Sexual Misconduct Survey Guides Plan for Action

Questionnaire’s results: concerning numbers, commitment to improve

Nine out of ten BU students who completed a survey on sexual misconduct in March said they feel safe on campus, and three quarters said they believe University administrators are genuinely concerned with their welfare. But almost one in four female students said they had experienced at least one form of sexual assault victimization as a BU student. While that figure is consistent with reports from other campuses and with national estimates, it is a cause for concern by members of the task force convened by President Robert A. Brown that designed the survey.

In a letter to the BU Community, President Robert A. Brown said it is very disturbing that so many students have experienced sexual assault.”Our community’s well-being depends on adherence to principles of individual responsibility, mutual respect, and trust,” wrote Brown. “We must redouble our efforts to reinforce these principles and prevent those choices and behaviors that harm members of our community or others.”

The Sexual Misconduct Climate Survey measures students’ perceptions of sexual violence at BU and is intended to guide the University’s efforts to improve its response to sexual assault. A total of 5,875 students, or 22 percent of those who received it, filled out the survey. About 25 percent of the women receiving the survey responded and only 16 percent of the men. See all survey results here.

“The sexual misconduct survey data provide us with important information about how our community experiences and understands sexual misconduct, and is therefore valuable in guiding our efforts to ensure that we provide a safe and responsive campus climate,” says Jean Morrison, University provost and chief academic officer. “We made extensive changes to our practices and policies in response to guidance by the federal government last year. We will monitor how well these policies and practices function, and assess whether changes are needed.”

Task force cochair Kenneth Elmore, BU dean of students, says he takes the survey results as “a call for us to improve how we reach students with information about how we talk about sexual assault and how we address issues after an incident.”

He hopes that “this is also an occasion for students to talk to each other about the way they sometimes objectify each other, socialize with each other, communicate with each other, the expectations they have of each other to manage personal behavior, and how we look after each other,” says Elmore (SED’87). “With only a 22 percent participation, I hope we all see that the conversations about student culture need more voices—it is an important conversation that I hope more students will lead and join.”

Task force member Sophie Godley (SPH’15), a School of Public Health clinical assistant professor of community health sciences, says she had hoped that BU students would offer a more positive view of the campus climate than students at other schools have done.

After all, Godley says, the University “has put several things in place” to address the issue of sexual misconduct and assault, including opening the Sexual Assault Response & Prevention Center (SARP) three years ago. And BU “has a dean of students, a provost, and a president who are really committed to this.”

And yet, she says, “we were very much in line with what other colleges and universities are finding. We continue to have students experience sexual assault and sexual violence. We are pleased to see that some students feel we are doing a very good job, but there is work to be done.”

Another task force member, Emily Rothman, an SPH associate professor of community health sciences, found some of the survey results disturbing. “It is outrageous and horrifying that at BU—and on every other US campus that has conducted this type of survey—we are finding that approximately 23 percent of female students, 7 percent of male students, and 26 percent of students with nonbinary gender identity (those who identify outside the male/female genders) reported victimization while a student,” she says. “What we learned is that BU is no different from any other university in this way, and that as a nation we have some serious work to do.”

Rothman points out that the survey results may be skewed by the self-selection of the respondents. “People who have been sexually assaulted may have been disproportionately likely to participate in the survey,” she says. “But the counterpoint is that our results are consistent with nationally representative surveys. And the plain count of individuals who say they have been sexually assaulted while enrolled at BU is enough to make anyone deeply upset.”

A similar survey, released Monday, of more than 150,000 students at 27 universities, was conducted by the Association of American Universities (AAU) and had comparable findings. The AAU found that the overall incidence of nonconsensual sexual contact by physical force, threats of physical force, or incapacitation among female undergraduate student respondents was 23.1 percent. That figure varied widely among the schools surveyed. At Harvard, it was 25.5 percent, at Yale 28.1 percent, and at Dartmouth 27.9 percent. At BU, 27 percent of female undergraduates said they experienced completed or attempted nonconsensual sexual contact by force or incapacitation. The AAU survey also found that rates of reporting incidents to friends were much the same, and that there was similarly high involvement of alcohol in sexual assaults and other misconduct.

