1 in 5 women say they were vi­o­lated

Sur­vey’s re­sults prob­a­bly un­der­state scope of cri­sis


Twenty per­cent of young women who at­tended col­lege dur­ing the past four years say they were sex­u­ally as­saulted, ac­cord­ing to a Wash­ing­ton Post-Kaiser Fam­ily Foun­da­tion poll. But the cir­cle of vic­tims on the na­tion’s cam­puses is prob­a­bly even larger.

Many oth­ers en­dured at­tempted at­tacks, the poll found, or sus­pect that some­one vi­o­lated them while they were un­able to con­sent. Some say they were co­erced into sex through ver­bal threats or prom­ises.

In all, the poll found, 25 per­cent of young women and 7 per­cent of young men say they suf­fered un­wanted sex­ual in­ci­dents in col­lege.

The Post-Kaiser poll, one of the most com­pre­hen­sive to date on an is­sue roil­ing the na­tion’s col­leges, pro­vides ev­i­dence that sex­ual as­sault is of­ten con­nected to fac­tors wo­ven deeply into cam­pus cul­ture. Most no­tably, two-thirds of vic­tims say they had been drink­ing al­co­hol just be­fore the in­ci­dents.

Other po­ten­tial risk fac­tors, the poll found, are ca­sual ro­man­tic en­coun­ters known as “hookups” and the pres­ence on cam­pus of fra­ter­ni­ties and soror­i­ties.

The find­ings il­lu­mi­nate the dif­fi­culty col­leges face in pre­vent­ing vi­o­lence that is wide­spread but

rarely re­ported to au­thor­i­ties. Cases that do land on the dean’s desk or in the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem raise what of­ten proves a vex­ing ques­tion: Did both peo­ple in­volved agree to have sex?

The poll yields in­sights from cur­rent and re­cent stu­dents on that is­sue and oth­ers:

They are torn over sex­ual con­sent. Forty-six per­cent said it’s un­clear whether sex­ual ac­tiv­ity when both peo­ple have not given clear agree­ment is sex­ual as­sault. Forty-seven per­cent called that sce­nario sex­ual as­sault.

They do not put sex­ual as­sault atop a list of pos­si­ble con­cerns about their school. Thirty-seven per­cent de­scribed it as a prob­lem on cam­pus. By con­trast, 56 per­cent viewed al­co­hol and drug use as a prob­lem.

They ex­press con­fi­dence in how col­leges deal with sex­ual-as­sault re­ports. More than two-thirds gave their schools an A or a B for their han­dling of com­plaints. Just 8 per­cent gave their schools a D or an F.

The Post gen­er­ally does not iden­tify vic­tims of al­leged sex­ual crimes, but nu­mer­ous poll par­tic­i­pants who were in­ter­viewed chose to be named.

Con­ducted by tele­phone from Jan­uary through March, the poll sur­veyed a ran­dom na­tional sam­ple of 1,053 women and men ages 17 to 26 who were un­der­grad­u­ates at a four-year col­lege — living on cam­pus or nearby — or had been at some point since 2011. They at­tended more than 500 col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties, public and pri­vate, large and small, elite and ob­scure, lo­cated in ev­ery state and the Dis­trict of Columbia.

Post re­porters also con­ducted dozens of fol­low-up in­ter­views with men and women who say they ex­pe­ri­enced com­pleted, at­tempted or sus­pected as­saults. Their ac­counts re­veal an­guish, fury and con­fu­sion about in­ci­dents, on and off cam­pus, that haunt a time of dis­cov­ery and growth. In their first years away from home, while ex­plor­ing the free­dom and op­por­tu­nity of col­lege life, th­ese stu­dents learned the pain of sex­ual vi­o­lence.

A 21-year-old at a public uni­ver­sity in the Southeast who par­tic­i­pated in the poll said she was raped by a male stu­dent who es­corted her out of a night­club af­ter she sud­denly be­came woozy and sep­a­rated from a group of friends. Some­one, she sus­pects, had slipped a drug into her rum drink.

