How Northwestern's sexual misconduct survey results compare to other schools

    Northwestern released the results of its “2015 Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Misconduct” last week, along with updated procedures, resources and official Policy on Sexual Misconduct. Calling its survey and changing policies a result of a broader movement to change the cultural norms that often allow sexual violence, Northwestern pledged to provide a “secure, productive environment for the entire community” in a news release.

    “We urge all our students, faculty and staff to work together on this – to understand their roles, raise awareness and use all means possible to help us develop a culture of respect where sexual misconduct is not tolerated,” said University President Morton Schapiro in a public statement.

    Both undergraduates and graduates on Northwestern’s Chicago and Evanston campuses were invited to participate in the 2015 Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Misconduct, which was emailed to students last May. Only about 15 percent of students responded, which led the University to caution that its results may not represent the entire campus. Across both undergraduate and graduate categories, many more female students responded than males. 

    Directly comparing NU's results with the results of similar sexual misconduct surveys carried out at other schools is difficult – each school asks different questions, along different definitions, and with different response rates. Yet there are vital trends that can still be seen across the country.

    Experiences of sexual misconduct

    One of the survey’s most striking statistics was the fact that nearly one-third of undergraduate female respondents said that they had been touched or fondled in some way, without consent. Both the NU survey and the U.S. Department of Justice consider such instances examples of sexual assault. Stanford University's report on sexual misconduct, released Oct. 1, also showed that around a third of women students experienced some form of sexual misconduct, as did a third of gender-diverse students. Stanford's definition of sexual misconduct includes "nonconsensual penetration or oral sex that occurs without the condition of force, violence, duress, menace or incapacitation," as well as "acts of sexual touching without consent and some acts of clothing removal without consent."

    For comparison, in Tufts University’s “Tufts Attitudes About Sexual Conduct Survey,” a similar study whose results were also released last week, only 18.7 percent of female students reported experiencing at least one incident of sexual assault (Northwestern’s survey did not account for multiple occurrences). 

    Another 26 percent of Northwestern undergraduate females said they had been sexually harassed.

    “That’s not provocative enough for me, knowing how many people it hurts,” said College Feminists President Sydney Selix, adding that surveys like Northwestern, Stanford and Tuft's now emerge regularly. “We got that now. How are we going to lower this number?”

    Student attitudes

    Regarding student attitudes, results were more heartening. While 74 percent said Northwestern students respect each other’s personal space, 97 percent of respondents also said they at least agreed with the statement, “I believe it is important to get consent before sexual activity.” Most students also thought it was “not at all” likely that they would experience sexual misconduct on campus. However, among undergraduate females, 82 percent thought there was at least a little chance they would experience it.

    A survey conducted by the Association of American Universities asked more than 150,000 students at 27 schools whether they considered sexual assault and misconduct to be very problematic or extremely problematic on their campuses. At Brown University, 35 percent of students said yes; at Columbia, 23 percent; at Dartmouth, 30. The lowest number of "yes" answers were found at the California Institute of Technology, where only two percent of students agreed with the statement. (Cal. Tech, perhaps not coincidentally, also had the lowest percentage prevalance of sexual assault out of all 27 universities. The average prevalence was 23 percent.)

    The survey also revealed that while a majority of students trusted Northwestern to take a report of sexual misconduct “seriously," not many students thought the University could “handle a report fairly," perhaps because of conflicts of interest for the University. Meanwhile, in Stanford's report, more than 70 percent of Stanford students indiciated that they did in fact trust the school to take sexual misconduct reports fairly.

    Northwestern’s resources for sexual assault survivors, like the University Police and the Women’s Center, had high brand-name recognition. Many students also indicated that they would seek help from these resources. But only 18 percent of respondents thought they actually understood how the NU process of making a claim of sexual assault or misconduct truly works.

    That lack of understanding might account for why only seven percent of respondents said they reported their sexual misconduct experience. Of that seven percent – only 46 students – only 13 said their case when through a formal University investigation or hearing.

    Resources for NU students

    Many of Northwestern’s new resources aim to raise awareness of survivors’ options. On Sept. 10, the school launched a new Sexual Misconduct Response & Prevention website, with sections detailing what sexual misconduct looks like, how to file a complaint and where to seek confidential help (for yourself or others). Northwestern also started a new series of CARE-conducted training programs called “Support Starts Here,” which aims to teach faculty, staff and students how to create a community that supports survivors. Furthermore, faculty and staff will now have access to a new guide on how to help students who have experienced sexual misconduct.


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