Rothman says the BU survey, which garnered a slightly higher response rate than the AAU survey, cast a wider net, asking more questions about students’ notions of consent, and about bystander responsibilities. “BU felt it was important not only to know about the number of incidents,” she says, “but also to know about the climate, so the University can better pinpoint what the problems are and work on solutions.”

The BU survey found that 78 percent of victims said they had been using alcohol at the time of the assault, and 86 percent reported that their assailant had been drinking. When the assailant was known, in 67 percent of cases it was another BU student.

“We really have to untangle the complicated mess of alcohol on campus in conjunction with sexual assault,” Godley says. “I don’t think we can do much about sexual assault unless we address alcohol. I don’t know of any university that has solved this.”

Results: some disappointing, some encouraging

Other key results:

  • In response to questions about the general climate and environment at BU, nearly 90 percent of those who answered the survey agreed with the statement that the faculty is genuinely concerned. About 22 percent said they did not believe that there is a good support system at BU for students going through difficult times. Students with nonbinary gender identity, undergraduates, and students who had been sexually assaulted consistently said they did not feel as supported and protected by the administration, faculty, and staff as other students do.
  • Nearly 27 percent did not believe that BU would take corrective action against the perpetrator of a sexual assault, and 25 percent did not think BU would take action to address the factors that led to the assault.
  • Female students had less confidence than males in how a reporting student would be protected from retaliation. They also had less confidence that a report would be taken seriously and that corrective action would be taken against the perpetrator. Respondents with nonbinary gender identity had less confidence than female or male respondents that a reporting student would be protected from retaliation, or that the report would be taken seriously and that corrective action would be taken.
  • Asked if anyone had sexual contact with them by physical force or threatening physical harm since they had been a BU student, 8.6 percent of female students, 1.7 percent of male, and 7.6 percent of nonbinary students answered affirmatively.

Both Rothman and Godley also found some reasons for optimism in the results.

“It was encouraging that nearly all survey respondents reported that they would speak up if they heard someone else victim-blaming,” says Rothman, “or would ask someone who seemed upset at a party if they needed help. It was also encouraging that 90 percent of male survey respondents understood that an absence of saying no is not the same thing as sexual consent. We need to find a way to reach that 10 percent who don’t understand that they need to hear the word yes before each new sex act with someone while hooking up. We need to teach them that if someone consents to have sex, that doesn’t mean they gave carte blanche and are up for everything you might have in mind.”

Rothman says she was most pleased to learn that 73 percent of sexual assault survivors said they had told a friend what had happened. “That’s very important,” she says, “because nobody should suffer through the doubt, fear, and trauma alone. As a campus community, we need to make sure that all students are prepared for that moment when a friend says to them, ‘This thing happened…and I’m not sure if it counts as sexual assault.’ We can give training that will help students know what to do in those situations.”

About 37 percent of survey respondents who had been sexually assaulted said they told a roommate, 20 percent told a significant other, and 13 percent told a parent or guardian. Only 6 percent reported the incident to a campus sexual assault resource, and 6 percent told a health care provider.

Godley says she was not surprised at the relatively low numbers of victims who chose to report to a sexual assault resource. “With sexual violence, the research—and my experience—shows us that this is not what happens,” she says. “It’s a violation that is so private and it so rocks people to the core that it is very hard to report. There is so much self-blame and so much fear that it is really common that people don’t go to counselors. They go to their typical support systems.”

She says the reporting pattern means that “we have to make sure that we have every door open at BU and that you get the loving support you need, and hopefully that will lead people to SARP. It’s not enough to say, ‘We have this great new center, and everyone should go there.’”

Godley and Rothman were also encouraged by evidence that students believe they can make a difference when it comes to campus sexual assault. “Most students feel like they could do something if someone is drunk and that they could get help,” Godley says. “They could confront someone who is making excuses for physical force. I really think that means we are experiencing a change in our culture, and we can capitalize on that. More students feel that there is more that they can do, and it’s not just the job of SARP. I really believe that BU students want to be engaged, they want to solve problems, they don’t want to sit back.”

Rothman notes that it’s not just female students who want to help end sexual and dating violence; many men on campus would like to be involved, too. “When I went to college in the 1990s, a lot of men got defensive if you mentioned rape—as if you were blaming all men, or hated men, and sexual assault was just a women’s issue,” she says. “I know things have changed because I have cis male students who take my class on sexual assault, because there are fraternities and male athletic teams that are actually leading the way and have asked for national prevention programs to come to campus, because male faculty and staff are objecting to sexual assault, and because Kenneth Elmore has been a wholly sensitive, trauma-informed, phenomenal leader on this issue.”

