MIT 2014 Community Attitudes on Sexual Assault

November 6, 2014

By: John Gaal

In the Spring of 2014, MIT launched a survey of all of its undergraduate and graduate students (just under 11,000), related to issues of student sexual assault.  More than 3,800 undergraduate and graduate students responded, or about 35% of the institution’s total student population.  (This 35% consisted of 46% of surveyed undergraduate females, 35% of undergraduate males, 37% of graduate females and 30% of graduate males.)  As noted by MIT Chancellor  Barnhart last week in the release of the survey results, “[b]ecause the survey was not a random sample and was voluntary, and the topic of unwanted sexual behaviors is focused, we know the results reflect a degree of self-selection. Since it is impossible to tell how this may have altered the results, it would be a mistake to use these numbers to generalize about the prevalence of unwanted sexual behavior in the lives of all MIT students.”  Nonetheless, she noted, the survey “clearly tells us that, like many other colleges and universities, we face a serious problem.” While the full results of the survey are available online, some of the many interesting survey results are noted below:
  • 14% of undergraduate females indicated that they had experienced stalking, being followed and/or receiving repeated unwanted messages/texts/emails that made them uncomfortable (2% of undergraduate males reported similar experiences);
  • 10% of undergraduate females reported experiencing a sexual assault and 5% reported having been raped (undergraduate male responses were 2% and 1% respectively);
  • 72% of all respondents indicated that another MIT student was responsible for the unwanted sexual behavior (which was not limited to sexual assault or rape) they experienced.  For 98% of the females, the perpetrator was a male; for male respondents the perpetrators were males in 35% of the instances and females in 67%.
  • 40% of female and male undergraduate respondents indicated that the perpetrator was a friend;
  • While 63% of those experiencing an unwanted sexual experience reported it to someone (90% to a friend, 19% to family, 13% to medical personnel), only 5% reported the experience to someone in an official capacity;
  • Respondents who indicated that they had experienced unwanted sexual behavior were asked of any thoughts or concerns that came to mind in deciding whether to share their experiences.  Of those responding:
    • 72% did not think the incident was serious enough to officially report
    • 55% indicated that it was not clear that harm was intended
    • 47% did not want any action to be taken
    • 44% felt that they were at least partly at fault or it wasn’t totally the other person’s fault (results from another portion of the survey indicated that 20% of female undergraduate respondents and 25% of male undergraduate respondents “agreed” or “strongly agreed” with the statement: “When someone is raped or sexually assaulted, it’s often because the way they said ‘no’ was unclear or there was some miscommunication.”);
  • 53% of respondents (with the same percentage for both females and males) “agreed” or “strongly agreed” that “Rape and sexual assault can happen unintentionally, especially if alcohol is involved.”
  • 73% of female respondents and 76% of male respondents “agreed” or “strongly agreed” that they feel confident in their ability to judge if a person is too intoxicated to consent;
  • With respect to bystander activity, 91% of females and 89% of males “agreed” or “strongly agreed” that their friends would watch out for them if it seemed like something bad might happen to them and that more than 9 out of 10 respondents  “agreed” or “strongly agreed” that most MIT students would respect someone who did something to prevent a sexual assault.  Yet 56% of respondents who knew a perpetrator did not confront that person about their behaviors or take any action, and 50% of females and 59% of males “do not usually try to distract someone who is trying to take a drunk person to do something sexual.”
As noted, the voluntary nature of the survey and its narrow focus make it hard to know why students self-selected in or out of the survey and whether it was in a way that might bias the results.  Nonetheless, the University noted that while that does mean that the rates based on those who responded cannot be extrapolated to the MIT population as a whole and cannot be validly compared to results from other surveys, it does not make the results any less accurate.  Nor does it make those results any less important. In the coming 12-18 months, either as a result of the federal government’s “encouragement” that institutions undertake surveys or pending legislation that might require them (e.g., Senator McCaskill’s Campus Accountability and Safety Act we undoubtedly will see many more colleges and universities engage in similar efforts in as they attempt to better understand the dynamics on their campuses, and how they can better address this issue.