percent of respondents said they were given a spiked drink or drugs without their knowledge before the assault.
The reasons why people don’t report incidents – in line with previous surveys – should make UNC administrators question whether many incidents qualify as sexual misconduct under any reasonable definition:
The AAU survey shows that only 17.5 percent of respondents sought help from a UNC-Chapel Hill resource, such as campus police, health services or the Gender Violence Services Coordinator. The majority of those who didn’t seek help said they didn’t think the incident was serious enough to report, because they either weren’t hurt, felt like the situation was common on campus or because they had been drinking.
In other words, it’s far from certain that underreporting is a result of skepticism that the university will address sexual assault, rather than students’ uncertainty about whether they even considered the incidents sexual assault.
Until journalists start asking serious questions about survey design, response rate and definitions, universities will continue wasting money on useless surveys that are designed to find problems and justify expansions in administrative staffing and programming.
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