Emory releases results of student survey on sexual violence, awareness

By Kimber Williams | Emory Report | Oct. 29, 2015

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The results of the first comprehensive campus climate survey to examine Emory student experiences and attitudes surrounding sexual violence and awareness were presented to the University Senate on Tuesday. Recommendations for future action include increasing the visibility of resources like the Respect Program.

This spring, Emory conducted the first comprehensive campus climate survey of its kind at the university, asking undergraduate, graduate and professional students to recount their experiences with sexual violence since coming to campus — from offensive comments and harassment to intimate partner violence and sexual assault.

A summary of the inaugural survey findings was presented this week to the University Senate and shared in an all-university email issued by Claire Sterk, provost and executive vice president for academic affairs, and Ajay Nair, senior vice president and dean of Campus Life.

Within those findings, respondents acknowledged their experiences with a range of forms of sexual harassment and sexual violence since arriving at Emory — overall percentages that align with national trends reported at peer colleges and universities throughout the U.S., according to campus officials.

The survey found that for a vast majority of respondents who reported experiences with sexual assault, the violence co-occurred with alcohol or drug use. Results also showed that more than half the student respondents were not familiar with Emory’s many resources for sexual violence prevention, education and survivor support.

Yet, a majority of respondents expressed confidence that the university would take reports of sexual assault seriously, and most respondents said that they would intervene if they witnessed sexual assault as a bystander.

In their campus-wide email, Sterk and Nair stated that while the survey results are consistent with national trends, they are nonetheless “disturbing and unacceptable.”

“Even one case of harassment, stalking, intimate partner violence, sexual assault, or rape is not to be tolerated within our community,” they stated.

While Sterk and Nair found it “extremely encouraging” to learn that a majority of respondents would intervene to prevent sexual assault — and that most believe that the university would take such reports seriously — the findings also highlight “an ongoing need to ensure awareness of the resources that are available,” their letter said.

“Our belief, as individuals and as a community, is that sexual violence is preventable,” they wrote. “We have made much progress in our goal to reduce incidents of sexual violence in our community, but there is more work to do."

Key findings

The campus climate survey was emailed to nearly 14,000 undergraduate, graduate and professional students on Emory’s Atlanta and Oxford College campuses in April — among a wave of similar surveys launched this year at universities and colleges across the nation in response to a recommendation of the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault

Designed by Emory’s Committee for the Prevention of Sexual Violence, with roughly 150 questions targeted specifically to the Emory community, the survey sought information about student experiences, attitudes and beliefs surrounding sexual harassment and sexual violence, as well as awareness of campus prevention, education and support resources.

Of those contacted, some 2,615 students (18.7 percent) answered at least one question on the survey. Of the respondents, 66.8 percent identified as women, around 31.6 percent as men,and .4 percent as transgender.

Initial survey findings were presented Tuesday at the October meeting of the University Senate by committee chair Jessica McDermott Sales, associate professor of behavioral sciences and health at Rollins School of Public Health.

A summary report outlines key findings:

  • Across all student groups, respondents reported a range of experiences, including sexual harassment, stalking, intimate partner violence, sexual assault, and rape. 
  • Overall, 10.7 percent of undergraduate and graduate student respondents at Emory’s Atlanta and Oxford College campuses reported being the target of an attempted or completed act of sexual assault or rape — a number that aligns both with surveys taken this year at peer institutions and with studies of peers who do not attend college, according to the Committee for the Prevention of Sexual Violence. The percentage of respondents who said they experienced sexual assault or rape was 18.3 percent of Atlanta campus undergraduates, 16.3 percent of Oxford undergraduates, and 4.2 percent of graduate students.
  • Among those students who reported experiencing attempted or completed acts of sexual assault and rape, 6.6 percent used Emory’s formal procedures to report the incident. Nationally, that number typically ranges from 5 to 12 percent among sexual assault survivors, according to the committee.
  • Most student respondents indicated that they would be willing to intervene as a bystander to prevent sexual assault and a majority expressed confidence that the university would take a report of sexual assault seriously and take corrective action against the offender.
  • More than 70 percent of undergraduate respondents who experienced completed sexual assault or rape reported that the violence was alcohol or drug-facilitated, meaning that the survivor was incapacitated at the time of the assault. While noting that alcohol and drug use does not cause, excuse or explain sexual assault, the report stated that abuse of either substance can be used as a tool of assault.
  • More than 50 percent of respondents were unfamiliar with Emory’s Equal Opportunity and Harassment policy, Title IX Coordinators, or the Respect program. Approximately 50 percent indicated they did not know where to learn more about these resources. 

Committee recommendations

Created last year by the University Senate, the Committee for the Prevention of Sexual Violence focuses on supporting cohesive, data-driven sexual violence prevention efforts across Emory, using a comprehensive public health approach.

The campus survey was the first of its kind with a comprehensive sexual violence focus to include the entire Emory student body, as opposed to instruments that target certain portions of the student body — such as first-year students — or include some items about sexual violence, Sales notes.

In designing Emory’s survey, a survey sub-committee drew upon examples set by the White House Task Force and other universities that have published survey questionnaires. To ensure a more complete picture of the campus climate, a survey was also sent to Emory faculty and staff; results will be released in Spring 2016.

Assessing the findings, Sales says the committee was “struck by the fact that we did see a continuum of violence reflected in student experiences, from offensive jokes and harassment to rape” — information that will help us “broaden the prevention landscape beyond sexual assault and rape.”

Sales says the survey findings not only offer an important baseline for ongoing work, they will directly help inform and shape campus education and prevention strategies.

Committee recommendations include:

  • Enhance existing prevention strategies that address a full scope of sexual violence, which includes harassment, stalking, and intimate partner violence, in addition to sexual assault and rape.
  • Increase visibility of existing prevention and response resources, including programs offered through the Respect Program.
  • Increase student awareness of the Title IX processes, procedures, and resources to reduce confusion and mistrust and to increase knowledge and confidence in the process. Also explore how the university can enhance existing processes, procedures, and resources to meet the needs of students.
  • Use qualitative methods, including focus groups, to engage with students to understand their interpretations of survey questions and revise questions to enhance clarity for the next survey.
  • Offer bystander intervention programming that builds skills for how to intervene before, during, and after an assault occurs.
  • Develop multilevel prevention strategies that address the intersection of alcohol/drug use and sexual violence. While alcohol and drug use do not cause, excuse, or explain sexual assault, prevention programming must acknowledge such co-occurrence, the recommendations state. Enforcement of university policies related to alcohol and other drug use at individual, campus and community levels can support sexual assault prevention efforts.

Shaping prevention strategies

In response to the survey, the Committee for the Prevention of Sexual Violence is actively working to create strategies for implementing their recommendations, according to Sales.

“To advance a focus on the full scope of prevention strategies, it is crucial to frame preventing sexual violence as everyone’s issue and ensure intervention across all groups at Emory,” she says.

While the committee will “definitely have some recommendations for improving these numbers,” Sales says that members were also “encouraged — and felt it was important — to see that the majority of the respondents believe they would intervene to prevent an impending sexual assault and that the university would take a report seriously."

“Overall, the climate feels very supportive to initiatives working toward preventing sexual assault, that it is an important issue, and there is support and trust about moving forward, if a report should be made,” she adds.

A summary of the campus climate survey findings is available on the Office of the Provost’s website.