BU Survey on Campus Sexual Assault, Harassment Finds Progress, and Problems
The awareness is there, but the misconduct persists, as University increases efforts to combat it
Boston University students know all about the many resources their school offers to prevent and respond to reports of sexual assault and harassment, but despite widespread awareness, those troubling issues remain a concern, according to results from BU’s 2019 Campus Climate Survey of Sexual Assault and Misconduct.
Roughly one-third of respondents said they experienced some level of sexual harassment since starting at BU; one-third of undergraduate women reported some type of nonconsensual sexual contact; one in every seven respondents reported some incident of stalking behavior. The most common harassment experiences reported were hearing insulting or offensive sexual remarks or jokes and hearing inappropriate comments about their or someone else’s body, appearance, or sexual activities. The most commonly reported harassers were people whom the respondents were familiar with, or they were classmates or friends.
The findings of the survey, released Tuesday and conducted for the first time with the Association of American Universities, show that BU’s results are in line with those from the 32 other schools that administered the survey.
The survey presents the BU community with an opportunity to measure reported rates of sexual assault, sexual harassment coercion, and even general perceptions of campus safety. Beyond that, however, because BU’s earlier Campus Climate Survey was developed by a BU task force and asked different questions, the new findings present an additional perspective on a problem that troubles every college campus—and allows the University to see how it measures against its AAU peers.
“BU is committed to providing a safe environment for all members of our community,” says Jean Morrison, University provost and chief academic officer. “We know, however, that far too many members of our community still experience incidents of sexual misconduct. This past spring’s survey results are valuable in shedding further light on student experiences, and we appreciate all those who took the time to participate in the survey. In the coming weeks, we will review both the survey findings and the feedback from our community discussions to help guide future steps.”
What precisely did the climate survey measure? In addition to looking at how widespread different types of sexual misconduct are, it studies, in very specific ways, how students perceive the risk of being victimized. It also examines the pervasiveness of nonconsensual sexual contact, both with penetration and with only sexual touching, as well as sexual harassment, stalking, and intimate partner violence.
In addition, the survey evaluates students’ experiences with campus resources and their perceptions of risk.
Overall, the purpose of the survey was to elicit responses that can help campus administrators tailor policies that will best combat sexual assault and sexual misconduct on their campuses.
How BU compares
BU’s survey results show that on several important measures, BU’s findings are similar to those from the 32 other schools.
- The percent of BU undergraduate women who said they had experienced harassing behavior, which does not necessarily involve physical contact, that interfered, limited their ability to participate, or created an intimidating, hostile, or offensive environment was 29.8, slightly lower than the 31.3 percent of undergraduate women at all schools.
- The percent of BU students who said they had witnessed a pattern of sexual comments or behaviors that made them concerned that a fellow student was experiencing sexual harassment was 6.1, while the overall AAU number was 6.8.
- The percent of BU undergraduate women who said they experienced penetration or sexual touching involving physical force and/or inability to consent to or stop what was happening was 23.7, slightly lower than the 25.9 for all AAU schools. For undergraduate men, the numbers were 8.1 at BU and 6.8 at all schools.
- Asked how likely it is that students will experience sexual assault or other sexual misconduct while at the school, 12.9 percent of undergraduate women at BU thought it was very or extremely likely, slightly less than the 14.4 percent of undergraduate women at other schools.
A closer look at BU findings
Nonconsensual Sexual Contact by Physical Force or Inability to Consent
The summary reports that 23.7 percent of BU undergraduate women and 7.4 percent of graduate women were victims of incidents that involved physical force or the inability to consent or stop what was happening. Nearly half of them (46.1 percent) contacted a program or resource.
Of the women who did not report an incident, almost half (48.7 percent) said it was because they thought they could handle it themselves, or (45.4 percent) said it was because the incident was not serious enough. More than one-third of the women (37.3 percent) reported that they did not speak up because they were embarrassed or ashamed or it was too emotionally difficult.