Task force member Maureen Mahoney, director of SARP, says people who voluntarily choose to educate themselves about any difficult subject, such as preventing sexual violence, are rare. “For true change to begin to occur,” she says, “it is necessary that the community as a whole is expected to actively participate in learning, hopefully through a series of evidence-based programming that delivers consistent messages and is frequently reinforced.”

Mahoney says there is currently no required prevention programming for all members of the community, although during the 2014–2015 academic year about 1,400 students participated in the University’s primary prevention program, Step Up Step In BU (SUSIBU), which teaches them to identify and confront factors contributing to a climate that allows sexual assault. “It stresses the need for prosocial bystanders—people who have a role in safely intervening in situations that may lead to a harmful outcome,” she says. “As SARP clinicians, we see many students who could have had a very different outcome if others had the skills to act as prosocial bystanders.”

She says that students want to be engaged prosocial bystanders. “That is shown in the survey, with 73 percent of undergrads agreeing with the statement, ‘Sometimes I think I should learn more about sexual violence.’ The skills necessary to be a prosocial bystander can be learned, and SUSIBU is a great place to learn them.”

BU wants to stop sexual assault—for all the right reasons

Peter Fiedler, vice president for administrative services and task force cochair, says the group hopes to inspire students to get more involved in helping BU find the most effective ways to reduce sexual misconduct and violence.

“We plan to do a deeper dive into our current programs and policies to align them to effect the greatest possible change,” says Fiedler (COM’77). “We know we’re not that different from what our peers have reported, but we need to do better. We want to be leaders in this important effort and want to do that collaboratively with our students.”

Fiedler says he believes that “meaningful change will result from conversation, interaction, and collaboration with our students, our faculty experts, and the clinical staff at SARP.”

The task force closed the report with several recommendations for ways that BU’s administrators, faculty, staff, and students can become involved:

  • Explore ways to rigorously discuss alcohol use in relation to sexual assault and sexual misconduct. Such conversations require thoughtfulness, honesty, and courage to talk about facts without implying that individuals, or their circumstances and choices, are responsible for actual assaults or misconduct.
  • Inspire students to be actively engaged in frequent discussions about sexual assault, and ask student communities to take the lead on these issues, with guidance from faculty experts and SARP.
  • Conduct another survey of our students on sexual misconduct during the spring semester.

“For students wondering if this survey was a PR move on the part of the University,” Rothman says, “I can attest that it is not. I witnessed genuine despair on the part of highly placed people at this University when they got these survey results, and not because they were thinking about money or lawsuits—they were picturing their own children in the place of the victims, and they were authentically empathizing with BU students. I see that the University very badly wants sexual assault to stop, and for all the right reasons.”

Student answers to a quick poll by BU Today about issues addressed in the survey indicate that their opinions generally align with the survey findings: they say they feel safe on campus, and they believe that University administrators are genuinely concerned about their welfare.

“I receive far more alerts, surveys, and other types of correspondence concerning campus safety at Boston University then I ever did at my undergraduate institution,” says graduate student Hayley Crombleholme (COM’16). “I feel the administration provides many opportunities to voice my concerns should I ever feel differently, which I greatly appreciate.” 

Would grad student Keiko Talley (COM’16) seek help from a University source if she were sexually assaulted? She would, she says. “I wouldn’t know where to go exactly,” she says. “But I would assume that going to Student Health Services would be my first stop.”

Another graduate student, Genevieve Scarano (COM’16), says she would confide in a therapist or psychologist in private practice first. “This is a very sensitive issue and I think it would be best to discuss what happened with someone outside of the school sphere since it’s so personal. If they think that I should talk with a mental health professional at BU, then I would talk with someone here as well. It’s hard to handle a situation like this and I wouldn’t want it to be discussed among administration without the consultation of a psychologist first, since there may be legal issues at hand.”

And to the question of what should be done to create a more comfortable environment, junior Laura O’Shea (SED’17) puts the onus on society. “I think change takes a long time,” she says, “and while people are working to change things, there is still a prevalent rape culture.”

Boston University provides many resources for victims of sexual assault.  Read about those resources here.

Author, Art Jahnke can be reached at