The latest survey of students at the University of Michigan’s Ann Arbor campus regarding sexual misconduct provides new knowledge on students’ nonconsensual experiences before they arrive on campus, and measures changes in its prevalence on the U-M campus and which groups are most at-risk.

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The university released the new findings Oct. 15 in conjunction with the Association of American Universities.

U-M was one of 33 universities to participate earlier this year in a second national campus climate survey on sexual assault and misconduct sponsored by the AAU, of which U-M is a member. The AAU released the aggregate results of that survey Oct. 15.

The 2019 AAU survey is a follow-up to the 2015 AAU survey, in which U-M also participated. U-M also conducted its own survey in 2015.

“The number of sexual assaults and misconduct cases continues to be too high at U-M, on college campuses across the country, and throughout our society in general. We must do everything we can as we strive to reduce the number to zero,” said President Mark Schlissel in an email to the campus community.  

Key findings of the 2019 survey include:

  • Undergraduate women remain the most at-risk for experiencing nonconsensual touching or penetration since enrolling at U-M at 34.3 percent, down from 38.2 percent in 2015.
  • 17 percent of all U-M undergraduates — and 26.4 percent of female undergraduate students — arrive at U-M having already experienced unwanted kissing or sexual touching.
  • 6.7 percent of all U-M undergraduates — and 10.6 percent of female undergraduate students — arrive at U-M having already experienced unwanted penetration or oral sex.
  • Undergraduate women, students identifying as trans man or woman, genderqueer or nonbinary, questioning or not listed, and students identifying as having a disability are the most at-risk of experiencing unwanted sexual behaviors, such as stalking, sexual harassment, intimate partner violence and nonconsensual sexual touching or penetration.

The 2019 survey captures students’ experience with nonconsensual sexual touching or penetration by four tactics: force, inability to consent, coercion, or without active, ongoing voluntary agreement.

Force is defined as “physical force or threats of physical force.” Inability to consent is defined as “unable to consent or stop what was happening because you were passed out, asleep, or incapacitated due to drugs or alcohol.” Coercion is defined as “threatening serious non-physical harm or promising rewards such that you felt you must comply.”

Without active, ongoing voluntary agreement is defined as “initiating sexual activity despite your refusal, ignoring your cues to stop or slow down, going ahead without checking in or while you were still deciding, or otherwise failed to obtain consent.”

According to data from the National Survey of Family Growth, sexual assault is more prevalent among the same-aged people who do not attend college, and the ages of first experience of sexual assault is often much younger than college age. The data also show those who experience sexual assault are at a greater risk for experiencing it again.

Informed by these findings, U-M added customized questions to the 2019 AAU survey of U-M students to better understand students’ experiences of “unwanted kissing or sexual touching” and “unwanted penetration or oral sex” before their arrival at U-M.

Results of the 2019 survey show 17 percent of U-M undergraduates and 26.4 percent of undergraduate women responding to the survey said they arrive at U-M having already experienced unwanted kissing or sexual touching. More than 6 percent of all U-M undergraduates — and 10.6 percent of undergraduate women — arrive at U-M having already experienced unwanted penetration or oral sex.

Among all U-M students – undergraduate and graduate and professional students – responding to the survey, 17.1 percent said they experienced nonconsensual sexual touching or penetration since enrolling at U-M, a change from 17.4 percent in 2015.

Among undergraduate women, 34.3 percent said they experienced nonconsensual sexual touching or penetration since enrolling at U-M, a statistically significant decrease from 38.2 percent in 2015. When asked about nonconsensual penetration, 16.5 percent of undergraduate women said they experienced this, a change from 17.4 percent in 2015.

“Statistical significance of differences is a function of both the size of the difference and the number of people who answered the questions being compared,” said William Axinn, a research professor at U-M’s Survey Research Center and Population Studies Center, and an expert in survey research who has analyzed the AAU survey results for the U-M campus.

“Though some differences look large, if they are not statistically significant, they could have occurred by chance. When a difference is statistically significant, then it makes sense to consider what the difference means,” said Axinn, who also is a professor of sociology in LSA and of public policy at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy.

Students identifying as trans man or woman, genderqueer or nonbinary, questioning or not listed also reported high rates of experiencing nonconsensual sexual touching or penetration since enrolling at U-M at 26 percent. When asked about nonconsensual penetration, 13.5 percent of TGQN students said they experienced this, a change from 13.7 percent in 2015.

Among men, 7 percent of undergraduates reported experiencing nonconsensual sexual touching or penetration, down from 9 percent in 2015.

The U-M data in the report indicate that for some areas of nonconsensual sexual behavior, U-M numbers are higher than the aggregate AAU data, while in other areas U-M numbers are lower.

“It is important to study our own community and to take the findings into account when creating or revising programs and interventions,” said Kaaren Williamsen, director of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center. “These survey results will certainly impact the work we do in SAPAC to prevent sexual violence and support those who are harmed by it.”

Sexual harassment

In responses to questions about sexual harassment, the survey found that 19.3 percent of U-M students indicated experiencing sexual harassment that interfered with their academic or professional performance, limited their ability to participate in an academic program, or created an intimidating, hostile or offensive environment since entering U-M. Due to a change in the survey questions regarding sexual harassment, data from 2015 and 2019 cannot be directly compared.

