Twenty percent of undergraduate women who answered a survey last fall at Rutgers University said they experienced unwanted sexual contact in their time as students, the New Jersey state school reported Wednesday.
The finding, together with other recent research, reinforces growing evidence of the breadth of the problem of college sexual assault. In a Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll published in June, 1 in 5 young women who had attended a residential college in the past four years reported being sexually assaulted.
Also in June, the University of Michigan reported that 22.5 percent of its female undergraduates were victims of non-consensual sexual behavior, ranging from touching to penetration. In October, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology reported that 17 percent of female undergrads experienced similar unwanted behavior.
Results from these and other studies vary depending on how questions are framed and who is answering them. For instance, the University of Kentucky said Tuesday that 4.9 percent of students reported experiencing unwanted vaginal, oral or anal sex in the past year, attacks that could amount to rape or forcible sodomy. But the university did not say how many of the reported victims were women or undergraduates. A spokesman said the university is studying the data and will release more results.
With the new data — and a renewed focus on the issue — higher-education leaders are becoming increasingly convinced of the gravity of sexual assault on their campuses. Richard L. Edwards, chancellor of Rutgers-New Brunswick, said he was unsurprised at the finding of prevalence of unwanted sexual contact affecting women on his campus.
“It’s consistent with what’s going on, what’s found across the country,” he said. “Regardless of the number, it’s a major problem, affecting numbers of our students and people all across the country, and it has to be taken seriously.”
Rutgers defined unwanted sexual contact to include a range of physical incidents involving force or threats of force, as well as incidents when students were unable to consent or stop what was happening because they were “passed out, drugged, drunk, incapacitated or asleep.”
Rutgers-New Brunswick, with about 48,000 students, conducted the survey last fall through an electronic questionnaire at the request of a White House task force on prevention of campus sexual violence. The survey, which was voluntary, took 10 to 15 minutes to fill out, officials said. About 11,700 students answered it, for a response rate of 28 percent.
Sarah McMahon, an assistant professor of social work who oversaw the Rutgers survey, acknowledged that there was a “potential bias” in the survey results because students decided themselves whether to take it.
Edwards said he was surprised by another finding — that 24 percent of undergraduate women reported experiencing sexual violence before coming to Rutgers. The definition used for that question included not only physical incidents, from touching to penetration, but also “remarks about physical appearance” and “persistent sexual advances that are unwanted by the recipient.”
The university also announced that it was starting a campaign for students, faculty and staff to mobilize to combat the problem. It is called “The Revolution Starts Here: End Sexual Violence Now.”
How universities respond to sexual assault has become a major issue.
The Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights is investigating more than 130 schools for their handling of sexual-violence allegations. On Tuesday, the office announced that it had resolved an investigation of two complaints against Michigan State University. Officials said the university was taking positive steps to correct violations of anti-discrimination law uncovered during the probe. Among other issues, the school did not promptly investigate the two complaints, federal officials said. The office also found evidence of a “sexually hostile environment” at the university for “numerous students and staff” from 2009 to 2014.
“With this agreement, Michigan State University undertakes a strong and comprehensive commitment to address sexual harassment and sexual violence, which will benefit more than 50,000 students and employees,” Catherine E. Lhamon, assistant secretary for civil rights, said in a statement.
Scott Clement contributed to this report.