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Sexual violence on campus persists amid lack of confidence in University resources, survey shows

Kingscote Gardens, the home of Stanford's Title IX office.

14.2% of respondents reported experiencing at least one incident of nonconsensual sexual contact since entering Stanford, according to results from a campus climate survey of students on sexual violence released Tuesday.

For undergraduate women and non-cisgendered students, that figure is significantly higher at 33.1% and 31.5%, respectively. It grows even more to 38.5% when the respondent category is narrowed to undergraduate women in their fourth-year or higher. That nearly 40% represents the cumulative risk of victimization undergraduate women experience during their time at Stanford.

The survey, organized by the Association of American Universities (AAU), underscores the continued prevalence of sexual assault and harassment on Stanford’s campus and highlights two particularly vulnerable groups as being victimized at disproportionately higher rates: undergraduate women and TGQN students, which include individuals who self-identify as transgender man, transgender woman, genderqueer or nonbinary, gender questioning or not listed.

“It is unacceptable that non-cisgendered students and undergraduate women — who already confront significant institutional barriers at Stanford — face the highest risk of sexual assault,” wrote ASSU President Erica Scott ’20 and Isaiah Drummond ’20 in a joint statement to The Daily. “This burden has serious effects on students’ physical health, mental health, and sense of belonging, as evidenced by the survey results.”

The survey also reveals a lack of confidence in University resources to address issues of sexual violence and the extent to which sexual violence is perceived as problematic and commonplace on campus.

“One incident is too many,” Drell wrote in a Tuesday letter to the campus community. “In confronting sexual violence nad harassment, we face a chronic public health issue that demands solutions from multiple sources — from the university itself; from each of us as members of this community; and from institutions and citizens more broadly in our society.”

“Despite many efforts at Stanford over the years, it is evident that much more needs to be done,” she added. 

The AAU survey’s definition of nonconsensual sexual contact is broader than the definition of sexual assault used by Stanford in its previous campus climate survey in 2015. The 2019 survey’s definition includes assault by physical force or threat of physical force, coercion and inability to consent or stop what was happening, but it also encompasses any breach of “affirmative consent,” or ongoing voluntary consent. In 2014, California was the first to enact a state law requiring universities to uphold affirmative consent in student-conduct policies. 

The survey results come at a time of heightened scrutiny over Stanford’s sexual assault, sexual harassment and Title IX procedures as Chanel Miller, who came forward as the survivor of sexual assault by former Stanford swimmer and convicted felon Brock Turner, has renewed national attention to how sexual violence is handled at Stanford. 

The University recently renovated the site of Miller’s assault, turning it into a contemplative garden with a plaque to be installed at the site. After rejecting Miller’s first two choices of plaque quotes — which Drell wrote “expressed sentiments that would not be supportive in a healing space for survivors” — the University proposed three from Miller’s victim impact statement that they believed “[honored] the intent of the garden by promoting hope and inspiration.” 

Students protested the erasure of Miller, formerly known to the public only as Emily Doe before the release of her memoir “Know My Name,” and urged the reclaiming of her voice in the conversation of sexual assault on campus. 

Consequences of sexual violence

The proportion of students who reported nonconsensual sexual contact by physical force or inability to consent — 23.8% for undergraduate women, 21.7% for undergraduate and graduate TGQN students, 9.1% for graduate women, 6% for undergrad men and 2.4% for graduate men — are lower, but not noticeably, than the reported AAU 33-school average. (These averages, however, represent how all respondents answered regardless of school affiliation and not how each school responded on average, essentially treating the respondent pool as one large University.) 

Among those who did experience incidents of victimization, a vast majority reported experiencing emotional or academic consequences as a result. Incidents of sexual violence and harassment have “considerable long-lasting effects on individuals who have experienced them,” Drell noted in her letter. 

Of the women who reported nonconsensual sexual contact, 90% said that they experienced some form of emotional consequence — including fear for their safety, seeking to avoid the perpetrator, as well as withdrawal from and loss of interest in daily activities, friends and extracurricular activities. Smaller proportions of respondents also indicated that they experienced nightmares or trouble sleeping, increased drug or alcohol use, headaches or stomach aches and/or eating problems or disorders.

Nearly half of women and 40% of men reported suffering some form of academic consequence from victimizations, ranging from difficulty concentrating on studies and decreased class attendance to more serious consequences like withdrawing from a class or considering dropping out of school.

