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MIT Survey Details Sexual Assault On Campus

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The Massachusetts Institute of Technology says results of a voluntary student survey show sexual assault and unwanted sexual behavior are, like at other schools, "a serious problem" in the community, with 17 percent of survey-responding female undergraduate students reporting they had been the victim of some kind of sexual assault.

The online survey — sent to all 10,831 undergraduate and graduate students at MIT and completed by 35 percent of them; the results, therefore, might reflect some self-selection — went into more detail about the nature of possible sexual assaults and sexual harassment than surveys at other schools, according to MIT Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart.

On the question of "unwanted sexual behaviors while at MIT involving use of force, physical threat, or incapacitation," 17 percent of responding female undergraduate students said they had experienced such an incident. That compares to a widely cited national figure of 19 percent, MIT says. The survey further broke down such incidents into sexual touching or kissing, attempted oral sex, oral sex, attempted sexual penetration and sexual penetration.

But the numbers increased when sexual harassment was included in the questioning, with 35 percent of female undergraduates who responded to the survey saying they had experienced some sort of sexual harassment, rape, sexual assault or other unwanted sexual behavior while at MIT. Among male undergraduate students who took the survey, 14 percent said they had one or more experience with such unwanted sexual behaviors. Among graduate students who responded to the survey, 16 percent of females and 5 percent of males said they had experienced sexual harassment, sexual assault or other unwanted sexual behaviors at MIT.

The survey found only 5 percent of students who said they had an unwanted sexual experience reported the incident or incidents in an official capacity, though 63 percent indicated they had told someone such as a friend, family member or medical professional.

Most of those who reported the incidents officially made those reports to MIT's Violence Prevention and Response team. That's a confidential support service that helps refer students to counseling and other resources. Most students do not initiate formal disciplinary action against their assailants or report the alleged assaults to police, according to Barnhart. She says the university is working on opening dialogues and developing education programs for students on the importance of reporting sexual assault.

When asked about their thoughts on whether to report the incident, 72 percent of respondents "did not think the incident(s) was serious enough to officially report," and 55 percent said "it was not clear harm was intended." Close to half responded that they didn't want action to be taken against the alleged perpetrator or felt that they themselves were "at least partly at fault or it wasn't totally the other person's fault."

"There is confusion among some of our students about what constitutes sexual assault," Barnhart said in a conference call. "We want to use the release of these survey results to intensify the conversation on our campus about sexual assault, so that it is well understood by all and so that we can develop approaches to stop it."

Among students who indicated that they had experienced sexual assault ranging from unwanted touching to penetration, 44 percent reported it happened when they were "too drunk, high, asleep, or out of it."

In response to concerns about sexual assault and harassment, MIT says it is increasing the staff and outreach efforts of its Violence Prevention Response team. The institute is also expanding peer education programs and has launched a sexual assault education and prevention task force made up of students, faculty and staff. The task force will develop new sexual assault programming to take place in residence halls and other group living and learning environments, according to Barnhart. The school also plans to increase education around how to intervene as a bystander in sexual assault, and training sessions on the link between alcohol, drugs and sexual assault.

The survey was made available to students in late April, two days before a White House task force urged all universities and colleges to survey their students about unwanted sexual behaviors, according to MIT.

"The data tells us things that we maybe didn't want to hear," Barnhart said. "But MIT isn't afraid of that. We have a very long history of approaching problems in exactly this way. We measure by getting data and facts, and then we develop our action plan."

Lynn Jolicoeur Twitter Producer/Reporter
Lynn Jolicoeur is the field producer for WBUR's All Things Considered. She also reports for the station's various local news broadcasts.

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