UI sex-assault survey: 1 in 7 female respondents said they were raped

UI sex-assault survey: 1 in 7 female respondents said they were raped

URBANA — One in seven women who responded to a recent University of Illinois survey on sexual assault reported being raped during their time on campus — usually by someone they knew — and 30 percent experienced some kind of unwanted sexual contact.

Researchers caution that the sample size was small — only about 6 percent of the student body completed the survey — and the results can't be taken as a precise measure of the rate of sexual assault on campus.

But it does provide a picture of student experiences and gives the campus a baseline to study the problem in coming years, said lead researcher Nicole Allen, a professor of psychology who led the survey at the request of the campus.

"This is really the first time it's been done on this campus, certainly with this particular instrument," Allen said. "The value is, it lets people know that, yes, this is a problem. We have 2,500 of our students telling us about their experiences."

Allen said it's difficult to compare the data across all three campuses, or to compare the UI's findings to national surveys, because they target different subsets of students or ask different questions.

But overall, the findings are "very comparable to what other universities are seeing. That doesn't surprise us," said Renee Romano, vice chancellor for student affairs.

The campus commissioned the survey to better understand students' experiences with sexual misconduct, how they report it, and their perceptions of the university's response and the resources available to help them.

Federal officials have been pushing legislation that would compel universities to study the problem and work more closely with law enforcement to address it, Romano said.

National studies have found that one in five women and one in 71 men will be raped during their lives and that one in three women have experienced rape, physical violence or stalking by a partner. A report from the Department of Justice's Bureau of Crime Statistics showed that rape and sexual assault among females ages 18 to 24 may be slightly less common on campus than in the general population, but the difference is small, said Allen, who does research on sexual assault.

A recent survey of 24 of the 66 schools in the Association of American Universities found that 23 percent of women experienced some form of unwanted sexual contact — ranging from kissing to touching to rape, carried out by force or threat of it or while they were incapacitated because of alcohol and drugs. About 11 percent said that included rape or oral sex.

The UI chose to do its own study, partly to avoid the $85,000 cost of the AAU effort, but also because it wanted to use a different campus climate survey tool that researchers in this field had recommended, Romano said.

One 'heartening' finding

All UI students were asked to respond to the Sexual Misconduct and Perceived Campus Response Survey in fall 2015. More than 5,000 started the survey, about 11 percent of the student body, but only 2,431 students completed it. Though they generally reflected the diversity of campus, the small number means that findings should be interpreted with caution, Allen said.

Both women and men reported experiencing sexual misconduct — which refers broadly to sexual assault, sexual harassment, stalking or cyber harassment and dating violence.

About 70 percent of women and 92 percent of men reported no experience with sexual assault.

"We're talking about everything from someone touches you inappropriately in a bar as you walk through a crowded room to actual (rape) ... and everything in between," Romano said.

But a quarter of women, and 7 percent of men, report at least one incident of fondling or other unwanted sexual contact.

Most students who experienced sexual assault knew the perpetrator, with a quarter being current or former romantic partners, 22 percent friends and 32 percent acquaintances.

The survey found that a significant number of students who are victims of sexual misconduct don't tell anyone — 42 percent of women and 53 percent of men. And if they do, it's usually a friend or roommate, or perhaps a family member or romantic partner.

"They don't necessarily tell a university official that is going to do something about it," Romano said.

That finding is consistent with previous studies and illustrates how important it is to have students who know how to respond, Allen said. Research by Sarah Ullman at the UI Chicago showed that blaming or stigmatizing the victim — telling them they were irresponsible or could have prevented it, for example — can increase their self-blame and hurt their ability to cope.

Almost half the students in the survey also said they don't know where to get help on campus.

"Those are the things we feel we really want to work on," Romano said.

That finding was surprising to Allen because the UI provides quite a few resources, including the wecare.illinois.edu website that provides one-stop resources for education, prevention, reporting and response to sexual misconduct.

"It's not like they're an institution that had their heads in the sand," she said.

Students do appear to trust the university to treat reports seriously and confidentially, which was "heartening," Allen said. Almost three-quarters believed the university would take a report of sexual misconduct seriously, and 67 percent believed it would support the student.

UI's Special Victims Unit

As a result of the survey, the campus plans to expand its educational programs to empower students to help friends who have been victims of sexual misconduct. It will also improve its efforts to educate students, faculty and staff about the resources available, said Dean of Students Ken Ballom.

"Student sexual assault and harassment is occurring with unacceptable frequency on campuses across the country," and the UI is committed to fostering a "safe and supportive environment for our students," Ballom said.

The UI Police Department will also strengthen training for officers who respond to reports of sexual assault. A new "Special Victims Unit" will receive advanced training in how to investigate sexual violence but still be sensitive to students' needs.

The new Sexual Assault Incident Procedure Act also establishes best practices for law enforcement agencies in Illinois to ensure "appropriate criminal justice measures are taken," the UI says.

The campus will also repeat the survey in 2017 to get more data and to see if its efforts have had an impact. The plan is to use a representative sample, rather than all students, and possibly shorten the survey, to improve the response rate, Romano said.

One area the campus will push is "bystander intervention." About half the students said they frequently took steps to prevent sexual assault, such as making sure friends who are drunk aren't left behind at parties or approaching those who appear upset.

"It's not an overwhelming number, but it's a beginning," Allen said.

"We know bystander intervention works," Romano said.