Nonconsensual Sexual Contact by Coercion and without Active, Ongoing Voluntary Agreement
The climate survey asked about the prevalence of nonconsensual sexual contact without active, ongoing voluntary agreement or as the result of coercion. Coercion was defined as a threat of serious nonphysical harm or promising rewards such that you felt you must comply. Such promises might include threatening bad grades or promising good grades, threatening to share damaging information with family or friends, or threatening to post damaging information online.
Less than 1 percent (0.4 percent) of respondents reported being victims of penetration or sexual touching involving coercion. But for incidents without active, ongoing voluntary agreement, the rates of penetration or sexual touching are higher (6.2 percent) than for coercion.
Total Experience with Nonconsensual Sexual Contact
The survey found that 11.8 percent of respondents reported experiencing nonconsensual sexual contact, because of physical force or inability to consent or stop what’s happening. Broken down, the numbers varied widely between men and women, and graduate and undergraduate students. Among undergraduate respondents, 28.9 percent of women and 9.3 percent of men reported some type of nonconsensual sexual contact. Among graduate/professional respondents, 10.4 percent of women and 3.7 percent of men reported this type of nonconsensual sexual contact.
The overall survey findings also shed light on what type of conduct respondents found most prevalent. For example, 36.5 percent of respondents said they experienced at least one type of sexual harassment since starting at BU. Among the most common experiences reported were hearing insulting or offensive sexual remarks or jokes (24.9 percent) and hearing inappropriate comments about their or someone else’s body, appearance, or sexual activities (28.7 percent). Women (29.8 percent of undergraduates and 14.2 percent of graduates/professionals) reported more incidents than men (10.6 percent of undergraduates and 6.9 percent of graduates/professionals). The most commonly reported harassers were individuals with whom the respondents were familiar (39.4 percent), friends (34.8 percent), and classmates (34.2 percent).
Intimate Partner Violence
Of the 57.9 percent of respondents who indicated they were in a partnered relationship, 9.0 percent indicated experiencing at least one type of intimate partner violence, including controlling behavior (6.2 percent), threats of physical harm (4.3 percent), and use of physical force or injury (2.4 percent). Undergraduates (12.8 percent of women and 9.8 percent of men) were more likely to report incidents than graduate/professional students (5.6 percent of women and 5.5 percent of men).
Of all respondents, 14.2 percent reported experiencing at least one type of stalking behavior. The most frequent actions included unwanted phone calls, emails, texts, or unwanted messages, pictures, or videos posted online (8.2 percent) or having someone show up uninvited or waiting for them (7.4 percent). Undergraduate women who reported being stalked identified the perpetrators of this behavior as a friend (31.1 percent), someone they recognized but not a friend (27.6 percent), or a classmate (27.3 percent).
Amie Grills, a 2019 Climate Survey Task Force member and a BU Wheelock College of Education & Human Development professor of counseling psychology and applied human development, says the survey results will inform and guide the University’s ongoing efforts to combat sexual assault and other misconduct.
“With the information from this, and the previous survey, it’s time to start looking more carefully at how we can introduce the next level of prevention and intervention efforts,” says Grills, who researches sexual assault. “While these can be difficult conversations, they need to be ongoing and address what we have learned from our students who have responded to these surveys.”
Certain findings will be especially useful, like understanding why less than 50 percent of students who reported experiencing sexual misconduct sought out services. “Those reasons provide information that may be critical in designing additional prevention programming and introducing alternative intervention approaches,” she says.
Grills says the survey results are in line with what she and fellow researchers have been seeing for decades. And, she says, they “make it clear that further efforts to address sexual assault and misconduct are imperative.”
Emily Rothman, a School of Public Health associate professor of community health sciences and a member of the 2019 Climate Survey Task Force, says that as a professor who focuses on sexual violence in her research and teaching, she is “inspired by the number of student initiatives and the energy of students in recent years to pick up this issue and devote themselves to working on it. I have seen more activism to promote healthy sexual relationships and sexual safety than ever before, and have had a lot of interest from undergraduate and graduate students alike in my SPH class on sexual violence.”
Rothman says while the survey results are sad news, it is not necessarily new news.
“It’s not surprising to the many students, faculty, administrators, and staff on campus who have been working in sexual assault prevention for decades,” she says. “Even before the #MeToo era there was an awareness that sexual assault is all too prevalent, and data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggest that in the United States as many as one in three women and one in six men experience some form of contact sexual violence in their lifetime.”