“In the morn­ing, I woke up andmy lip was so swollen,” the woman said. “I just re­mem­ber sob­bing and sob­bing and sob­bing the next day. You learn a lot of lessons.”

Like most who said they had been as­saulted, the woman did not re­port the in­ci­dent to uni­ver­sity of­fi­cials or po­lice. She said she wor­ried about whether she would ruin the man’s fu­ture and won­dered what to make of what had hap­pened: Had there been a mis­un­der­stand­ing? Should she have been more ve­he­ment in say­ing no? She re­mem­bers clearly cry­ing dur­ing the attack. She knew it was rape. But how would oth­ers see it?

“Some­thing very wrong hap­pened,” she said. “I would never wish what hap­pened to me to hap­pen to any­one.”

The poll de­fined sex­ual as­sault to in­clude five types of un­wanted con­tact: forced touch­ing of a sex­ual na­ture, oral sex, vagi­nal sex­ual in­ter­course, anal sex and sex­ual pen­e­tra­tion with a fin­ger or ob­ject.

Af­ter they were read this def­i­ni­tion, 5 per­cent of men and 20 per­cent of women said they had been sex­u­ally as­saulted in col­lege. Their as­sailants used force or threats of force, or they at­tacked while their vic­tims were in­ca­pac­i­tated.

The ef­fect on cam­puses is even broader. Three in 10 said friends or ac­quain­tances had con­fided to them in col­lege that they were vic­tims of sex­ual as­sault.

Katie MacPher­son, 20, a stu­dent at Kent State Uni­ver­sity in Ohio, said she was head­ing to a con­cert one evening when a drunk friend at­tacked her in­side a car.

She was in the front pas­sen­ger seat. Sud­denly he lunged for­ward, MacPher­son re­called, grabbed her head and hair vi­o­lently and tried to kiss her. “Get your hands off me!” she yelled.

The strug­gle con­tin­ued un­til MacPher­son man­aged to open the door and flee. “Im­me­di­ately I knew,” she said. “That was sex­ual as­sault.”

She didn’t re­port the attack to au­thor­i­ties. But through an in­ter­me­di­ary, she told the man’s fra­ter­nity. “I wanted him to get a wake-up call,” she said. “I never ex­pected that from my friend.”

How big is the prob­lem?

Col­lege sex­ual as­sault, a long-hid­den prob­lem, emerged as an is­sue in the 1980s along with the term “date rape,” de­scrib­ing a cer­tain kind of sex­ual crime in­volv­ing friends or ac­quain­tances. The date rapist— some­one who ig­nored a no or never sought a yes — con­trasted with the stereo­type of the rapist as a preda­tor lurk­ing in the dark.

The is­sue has gained new ur­gency in re­cent years as the num­ber of re­ports of forcible sex of­fenses on cam­pus has surged. The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has opened civil rights in­ves­ti­ga­tions of more than 110 col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties for their han­dling of sex­ual-vi­o­lence com­plaints.

Sur­vivors are press­ing col­leges for some mea­sure of jus­tice, such as ex­pul­sion, even when of­fenses are not re­ported to po­lice. Ac­cused stu­dents, be­wil­dered by the scru­tiny of sex­ual en­coun­ters they thought were con­sen­sual, com­plain that in­ter­nal in­quiries are stacked against them.

Over­hang­ing the de­bate are ques­tions about the ex­tent of the prob­lem. Pres­i­dent Obama, re­ly­ing in large part on a 2007 fed­er­ally funded study of stu­dents at two uniden­ti­fied public uni­ver­si­ties, said last year that “an es­ti­mated one in five women has been sex­u­ally as­saulted dur­ing her col­lege years.”

