Jun. 09 2017

Columbia Researchers Present Findings from Landmark Sexual Assault Study

Columbia’s SHIFT team reports initial findings on undergraduate sexual assault and sexual health during Mailman School symposium

Researchers with the Sexual Health Initiative to Foster Transformation (SHIFT), a major research initiative to study sexual violence and sexual health among Columbia University undergraduates, presented initial findings at an all-day symposium at the Mailman School, highlighting what they learned about unwanted, nonconsensual, and consensual sex, as well as about opportunities to prevent sexual assault and promote sexual health.

In the two and a half years since Columbia University President Lee Bollinger announced SHIFT, a team of researchers representing disciplines from across the University, including six Mailman faculty, have surveyed, interviewed, and observed students, assembling one of the most scientifically rigorous and comprehensive portraits of undergraduate sexual health and behavior ever compiled, reflecting a holistic picture of student experiences.

Attended by academics, administrators, and local and national government officials, the May 23 symposium presented key findings from the first round of SHIFT analyses. The findings, which uniquely draw from several different data collection methods, underline the multiplicity of undergraduate experiences, inclusive of women, men, and gender nonconforming (GNC) students. “We need to take seriously the diversity of our student body,” said Jennifer Hirsch, SHIFT co-director and professor of Sociomedical Sciences, “both the varying prior preparation they have had and their lived experiences [as undergraduates].”

Survey Findings

Consistent with research at other colleges and universities, one in five of the nearly 1,600 Columbia and Barnard undergraduates surveyed reported experiencing at least one unwanted and nonconsensual sexual incident since arriving on campus, including unwanted sexual touching, attempted penetrative sex, and completed penetrative sexual assault. Women and GNC students were at highest risk for sexual assault, and had a higher average number of repeat assaults, but men too experienced sexual assault, the survey showed.

“Women and gender nonconforming students need to be the focus [of prevention efforts],” said Claude Mellins, SHIFT co-director and professor of Medical Psychology in Psychiatry and Sociomedical. Sciences. “That said, one in eight men reported being the victim of assault. This is not insignificant, and is often ignored.”

Many undergraduates said they had experienced a sexual assault before they arrived at Columbia, with GNC students reporting particularly elevated rates of prior assault. Prior assault, as other research has also shown, puts students at greater risk for subsequent post-matriculation sexual assault. Other risk factors include student substance use and mental health problems, financial hardships, engaging in casual sex hook-ups, and participating in fraternities and sororities. Participation in varsity athletics was not a factor.

What Students Actually Do

SHIFT researchers used student diaries and ethnographic research to gain a deeper understanding of undergraduates’ experiences, including how consensual sex fits into their broader lives—without presupposing solutions. “Our prevention work needs to be grounded in an understanding of what students actually do,” said Hirsch, “not what we wish they were doing.”

Half of students reported in diaries having sex at least once over a 60-day period, with an average of eight encounters. They described most sex as pleasurable, although the desire for sex was not communicated in one-quarter of sexual encounters. In the ethnographic research, heterosexual students often perceived the burden of consent to be on men; they also said consent is often assumed when the woman does not say no. (An ongoing analysis is looking at LGBTQ experiences of consent.)

Both the survey and the ethnography showed that only a very small proportion of assaults are reported to campus officials. The ethnographic research shed some light on student decisions in this area: one woman told researchers she “didn’t want to be that girl.” Others said filing an official complaint would be stressful and time consuming, and threatened to subsume their identities. Men who had been sexually assaulted often didn’t label it as such or worried that if they filed a complaint, their perpetrator would turn the tables on them, labeling them as the aggressor.

Next Steps

In the coming months, the SHIFT team plans to publish detailed findings in peer-reviewed journal articles. Meanwhile, they are proceeding with further analyses. From the beginning, guided by student, administrative, and faculty advisory boards, SHIFT has worked with campus stakeholders to translate their findings into interventions and policies to prevent sexual assault. In the months ahead, that work of developing comprehensive prevention approaches for Columbia will continue.

The researchers say there is no silver bullet for solving the problem since sexual assaults are experienced in many different ways. For example, interventions to encourage bystanders to intervene or to curb binge drinking, while helpful in many instances, wouldn’t prevent all assaults. “A one-size-fits-all approach to prevention is not supported by this data,” says Mellins. “We really need to think more broadly.”

They also caution against value judgements about student behaviors like alcohol use and hook-ups, noting that drinking and casual sex don’t necessarily lead to sexual assaults. Instead, they point to possible interventions like improving sexual literacy by making sure that all students have access to comprehensive sexuality education before college, targeting mental health and substance abuse, and creating shared spaces in dorms for students to socialize late at night.

Says Hirsch, “We need to proceed with sensitivity but without fear.”