BU’s more discouraging comparisons to other schools include the finding that students here feel a relatively low sense of community. At BU, 22 percent of students said they felt very or extremely connected to the campus community, while the overall number for other schools was 29.6 percent. BU also scored slightly lower (62.2 percent vs 65.6 percent) than other schools in the percent of students who believed that campus officials would take the report of sexual assault or other misconduct seriously. And one of BU’s most troubling numbers was not a response to a survey question, but the response rate to the survey itself. Despite the administration’s efforts to encourage participation—students who completed the survey could choose one of four Boston-based organizations dedicated to addressing sexual violence to receive a $5 donation—BU’s response rate of 13.4 percent was significantly lower than the 21.9 percent overall response rate of all 33 AAU member schools that administered the same survey.
The AAU survey grouped respondents’ gender in three groups: woman, man, and a third category that included trans man or woman, genderqueer or nonbinary, questioning, or not listed (TGQN). Student affiliation was divided into two groups: 1) undergraduate, and 2) graduate/professional.
Overall, the AAU survey showed, undergraduate women and undergraduate TGQN students reported much higher incidences of sexual assault than their male counterparts or their counterparts in graduate and professional schools. The incidence for women undergraduates is nearly 2.7 times higher than for women graduate and professional students (25.9 percent vs 9.7 percent). Among TGQN students, 22.8 percent of undergraduates and 14.5 percent of graduate and professional students reported this type of victimization. Yet only 6.8 percent of undergraduate men and 2.5 percent of male graduate/professional students reported sexual assault.
Encouraging news for BU administrators was that students said they were aware of services and resources provided by the University, including Student Health Services (89.4 percent), the BU Police Department (84.9 percent), and the Sexual Assault Response & Prevention Center (SARP) (79.3 percent). Only 4.7 percent of respondents were not aware of any services or resources the University or local community provides. More than 86 percent of incoming students (initially enrolled) indicated they completed at least one training about sexual assault or other misconduct. These topics included how sexual assault is defined on campus (97.0 percent), how to prevent sexual assault (94.6 percent), additional training on prevention (70.6 percent), and where to seek help (93.8 percent). For returning students, 89.7 percent reported that they completed at least one training since arriving at the University. The same topics applied: how sexual assault is defined (93.9 percent), how to prevent sexual assault (94.3 percent), additional training (63.8 percent), and where to seek help (91.2 percent).
Maureen Mahoney, director of BU’s Sexual Assault Response & Prevention Center (SARP), says the widespread knowledge of University resources suggests that efforts such as the University’s mandatory online training for all faculty, staff, and students, which was implemented last year, are helping to make inroads.
“I think that’s one of the things that is making people more aware that this office exists,” she says. “That’s really important, because our name alone doesn’t describe the breadth of services that we offer.”
Mahoney says she is pleased that many University offices and student groups have started to use SARP to vet speakers and events that they would like to bring to campus. “That’s one of the things we are trying to promote,” she says.
Other efforts that Mahoney would like to see the BU community take greater advantage of include an annual SARP-sponsored monthlong campaign that includes panel discussions, art activities, and other events to promote education about sexual assault prevention. SARP has also added several therapy groups to discuss different types of sexual violence, redesigned its sexual misconduct brochure to make it more easily understood, and expanded and modified its training about consent based on student feedback.
Mahoney also finds encouragement in the 79 percent of students who said that when they witnessed a pattern of sexual comments or behaviors that made them concerned that a fellow student was experiencing sexual harassment, they took action. And 30 percent said they directly intervened or interrupted the situation, or confronted or expressed concern to the person engaging in the behavior.
Want to learn more about BU’s 2019 Campus Climate Survey of Sexual Assault and Misconduct? Read more about survey results here, or stop by one of two listening sessions on Wednesday, October 16. All members of the BU community are invited to attend.
Wednesday, October 16
3:30 to 5 pm
75 East Newton Street (E Building)
Charles River Campus
Wednesday, October 16
5:30 to 7 pm
775 Commonwealth Avenue, second floor