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Sexual assault is a problem at Stanford, but the details are missing

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TRIGGER WARNING: The following contains descriptions of sexual assault.

The Brock Turner sexual assault case has left many of us at Stanford reeling. The details of the case are disturbing. The survivor was found at the scene with her assailant, Brock Turner, by two graduate students who happened to be bicycling past; it was only because one of them got a weird feeling that he took a second glance and noticed that she seemed to be unconscious. When they approached to ensure that the woman was okay, Turner took off running. If he had not been pursued and restrained until the police arrived, he might never have been charged with a crime. Unfortunately, what is unusual about this case is not that a woman was sexually assaulted; rather, it is that her assailant was apprehended, reported and tried.

A comprehensive study of sexual assault rates at 27 American universities, conducted by the Association of American Universities (AAU), found that by their senior year more than one in four female and gender-nonconforming undergraduates will experience sexual assault (defined as penetration or sexual touching carried out through physical force or incapacitation). This is a staggering statistic. The logical next question is, “How does Stanford compare to these universities?” Unfortunately, data to answer this question do not exist.

Stanford did conduct a campus climate survey about sexual assault in the spring of 2015. The results that were released from this survey have since been widely condemned. Much of the outrage surrounding the survey relates to the way that the Stanford survey defined sexual assault, leading to startlingly low sexual assault statistics at the University. For example, Stanford found that 6.5 percent of its undergraduate women had experienced sexual assault by their senior year, compared to 26.1 percent found by the AAU survey. The remarkably small size of this statistic was due in part to Stanford’s own restricted definition of sexual assault: Unlike many of our peer universities, Stanford defines sexual assault as penetration or oral sex but not sexual touching. The survey results released in October categorized sexual assault to match the Stanford code in this respect, which is one reason that Stanford reported such low sexual assault statistics.

However, the way that Stanford’s climate survey defines sexual assault also contradicts its own code. Stanford’s Administrative Guide clearly states that sexual assault occurs when a person is incapacitated, including when a person is “under the influence of an anesthetizing or intoxicating substance” to the point of incapacitation. Yet in the Stanford survey, participants were not asked about being incapacitated due to alcohol or drug use. Instead, the question capturing incapacitation only specified being “asleep, unconscious, or unable to respond”; a separate question asked if students were “drunk or high,” and all respondents who selected this answer were categorized as having experienced sexual misconduct. The missing question about sexual violence experienced while the respondent was incapacitated due to alcohol or drug use has the potential to miss a huge number of Stanford students who have experienced sexual assault.

The Brock Turner case offers a clear example of why this matters. The survivor from the case had blacked out before she met Brock Turner; had bystanders not intervened, she would have awoken the next morning with no idea of how her assault had come to pass. Had she taken the Stanford climate survey, it is easy to imagine that she would have described the assault as occurring when she was drunk. According to the way that Stanford classified sexual assault on its survey, the Stanford survivor’s experience then would have been classified as a lighter offense — sexual misconduct — rather than sexual assault. Yet what happened in the Brock Turner case was clearly sexual assault.

The extremely restricted way in which sexual assault is defined in the Stanford survey makes a compelling case for why Stanford should adopt the AAU survey used by its peer universities when it next runs a survey among its students about sexual assault. This is not the only reason that the AAU survey would offer better data, however, and the Turner case illustrates why.

The Turner sexual assault occurred at a fraternity party. Do a significant number of Stanford’s sexual assaults occur at fraternity parties? This, again, is question we have no data for: The Stanford campus climate survey did not gather data on the incidence of sexual assault in fraternities. However, the AAU survey does ask this question. As Stanford moves to prevent sexual assaults from happening on its campus in the future, this is something we need to know. We cannot effectively protect students from sexual assaults if we do not know specifically where they occur.

Brock Turner was only caught because two bystanders stepped in to stop him; without their intervention, he would likely still be at Stanford today. It is important to know whether or not when Stanford students see sexual violence occurring, they step in or look the other way. Yet again, Stanford’s survey does not ask about this; the AAU survey does.

In a press release last week, Stanford pledged to increase its budget toward combatting sexual assault in the upcoming school year, and this is commendable. Yet throwing money at the issue blindly is foolish when we could implement sexual assault prevention programs informed by comprehensive, University-specific data. Having data that accurately represent sexual assault rates at Stanford and include comprehensive information about where it occurs is crucial to how effectively we can address this issue. Furthermore, having data on how our students respond to witnessing sexual violence is an important way to establish how well our sexual assault education programs are working. The AAU survey would provide these data.

As a graduate student in the sociology department, I feel strongly that having comprehensive data is the best way to address the sexual assault crisis at Stanford, and that the AAU survey would offer such data. I am not alone in believing this. Last spring, 31 Stanford faculty, including a number of prominent social scientists, signed a letter in support of switching to the AAU survey instrument for future sexual assault surveys at Stanford. An additional 215 graduate students and 109 alumni signed similar letters. Most importantly, over 90 percent of the Stanford undergraduate body, the community among which sexual assault most often occurs at Stanford, voted in favor of using the AAU survey in the future. Our community deserves to have the sexual assault data that we have been asking for.

Additionally, prospective students and their parents deserve to know how we stack up to other universities on sexual assault when they are making the important decision about which college to attend. At present, our University’s statistics are not comparable to those of other universities, and they seem misleadingly low. If we join the AAU survey, prospective students could confidently compare our numbers to those of other universities.

Stanford is an institution that is renowned for producing research based on sound scientific methods. Let’s treat the sexual assault crisis at Stanford with the same mentality. To address sexual assault, we need to gather the data that will allow us to compare ourselves to other universities and implement evidence-based solutions. Until then, we have no guarantee that incidents like the Brock Turner case will not continue to happen on our campus.

– Chloe Hart

Contact Chloe Hart at cghart ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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