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New Poll Reaffirms That 1 in 5 College Women are Sexually Assaulted

A recently released Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll reaffirmed the commonly-cited statistic that one in five women, or twenty percent, who attended college in the past four years say they were sexually assaulted. The data also show that students are divided about the definition of consent, that victims of sexual assault suffer from trauma, and that a small minority of victims report the crime.

The Post-Kaiser poll defined sexual assault to include five types of unwanted contact: oral sex, vaginal sexual intercourse, anal sex, sexual penetration with a finger or object, and forced touching of a sexual nature. In all, 25 percent of women and 7 percent of men said they experienced one or more of the types of unwanted contact listed while in college. And while most of the victims told someone they trusted about the incident, only 11 percent reported the crime to police of college authorities.

The findings of these data reflect the findings of a 2005 congressionally-mandated report by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), underscoring the lack of progress in lowering the 1 in 5 statistic of college sexual assault over the past decade. The NIJ report, which studied random samples from almost 2,500 schools including 2 and 4-year institutions, also found that twenty percent of college women experienced sexual assault, while only 12 percent reported the crime.

The effects of sexual assault manifested in different ways, according to victims. Victims reported having trouble concentrating, resulting in poor grades, panic attacks, and other post-traumatic stress symptoms like rage or depression. Respondents in the poll also gave mixed responses on the topic of consent: In instances of verbal consent, where a "yes" or "no" had been obtained, students were clear on what constituted as consent; responses became much more muddled, however, when asked about consent through non-verbal means such as body language. For example, when asked if actions like a nod, undressing, or getting a condom established consent, 40 percent said it did while 40 percent said it did not. The poll found that men were much more likely to infer consent from sexual foreplay than women.

Responses also varied along gender lines in perceptions of the amount of sexual assault victims. 58 percent of men polled think the number of women assaulted at their school is less than one in five, while an equal 58 percent of women think the number of women assaulted on their campus is one in five or greater. The poll also suggested that campus characteristics- such as size, private versus public, religious affiliation, or reputation for being a "party school" - were non-factors, with the exception of the presence of fraternities and sororities, which was linked to an increased likelihood that women were assaulted.

The poll was conducted from January to March of this year, and surveyed a random national sample of 1,056 women and men between the ages of 17 and 26 who were undergraduates at four-year colleges or had been at some point since 2011. It spanned more than 500 colleges and universities of varying sizes in every state and the District of Columbia.

Media Resources: Washington Post 6/14/15; NIJ Publication 2005; Ms. Blog 2/18/14

© Feminist Majority Foundation, publisher of Ms. magazine

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