'Remarks About Physical Appearance' Considered 'Sexual Violence' in Rutgers Student Survey

New study on campus sexual assault suffers same problems that plague so much research on this issue.


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A new survey of Rutgers University students reinforces the idea that one in four college women will be victims of sexual assault… but only if you don't look at the study too closely. Zoom in and you'll find the same problems that plague so much research about sex crimes on college campuses, from defining violence to include rude comments to failing to differentiate between an unwanted kiss and forcible rape. 

The Rutgers survey—conducted by the school's Center on Violence Against Women and Children at the request of the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault and the Department of Justice—was carried out last academic year at the state school's New Brunswick campus, attended by about 42,000 students. Around 10,800 students completed the online survey; the majority were undergraduates (80 percent) and women (64 percent). 

Rutgers used definitions of sexual violence and sexual assault based on material from the White House task force. "'Sexual assault' and 'sexual violence' refer to a range of behaviors that are unwanted by the recipient," notes a school summary of survey findings, "and include remarks about physical appearance, persistent sexual advances that are undesired by the recipient, threats of force to get someone to engage in sexual behavior, as well as unwanted touching and unwanted oral, anal, or vaginal penetration or attempted penetration."

Survey respondents were presented with that definition, then asked whether they had experienced sexual violence prior to starting school at Rutgers. Nineteen percent of all respondents and 24 percent of undergraduate women said they had. 

Students were then asked six questions about different types of "unwanted sexual contact." Overall, 13 percent of students, including 20 percent of undergraduate women, experienced some sort of unwanted sexual contact since starting school at Rutgers. Students were not asked to limit responses to incidents that occurred on or near campus or with another student.

Follow-up questions with respondents who had experienced unwanted sexual contact found the perpetrator was a student in 35 percent of the cases, a non-student in 18 percent, and of unknown academic status in eight percent; 39 percent did not answer the question. Forty-three percent described the perpetrator as a non-stranger and 18 percent as a stranger. In non-stranger cases, 40 percent categorized the perpetrator as a "casual acquaintance or hookup," 34 percent as a friend, 5 percent as a current romantic partner, and 13 percent as an ex-romantic partner. Forty-one percent said they had told someone about the most-serious incident, while 22 percent did not and 37 percent didn't answer. 

Only five percent of all student said they had been victims of unwanted sexual contact obtained "using physical force." For undergraduate women, this was at eight percent. Three percent of all students, including five percent of undergraduate women, said someone had used coercion or threats of physical force to perpetrate unwanted sexual contact. Four percent of all students, including six percent of undergraduate women, said they had been victims of unwanted sexual contact when they were "unable to provide consent or stop what was happening because (they) were passed out, drugged, drunk, incapacitated, or asleep." Throughout these questions, the type of unwanted sexual contact was not specified. 

So what have we really learned here? That one in four female undergrads experienced something between rape and catcalls before coming to Rutgers; one in five female Rutgers undergrads experienced something between forced vaginal penetration and unwanted kissing at the hands of another student-or-not-student, somewhere in the universe, since starting college; three percent of students were perhaps physically threatened, perhaps mildly pressured into sexual activity; and four percent of students have been subject to something between forced oral, vaginal, or anal penetration and an unwanted caress while they were either asleep, totally passed out, or had had a few beers. 

"Based on this experience, researchers from VAWC prepared a final report with recommendations to the White House Task force," the school states. In conjunction with releasing the survey, Rutgers announced the launch of a new campaign, "The Revolution Starts Here: End Sexual Violence Now."

Fundamental vagueness isn't the only fatal flaw of surveys like the one Rutgers conducted. As NPR points out, their opt-in nature—less than 30 percent of Rutgers-New Brunswick students took the survey—may skew participants towards those with personal experience with sexual assault.