Confidence in University resources and support

The survey also revealed a lack of confidence in University resources to address instances of sexual violence. Only 33% of women and 24% of men who experienced non-consensual penetration reached out to campus programs or resources.

Of the women who reported that they did not contact any programs or resources, more than half said it was because they didn’t think the incident was serious enough to do so — but 30% said it was because they didn’t believe the resources would give them the help they needed. As far as why they considered the event “not serious” enough, half of respondents perceived “events like these” to be commonplace on campus. 

When asked how problematic sexual assault or misconduct is on campus, 66% of TGQN students and 45% of undergraduate women answered “Very” or “Extremely.” 18% of TGQN and 14% of undergraduate women think it is either very or extremely likely that they will experience an incident of sexual assault while enrolled at Stanford. To respond specifically to the findings surrounding TGQN individuals, which represent a particularly vulnerable group, Drell announced that the University will launch a new transgender support website later this fall with resources for transgender and gender non-conforming community members as well as education for faculty and staff. 

“The results provide cause for both hope and continued concern,” wrote AAU President Mary Sue Coleman in a statement. Across the board across mutliple universities, Coleman noticed that “while students know more about university-sponsored resources for victims of sexual assault and misconduct, they still aren’t using these resources often enough.” 

The most popular source of support for those who did reach out was Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) at 52%, or residential student staff like a Residential Assistant or a Peer Health Educator at 32%. Only 23% of victimized student respondents attempted to reach out to the Title IX Office, which handles investigations into incidents of potential sexual harassment, violence or assault. 

No specific reasons for this pattern were presented, but the survey found that only 44% of all students believed campus officials, if notified, would be likely to conduct a fair investigation. For TGQN students and undergraduate women, that confidence is still lower. 

Less than one-third of students perceive faculty and staff or University officials as being very or extremely concerned about their well-being. These figures (31% perceiving that faculty or staff are very or extremely concerned, and 22% perceiving that school officials are very or extremely concerned) are lower than the AAU 33-school averages. 

To begin to address concerns about the quality of campus resources, Drell wrote that in addition to launching an external review to gather recommendations for improving support, the University will have an on-site community coordinator from the Silicon Valley location of the YWCA, a nonprofit group focused on empowerment of women, beginning in November as an option for those who prefer access to resources outside the Stanford community. 

Improvements from 2015 survey

Ever since Stanford administered its Campus Climate Survey (CCS) in 2015, it’s been criticized by the campus community, including students, alumni and faculty, for downplaying the prevalence of sexual assault and misconduct on campus with a overly-narrow definition of sexual assault. 

CCS found in 2015 that only 1.9% of respondents reported being victims of sexual assault — a figure far below the 11.7% average reported that same year by the AAU survey, which had been used by peer institutions like Brown, Columbia and Harvard, and far below the 14.2% from this year. 

A 2016 ASSU referendum to replace the survey passed with overwhelming support, and the Undergraduate Senate and the Graduate Student Council passed resolutions in 2018 calling for the adoption of a new survey. Drell formed a 12-person advisory committee that year to advise on the next campus climate survey, and announced this spring that Stanford would be switching to the AAU.

Skeptics argue that sexual assault surveys like these vastly overestimate the prevalence of sexual violence on college campuses, given that non-victims may be less likely to participate in the survey. But low response rates overall do not necessarily indicate bias in either direction in estimates of the prevalence of sexual violence; a study cited by the AAU found “little evidence that [it] can explain the high rates of victimization found in either the 2015 or 2019 surveys.” 

Staff from the Institutional Research & Decision Support and Institutional Equity & Access will be presenting the results of the survey in community meeting on Wednesday from 4 to 5:15 p.m. in Building 420-040. A full report of the findings is available on the Provost’s website

If you are seeking support or would like to talk to someone confidentially about questions or concerns, see a list of Stanford’s resources here

This article has been updated to reflect the difference in prevalence rates for nonconsensual contact by tactic combinations: some statistics used the two-tactic combination of physical force and inability to consent, while others used four-tactic combination that also included coercion and “without voluntary agreement.” Figure 2 has been adjusted to include the correct percentages for Undergraduate Men. The Daily regrets these errors.

Dylan Grosz contributed to this report.

Contact Elena Shao at eshao98 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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