Executive Summary of the Spring 2010 Campus Wide Survey

of Sexual Assault at SUNY Geneseo

(Click here for the full report)

Sexual assault involves sexual activity that is nonconsensual and unwanted (Peterson & Muehlenhard, 2007). Sexual assault is common on college campuses across the nation. According to a report commissioned by the National Institutes of Justice (NIJ), 19% of women reported experiencing attempted or completed rape specifically since starting college (Krebs et al., 2007). Similarly, the American College Health Association (ACHA) projected that 20-25% of women will experience attempted or completed rape in college; rates are even higher when including non-penetrative sexual contact (Carr, 2005). Men are also sexually assaulted; in the NIJ study, 6% of men reported attempted or completed rape since starting college (Krebs et al.)

Sexual assaults violate individual sexual autonomy, which includes the right to refuse sexual activity with any person, at any time, for any or no reason (Schulhofer, 1998). Sexual autonomy is not protected in either state law (McGregor, 2005) or in college codes of conduct (e.g., Shapiro, 2010). The absence of this protection both reflects and corroborates widespread societal tendencies to minimize sexual assault and to blame victims.

According to the Center for Public Integrity (Lombardi, 2010), campus sexual assault across the nation is common, yet widely minimized by institutions of higher learning. In contrast, SUNY Geneseo is proactively addressing these issues in our own community. To begin, an anonymous campus wide survey was conducted to a) estimate the prevalence of sexual assault at Geneseo, b) identify the most common types of sexual assault on campus and risk for sexual assault, c) learn which experiences, if any, were identified by students as reflecting "sexual assault", d) identify rates of reporting sexual assault to Geneseo personnel and specific offices most likely to receive these reports, and e) identify barriers to student reporting to personnel.

Currently enrolled students (N = 1701, 72.4% female) responded to a 20 item online survey of "College Students' Sexual Experiences." The average age was 20.11. Freshman (25.8%), sophomores (23.6%), juniors (25.7%), seniors (23.5%), and graduate students (1.4%) participated. To assess time on campus, students were asked "this is my ____year enrolled at Geneseo" (possible responses were first (1), second (2), etc.). The sample average was 2.28.

Students completed a validated behaviorally-specific measure of sexual assault experiences. They also indicated the sex of the perpetrator(s), who they told about these experiences, barriers to telling Geneseo personnel, and if they identified as having been sexually assaulted. All survey items were preceded with these instructions: "Please include only incidents that occurred at Geneseo. That is, include experiences either on or off campus or involving others affiliated with the Geneseo community."

About 25% of the overall sample experienced some kind of behaviorally-specific sexual assault at Geneseo. Rates among women (30%) are consistent with projections from the ACHA (Carr, 2005). Although the most common type of sexual assault at Geneseo involved nonconsensual contact, 13.2% experienced more than one type of sexual assault (i.e., sexual contact, sexual coercion, attempted rape, or rape), and 18.3% had multiple experiences.  

About 15% of women and 8% of men in our Geneseo sample were severely sexual assaulted (i.e., attempted or completed rape), which is similar to rates reported by the NIJ (Krebs et al., 2007). In our research, as well as in theirs, severe sexual assault may be underestimated for at least two reasons. First, sexual assault was most commonly reported by those in their fourth year on campus, but about a third of our sample was on campus for less than one year. Second, some students described offenses not captured by behaviorally-specific items. Nevertheless, sexual assault occurs at Geneseo and elsewhere (Carr, 2005; Karjane et al., 2006; Krebs et al.).

The perpetrator tactics most commonly used in sexual assaults at Geneseo, in descending order, were overwhelming verbal pressure, victim incapacitation due to substances, physical force, and abuse of authority. Most of these tactics are clearly problematic. At the same time, we might be encouraged that many sexual assaults involved psychological pressure, which is often treated by the law as persuasion (Schulhofer, 1998). And it is certainly possible that some nonconsensual events involving verbal pressure leading to touching, fondling, or kissing were brief and (to quote many students), "no big deal." At the same time, sexual contact can involve a wide range of invasive non-penetration experiences. In addition, as a result of overwhelming verbal pressure, 11% of women and 4% of men were compelled into unwanted sexual penetration. Although different from attempted or completed rape, this type of sexual coercion is a problem both because it violates individual sexual autonomy and because it often occurs within violent intimate relationships on our campus (e.g., Katz, Moore, & May, 2008) and elsewhere (e.g., White & Smith, 2009).

Consistent with past research (e.g., Banyard et al., 2007; Krebs et al., 2997), women at Geneseo were significantly more likely than men to be sexually assaulted. To our knowledge, no nationwide studies have investigated rates of same-sex perpetration. At Geneseo, most sexual victimization occurred in a heterosexual context, although men who were sexual assaulted were significantly more likely than women to experience same-sex perpetration. On our campus, sexual assault among women, among men, and in the LGBT community should be addressed.

 Most Geneseo students who had behaviorally-specific sexual assault experiences did not identify having been "sexually assaulted." Likewise, the most common barriers to reporting sexual assault to Geneseo were minimization of the event, self-blame, and stigma. These results are consistent with larger sociocultural tendencies to minimize violations of sexual autonomy. Many students define terms like "sexual assault" in a narrow, stereotypical way (e.g., Anderson, 2007) and are reluctant to apply these terms to their own experiences, in part, because victims are routinely devalued (e.g., Valenti, 2010).

Few students reported their sexual assault experiences to Geneseo. Even among those who identified as sexually assaulted, about 18% told any personnel. Those who did, in fact, report sexual assaults to personnel were most likely to tell on campus health services or residence hall staff. Low rates of reporting converge with low rates nationwide documented by the ACHA (Carr, 2005). Common barriers to reporting specific to Geneseo policy or procedures involved a lack of proof or worry about being believed, the perceived ineffectiveness of reporting, and discomfort reporting to unfamiliar people. Geneseo policy-related barriers were somewhat more frequently endorsed by students who identified as having been sexually assaulted. Even when victims do not minimize their experiences, they do not expect to be supported.

These survey results suggest the need for campus-wide educational programs aimed at reducing collective tendencies to minimize sexual assault and blame victims. Underreporting also suggests the need for Geneseo to evaluate our institutional policies and practices. The messages that we send about sexual assault can powerfully shape, for better or for worse, students' own understandings of sexual assault. ACHA and NIJ reports show that institutional policies and practices across the nation reflect the larger sociocultural context in which sexual assault is minimized. Our campus may also, albeit unintentionally, perpetuate these ideas. We should carefully consider our policies and procedures related to sexual assault. Regardless of the specific changes we make, one thing is certain. At Geneseo, we can do better.       

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