Skep­tics call that statis­tic mis­lead­ing, cit­ing a 2014 study from the fed­eral Bureau of Jus­tice Statis­tics that found col­lege women were vic­tims of rape or sex­ual as­sault at an an­nual rate of 6.1 per 1,000. Non-stu­dents, the BJS said, were raped or sex­u­ally as­saulted more of­ten than stu­dents. The 2007 and 2014 stud­ies differed sig­nif­i­cantly in method­ol­ogy. The ear­lier sur­vey, by RTI In­ter­na­tional, asked about spe­cific sce­nar­ios of un­wanted sex­ual con­tact. The BJS study, more fo­cused on crime, asked di­rectly about rape, at­tempted rape and other sex­ual at­tacks. Last year, a blue-rib­bon panel said it was “highly likely” the BJS method un­der­es­ti­mates vic­tim­iza­tion.

The Post-Kaiser poll used ques­tions and def­i­ni­tions sim­i­lar to those in the 2007 study. The poll’s mar­gin of sampling er­ror over­all was plus or mi­nus 3.5 per­cent­age points. For an­swers from women or men only, it was 5 points.

More than two dozen ma­jor uni­ver­si­ties, from Har­vard to the Uni­ver­sity of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, are sur­vey­ing their own stu­dents this year to learn how of­ten sex­ual as­sault oc­curs and what they can do to pre­vent it. The Mas­sachusetts In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy last fall said 17 per­cent of fe­male un­der­grad­u­ates who replied to a sur­vey ex­pe­ri­enced un­wanted sex­ual be­hav­ior at MIT, from touch­ing or kiss­ing to in­ci­dents that fit the def­i­ni­tion of sex­ual as­sault and rape. Re­searchers re­ported in May that 19 per­cent of fe­male fresh­men at an Up­state New York uni­ver­sity said they were raped or vic­tims of at­tempted rape within a year of start­ing at school.

The Post-Kaiser poll found that 58 per­cent of men think the share of women sex­u­ally as­saulted at their school is less than 1 in 5. An iden­ti­cal ma­jor­ity of women think the share as­saulted is 1 in 5 or greater.

Stu­dents seem less wor­ried about sex­ual as­sault than the gen­eral public seems. The poll found 12 per­cent view it as a big prob­lem at their school. But a sep­a­rate Kaiser sur­vey in March found 57 per­cent of the public at large saw col­lege sex­ual as­sault as a big prob­lem.

Many stu­dents point to an­other prob­lem: al­co­hol.

Booze, from cheap beer to odd con­coc­tions of liquor and juice, cre­ates ma­jor risks. Anal­y­sis of the poll found that women who say they some­times or of­ten drink more than they should are twice as likely to be vic­tims of com­pleted, at­tempted or sus­pected sex­ual as­sault, com­pared with those who rarely or never do.

A 25-year-old woman re­called a date in her fresh­man year with a class­mate at the Uni­ver­sity of Pitts­burgh. They went to a friend’s house. He handed her a drink. It might have been a juiced vodka. A very strong one.

“I woke up the next morn­ing with­out any pants on,” the woman said, “and with­out any rec­ol­lec­tion.” A few weeks later, she said, the man “made a com­ment about want­ing to see me again and do what he did be­fore. It led me to be­lieve we had some sort of sex­ual con­tact.”

If so, the woman said, it was with­out her con­sent; she was in­ca­pac­i­tated.

“I was in no state of mind” to say yes to sex, she said. “The mem­ory is so, so foggy.”

A ques­tion of con­sent

An­other risk fac­tor: hookups. Six­teen per­cent of women de­scribed their dat­ing sta­tus dur­ing most of col­lege as “hook­ing up from time to time.” They were more likely to re­port be­ing sex­u­ally as­saulted or experiencing an at­tempted or sus­pected as­sault than those who were mostly in re­la­tion­ships or those who were not in re­la­tion­ships and not hook­ing up with any­one.

