Sexual assault survey reveals need for change in policy and procedure

The following briefly describes the results and conclusions of an anonymous campuswide survey conducted in spring 2010 regarding student sexual assault experiences at Geneseo.

The 20-item online survey, titled "College Students' Sexual Experiences" received responses from 1701 currently-enrolled students (72.4 percent female). The average age was about 20 years old, and freshman (25.8 percent), sophomores (23.6 percent), juniors (25.7 percent), seniors (23.5 percent) and graduate students (1.4 percent) participated.

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 percent of the overall sample reported having experienced some kind of sexual assault at Geneseo. Although the most common type of sexual assault at Geneseo involved nonconsensual contact, 13.2 percent experienced more than one type of sexual assault (i.e., sexual contact, sexual coercion, attempted rape or rape) and 18.3 percent had multiple experiences. About 15 percent of women and 8 percent of men in our Geneseo sample were severely sexual assaulted (i.e., attempted or completed rape), which falls in line with rates reported by the National Institute of Justice.

Most assaults occurred in a heterosexual context, but men who were assaulted were significantly more likely than women to experience same-sex perpetration.

Sexual assault occurs at Geneseo and elsewhere. Most Geneseo students who reported having behaviorally-specific sexual assault experiences did not identify having been "sexually assaulted." The most commonly identified 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. Studies show that many students define terms like "sexual assault" in a narrow, stereotypical way and are reluctant to apply these terms to their own experiences, in part because victims are routinely devalued.

Very few respondent students reported their sexual assault experiences. Even among those who identified as sexually assaulted, about 18 percent told any personnel. Those who did 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 American College Health Association.

Common Geneseo-specific barriers to reporting involved a lack of proof or worry about being believed, the perceived ineffectiveness of reporting and discomfort reporting to unfamiliar people. Students who identified as having been sexually assaulted endorsed Geneseo policy-related barriers somewhat more frequently. Even when victims do not minimize their experiences, they do not expect to be supported in their assessment of the situation.

These survey results suggest the need for campuswide educational programs aimed at reducing collective tendencies to minimize sexual assault and blame victims. Underreporting also suggests the need for Geneseo to evaluate its 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. 

The complete report is available online at geneseo.edu/health/spring-2010-campus-wide-survey.

The information presented in this article was submitted to The Lamron by the Sexual Assault Teach-in Steering Committee, comprised of Melinda DuBois, administrative director of health and counseling; Tamara Kenney, assistant dean of students; School of the Arts professor Melanie Blood, psychology professor Jennifer Katz, staff psychologist Gene Griffing and sophomore Sara Hirsch.