TGQN students and undergraduate women reported experiencing sexual harassment at the highest rates in 2019 — 36.4 percent and 32.2 percent, respectively.

Students said the most common form of sexual harassment was making inappropriate comments about their body, appearance or sexual behavior, followed by making sexual remarks or offensive jokes.

Stalking

Stalking also was addressed by the AAU survey. Students were asked whether they experienced someone making unwanted phone calls, sending emails, voice, text or instant messages, pictures, or videos; watching them, spying on them or tracking them; or showing up somewhere or waiting for them when they did not want that person to be there.

In order to be considered stalking, the behavior had to occur more than once, be committed by the same person and caused emotional distress or fear for the individual’s safety.

Among U-M students, 5.1 percent said they had experienced stalking while at U-M, a statistically significant increase from 4.1 percent in 2015. TGQN students, students with a disability and undergraduate women reported the highest rates of experiencing stalking at 11.5 percent, 10.6 percent and 8.6 percent, respectively. Most often the offender was identified as another student.

Intimate partner violence

For students saying they were in a partnered relationship, 8.9 percent indicated they had experienced intimate partner violence, down from 9.9 percent in 2015. Students identifying as having a disability reported this most often at 12.1 percent, followed by TGQN students (11.6 percent), undergraduate women (11.5 percent) and undergraduate men (10.1 percent).

Awareness and reporting

The survey also asked about students’ awareness of campus resources and their reporting behavior for sharing information about experiencing nonconsensual sexual touching or penetration. Slightly more than 36 percent of students reported being very or extremely knowledgeable about sexual assault or other misconduct definitions at U-M, a statistically significant change up from 23.2 percent in 2015.

More than 66 percent of students responding to the survey said it is very or extremely likely the university would take the report of sexual assault or misconduct seriously, up from 57.3 percent in 2015. And half of students said it is very or extremely likely the university would conduct a fair investigation in response to a report of sexual assault or misconduct, up from 40.2 percent in 2015.

More than 95 percent of the students responding said they were familiar with at least one university program and resource such as Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center, Office for Institutional Equity, Counseling and Psychological Services, Dean of Students Office, Division of Public Safety and Security and others.

About a quarter of survivors — 27.1 percent of men and 25 percent of women — said they reported penetrative or sexual touching by physical force or incapacitation to official university programs or resources, up from 23 percent for students overall since 2015.

The top responses for the reasons for not reporting to the university were the individual’s belief that the incident was not that serious or the confidence that they could handle the situation themselves. The majority chose to tell a friend or family member.

“It’s encouraging to see the increases in students indicating awareness of resources and confidence in the university’s response to reports of sexual misconduct, and at the same time, it is clear that we still have work to do,” said Elizabeth Seney, Title IX coordinator and senior associate director of the Office for Institutional Equity.

“It is critical that students have information about the university’s resources and response processes in order to access them. When concerns are reported, that allows the university to ensure that students are connected with resources, and it also allows the university to take action to address the concerns.”

The 2019 AAU survey was open to about 44,000 students on the Ann Arbor campus during February and March. With a little more than 7,300 students completing the survey, U-M had a student response rate of 16.7 percent. The AAU aggregate surveyed more than 181,700 students across the nation with a response rate of 21.9 percent.

About U-M prevention efforts

Every first-year student must participate in an online awareness and prevention education program before arriving on campus. Completion rates for this “Community Matters” program have exceeded 90 percent every year since implementation in 2009. Once on campus, first-year students get three additional exposures to prevention and bystander-intervention training.

In addition, the university expanded awareness and prevention education beyond first-year students to include graduate students and international students, as well as the addition of bystander-intervention training to new-student programming in the fall of 2014.

The university also conducts additional training sessions with student leaders in fraternity and sorority life, student-athletes and coaches, ROTC cadets, the Michigan Marching Band and other campus groups.

U-M recently implemented mandatory training on sexual and gender-based harassment and misconduct awareness for all employees on the Ann Arbor, Dearborn and Flint campuses, including Michigan Medicine. So far, 52 percent of all employees have completed the training. The deadline for completion is Dec. 31.

U-M has had a Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center on campus since 1986. SAPAC provides educational and confidential supportive services for all U-M community members related to sexual assault, intimate-partner violence, sexual harassment and stalking.

The university also on Oct. 15 released its draft umbrella policy for addressing sexual and gender-based harassment and misconduct that would apply to students, faculty, staff and third parties on the Ann Arbor, Dearborn and Flint campuses.

The University of Michigan Policy on Sexual and Gender-Based Misconduct includes common definitions for prohibited conduct and responsible employees, separate procedures for addressing student misconduct allegations and those of employees and third parties, and further clarifies available confidential resources and ways to report misconduct.

The Office for Institutional Equity conducts investigations into allegations of sexual misconduct, and identifies resources and support for all parties involved in the investigation process. The office publishes an annual report that tracks the outcome of those investigations.

The U-M Police Department created a Special Victims Unit in 2015 that will provide primary response to, and investigation of, interpersonal violence crimes that are reported to have occurred on campus. These incidents include sexual assaults, domestic violence, stalking and child abuse.

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