The poll re­sults sug­gested that women at col­leges with fra­ter­ni­ties and soror­i­ties were more likely to be as­saulted. But sta­tis­ti­cal anal­y­sis found that sev­eral other cam­pus char­ac­ter­is­tics were non-fac­tors. It ap­par­ently made lit­tle dif­fer­ence whether the school was large or small, public or pri­vate, re­li­giously af­fil­i­ated or de­scribed by stu­dents as a “party school.” Noth­ing about the race, eth­nic­ity, so­cial class, study habits or re­li­gious prac­tices of stu­dents pre­dicted whether they would be vic­tims.

Three-fourths of all vic­tims said they told some­one about the in­ci­dent — but only 11 per­cent told po­lice or col­lege au­thor­i­ties. This find­ing echoes what ex­perts have long said: Sex­ual as­sault is a vastly un­der­re­ported crime.

Even though 73 per­cent of those polled said sex­ual-as­sault claims are rarely or al­most never fab­ri­cated, many vic­tims are re­luc­tant to step for­ward be­cause they fear reper­cus­sions. More than 4 in 10 women said it is very or some­what likely that a woman will be crit­i­cized by other stu­dents if she re­ports an as­sault.

A 19-year-old at the Uni­ver­sity of Michi­gan who sus­pects she was sex­u­ally as­saulted af­ter she got black­out drunk at a fra­ter­nity party ex­plained why she didn’t re­port it to au­thor­i­ties: “I didn’t want to start an en­tire thing. I didn’t want that whole frat to have a back­lash against me.”

She did, how­ever, tell a male friend. His re­sponse ended their friend­ship. He said her sus­pi­cion about what hap­pened was wrong: “There’s a dif­fer­ence be­tween hav­ing drunk, re­gret­table sex, and be­ing raped,” she re­calls him say­ing.

The stu­dent’s ex­pe­ri­ence un­der­scored one of the most di­vi­sive as­pects of col­lege sex­ual as­sault: The facts of any given in­ci­dent, es­pe­cially those left un­in­ves­ti­gated, are of­ten in dis­pute. That gives rise to spec­u­la­tion about what hap­pened and who was to blame.

The poll found ev­i­dence that myths about sex­ual as­sault persist among stu­dents de­spite ef­forts in re­cent years to dis­pel them. Six in 10 women said it was a com­mon at­ti­tude on their cam­puses that if a woman is sex­u­ally as­saulted while drunk she is “at least some­what re­spon­si­ble.” Nearly 6 in 10 women also said it was com­monly thought that when women go to par­ties wear­ing re­veal­ing clothes, they are “ask­ing for trou­ble.”

Slight ma­jori­ties of men said those at­ti­tudes were not com­mon on their cam­puses.

When posed a hy­po­thet­i­cal sit­u­a­tion in which they hear that a man is ac­cused of sex­u­ally as­sault­ing a woman on cam­pus, about two-thirds of those polled said they gen­er­ally thought the man is more to blame. About 3 in 10 said both peo­ple share blame. Al­most none said the woman is more to blame.

A 24-year-old woman who re­cently grad­u­ated from a pri­vate uni­ver­sity in the North­east said there were times as a stu­dent when she was so drunk that she was un­able to con­sent to sex. She would wake up in bed with some­one the next day and say to her­self: “What? This is not okay. I didn’t agree to this.”

But she said the men in­volved might also have been too drunk. “Whether the other per­son had the ca­pac­ity to con­sent ei­ther is some­thing to take into ac­count,” she said. “So it’s like we’re both rap­ing each other.”

In the past two years, col­leges have be­gun ur­gent cam­paigns to pre­vent sex­ual as­sault. The poll found deep skep­ti­cism about some pro­pos­als. Seventy-three per­cent of those at schools with Greek-let­ter or­ga­ni­za­tions said elim­i­nat­ing fra­ter­ni­ties or soror­i­ties would have lit­tle to no ef­fect. About half of all re­spon­dents voiced doubts about the ef­fec­tive­ness of a crack­down on al­co­hol.

