Update: See AAU's 2019 Survey on Sexual Assault and Misconduct
The primary goal of the Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct was to provide participating institutions of higher education with information to inform policies to prevent and respond to sexual assault and misconduct.
The survey was designed to assess the incidence, prevalence and characteristics of incidents of sexual assault and misconduct. It also assessed the overall climate of the campus with respect to perceptions of risk, knowledge of resources available to victims and perceived reactions to an incident of sexual assault or misconduct. For information about the methods used in the survey read the methodology report.
NOTE: During a review of our 2015 Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Misconduct by independent researchers, a minor coding error was detected. The error was not substantive and did not affect any report findings or conclusions. Westat has corrected the coding error and provided updated data to participating universities. For further detail and information on how to find this revision in the aggregate report, please refer to this document.
- Overall, 11.7 percent of student respondents across 27 universities reported experiencing nonconsensual sexual contact by physical force, threats of physical force, or incapacitation since they enrolled at their university.
- The incidence of sexual assault and sexual misconduct due to physical force, threats of physical force, or incapacitation among female undergraduate student respondents was 23.1 percent, including 10.8 percent who experienced penetration.
- Overall rates of reporting to campus officials and law enforcement or others were low, ranging from five percent to 28 percent, depending on the specific type of behavior.
- The most common reason for not reporting incidents of sexual assault and sexual misconduct was that it was not considered serious enough. Other reasons included because they were “embarrassed, ashamed or that it would be too emotionally difficult,” and because they “did not think anything would be done about it.”
- More than six in 10 student respondents (63.3 percent) believe that a report of sexual assault or sexual misconduct would be taken seriously by campus officials.
Members of the Association of American Universities (AAU) are working to combat sexual assault and misconduct on their campuses. As an association of research universities, AAU decided in 2014 that the best way to help its members address this issue was to develop and implement a scientific survey to better understand the attitudes and experiences of their students with respect to sexual assault and sexual misconduct. The survey’s primary goal was to provide participating institutions of higher education (IHEs) with information to inform their policies to prevent and respond to sexual assault and misconduct. In addition, members hoped that the survey would provide useful information to policymakers as well as make a significant contribution to the body of academic research on this complex issue.
In the fall of 2014, AAU contracted with Westat, a research firm, to work with a university team of researchers and administrators to design and implement the survey, entitled the AAU Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct. The survey was administered at the end of the spring 2015 semester on the campuses of 27 IHEs, 26 of which are AAU member universities. This report provides a description of the survey methodology and key results.
The survey was designed to assess the incidence, prevalence and characteristics of incidents of sexual assault and misconduct. It also assessed the overall campus climate with respect to perceptions of risk, knowledge of resources available to victims, and perceived reactions to an incident of sexual assault or misconduct. The report provides selected results for five questions:
- How extensive is nonconsensual sexual contact?
- How extensive are sexual harassment, stalking and intimate partner violence?
- Who are the victims?
- To whom do students report or talk about the incidents?
What is the campus climate around sexual assault and sexual misconduct?
This study is one of the first to provide an empirical assessment of these questions across a wide range of IHEs. Prior studies of campus sexual assault and misconduct have been implemented for a small number of IHEs or for a national sample of students with relatively small samples for any particular IHE. To date, comparisons across surveys have been problematic because of different methodologies and different definitions. The AAU study is one of the first to implement a uniform methodology across multiple IHEs and to produce statistically reliable estimates for each IHE. It was designed to provide separate estimates for incidents involving two types of sexual contact (penetration and sexual touching) and four tactics (physical force, drugs and alcohol, coercion, absence of affirmative consent), as well as behaviors such as sexual harassment, stalking, and intimate partner violence. Providing this level of detail allows campus administrators to tailor policies by these very different types of sexual assault and misconduct.
Highlights of the results include:
- The percentage of students who report nonconsensual sexual contact varies greatly by the type of sexual contact (penetration or sexual touching) and whether or not it involves physical force, alcohol or drugs, coercion, or absence of affirmative consent.
- The profiles of each IHE are quite different. There is wide variation across IHEs:
- for most types of sexual assault and misconduct measured on this survey.
- for various campus climate measures, such as opinions about how problematic it is at the school and how students and university officials might react to an incident.
- The average rates of nonconsensual sexual contact by physical force or incapacitation across all 27 IHEs are as high or slightly higher than those revealed in prior surveys.
- Rates of sexual assault and misconduct are highest among undergraduate females and those identifying as transgender, genderqueer, non-conforming, questioning, and as something not listed on the survey (TGQN).
- The risk of the most serious types of nonconsensual sexual contact, due to physical force or incapacitation, decline from freshman to senior year. This decline is not as evident for other types of nonconsensual sexual contact
- Nonconsensual sexual contact involving drugs and alcohol constitute a significant percentage of the incidents.
- A relatively small percentage (e.g., 28% or less) of even the most serious incidents are reported to an organization or agency (e.g., Title IX office; law enforcement)
- More than 50 percent of the victims of even the most serious incidents (e.g., forced penetration) say they do not report the event because they do not consider it “serious enough.”
- A significant percentage of students say they did not report because they were “…embarrassed, ashamed or that it would be too emotionally difficult” or “...did not think anything would be done about it.”
- Significantly more than half of the victims of nonconsensual sexual contact who reported the incident to an agency or organization said their experience with the agency or organization was very good or excellent along several criteria.
- When asked what might happen when a student reports an incident of sexual assault or misconduct to a university official, about half say that it is very or extremely likely that the university will conduct a fair investigation. The percentage is lower for those groups that are most likely to report victimization (i.e., females and those identifying as TGQN). Similar percentages are evident for opinions about other types of reactions by the university (e.g., officials would take the report seriously; protect the safety of the student; take action against the offender).
- A relatively small percentage of students believe it is very or extremely likely they will experience sexual assault or misconduct. A larger percentage of students believe that sexual assault and misconduct is very or extremely problematic for the IHE.
- A little less than half of the students have witnessed a drunk person heading for a sexual encounter. Among those who reported being a witness, most did not try to intervene.
- About a quarter of the students generally believe they are knowledgeable about the resources available related to sexual assault and misconduct.
As noted above, the study found a wide range of variation across the 27 IHEs in the rates of sexual assault and misconduct, as well as the climate measures. However, the analyses did not find a clear explanation for why there is such wide variation. Some university characteristics, such as size, were correlated with certain outcomes. But the correlation was not particularly strong.
An analysis of the possibility the estimates were affected by non-response bias found that certain types of estimates may be too high because non-victims may have been less likely to participate. This might have contributed to some of the differences observed between schools, although indications are that this was not a large effect.
The wide variation across IHEs puts in stark perspective prior discussions of single-IHE rates as representing a “standard” against which to compare results. For example, many news stories are focused on figures like “1 in 5” in reporting victimization. As the researchers who generated this number have repeatedly said, the 1 in 5 number is for a few IHEs and is not representative of anything outside of this frame. The wide variation of rates across IHEs in the present study emphasizes the significance of this caveat.