The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Two of every five undergraduate women at Tulane say they experienced sexual assault

Aerial view of the Tulane University campus in New Orleans. (Lorenzo Serafini Boni and Richard Campanella/Tulane University)

Forty-one percent of undergraduate women at Tulane University say they have experienced a sexual assault since enrolling at the New Orleans school, according to survey results made public Wednesday.

For male undergraduates, the rate was 18 percent. Those shares appear somewhat higher than what many other schools have reported in recent years, although comparisons are difficult because survey methods vary. Tulane's survey defined sexual assault as unwanted sexual contact, such as fondling, as well as rape and attempted rape.

Tulane President Michael A. Fitts called the findings "deeply disturbing" and pledged an expanded campaign to end sexual violence.

"For years, Tulane has proudly implemented the prevention programs that are considered best practices throughout higher education," Fitts wrote in a message to the university community. "Yet this latest data shows that those programs have not accomplished nearly enough to prevent sexual violence on our campuses. We still seek the answers — we at Tulane, we in higher education generally, and we as a nation."

The report from the 13,000-student private research university adds to growing evidence that sexual assault is a widespread problem on campuses throughout America.

In 2015, a national telephone poll by The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 20 percent of young women who had attended a residential college in a four-year period said they had been sexually assaulted.

The Post-Kaiser poll and campus debate over consent

Separately, the Association of American Universities reported that 23 percent of female undergraduates surveyed that year at 27 research universities said they had been victims of sexual assault and misconduct. The prevalence rate in that study ranged as high as 30 percent at the universities of Michigan and Southern California.

The AAU sexual assault survey

Last year, Duke University released a survey with results similar to Tulane's: 40 percent of undergraduate women said they had experienced a sexual assault incident after enrolling.

Tulane canvassed full-time students in early 2017, a year of rising public awareness of sexual violence and harassment issues on campuses and in the workplace. Fifty-three percent of its undergraduates and 31 percent of graduate students responded to the online questionnaire, giving university officials confidence that the results provided an accurate — and sobering — view of their campus climate.

Kevin Swartout, a Georgia State University expert on sexual violence prevention who reviewed the study, said the data appeared solid. The finding of sexual assault prevalence among undergraduate women is "shocking," he said. "The folks at Tulane are taking it very seriously."

Swartout, an associate professor of psychology and public health, said it is essential to learn the full extent of the problem. "They have put a specific number on it, and that's uncomfortable," he said. "But it lays the foundation for a path forward."

Among the findings:

●Students who are lesbian, gay or bisexual reported experiencing sexual assault at higher rates than those who are not.

●Fewer than half of undergraduate women and a quarter of undergraduate men who are victims of sexual misconduct disclose those experiences to anyone.

●Students appeared to have confidence in Tulane. Eighty-four percent of undergraduates who said they had experienced sexual misconduct said the university did or would provide them with needed support. Most victims also said they would recommend attending Tulane.

●Among graduate students, 16 percent of women and 8 percent of men reported experiencing sexual assault.

To combat the problem, the university teaches incoming students about sexual consent and promotes "bystander intervention" and other prevention strategies. But officials say they plan to deepen those efforts.

The study found links between sexual violence and alcohol, with a large majority of the attacks occurring when the victims were incapacitated and unable to provide consent. "It's very, very important to note that in no way, shape or form is this blaming or holding victims responsible," Fitts said. "Alcohol is a tool of perpetrators."

Drinking is deeply ingrained in the campus culture, as it is at many schools. The study found that 43 percent of undergraduate men and 39 percent of undergraduate women drink three or more times a week.

When they do imbibe, many say they drink a lot: 16 percent of women and 39 percent of men report typically having seven or more drinks on those occasions. Fitts said that, too, is an issue Tulane wants to address. He noted that fraternities and sororities recently stopped serving hard liquor at parties. "We've made a very concerted effort to reduce excessive drinking on the Tulane campus," he said.

Scott Clement contributed to this report.