In­stead, 9 in 10 said train­ing stu­dents to dis­rupt po­ten­tially harm­ful sit­u­a­tions would be ef­fec­tive — a tech­nique known as by­stander in­ter­ven­tion. Nearly as many — 85 per­cent — fa­vored harsher pun­ish­ments for those found guilty of sex­ual as­sault. Col­leges have come un­der fire for le­niency in dis­ci­plinary in­ves­ti­ga­tions of stu­dents they find re­spon­si­ble for sex­ual as­sault. Fed­eral data show that col­leges of­ten rep­ri­mand or sus­pend stu­dents in such cases, or or­der them to un­dergo coun­sel­ing, rather than ex­pel them.

De­bate has emerged in re­cent years over whether col­leges should be in­volved in sex­ual-as­sault probes at all. Nearly half en­dorsed the view that as a se­ri­ous crime, sex­ual as­sault should be in­ves­ti­gated only by the po­lice. But 83 per­cent said that if a vic­tim chooses not to go to po­lice but still wants an in­ci­dent in­ves­ti­gated, schools should be re­quired to do so.

There was a gen­der split on an­other key ques­tion: whether it is more un­fair for an in­no­cent per­son to get kicked out of col­lege af­ter a sex­ual-as­sault ac­cu­sa­tion, or for a per­son who com­mits a sex­ual as­sault to get away with it.

Men were di­vided, with 49 per­cent see­ing ex­pul­sion of the in­no­cent as the greater injustice and 42 per­cent tak­ing the other side. But by a de­ci­sive 20-point mar­gin, women viewed it as more un­fair for an as­sailant to go un­pun­ished.

Kristina Erick­son, 23, said she pur­sued pun­ish­ment af­ter her sec­ond sex­ual as­sault at Beloit Col­lege in Wis­con­sin. The first time, she said, she was “kind of wrestling around” in a dorm with a man she knew when things turned sex­ual. “I told him to stop,” she said. “He thought I was jok­ing. I froze.”

Erick­son never re­ported that in­ci­dent, even though she later con­cluded it was rape. The sec­ond time, she said, a drunk man stuck his hand up her skirt in Jan­uary 2013 as she walked past him in the crowded base­ment of a fra­ter­nity house. She shoved his hand away and yelled at him. Soon af­ter, she filed a com­plaint with the col­lege. A sanc­tions let­ter shows the al­leged as­sailant re­ceived a sus­pen­sion.

Shortly be­fore she grad­u­ated, Erick­son de­cided to push the is­sue into the open. She wrote an es­say for the stu­dent news­pa­per about her ex­pe­ri­ence with sex­ual as­sault. It re­vealed that her mother also had been raped while she was a stu­dent at Beloit in the 1980s. “I got a lot of texts, a lot of e-mails,” Erick­son said. “Peo­ple con­tact­ing me, say­ing, ‘Hey, it hap­pened to me, too.’ ”

“I wasn’t even think­ing about not get­ting away from

him. I was determined to fight my way out.”

Mikala Burt, Howard Uni­ver­sity


“If I could’ve made a de­ci­sion, I wouldn’t have cho­sen to do that.”

Rachel Sienkowski, Michi­gan State Uni­ver­sity

“I never ex­pected that from my friend.”

Katie MacPher­son, Kent State Uni­ver­sity

“I told him to stop. He thought I was jok­ing. I froze.”

Kristina Erick­son, Beloit Col­lege (Wis.)


TOP: Kristina Erick­son, 23, walks her dog out­side of Phoenix. She says she was raped while at­tend­ing Beloit Col­lege in Wis­con­sin. ABOVE: Sarah Jane Boyer, 25, says that while at­tend­ing South­west­ern Col­lege in Kansas, a friend had sex with her even though she was too drunk to con­sent.



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