April 20, 2017

The SHIFT team has been hard at work! Here's an update as of April 20, 2017 on our research. 

When is the data expected to come out?

The collection for the ethnographic, diary, and survey components of SHIFT has been completed, and we are now actively engaged in data analysis. We have been discussing preliminary findings with the SHIFT Undergraduate Advisory Board and Institutional Advisory Board, and currently have 26 papers in development. Those papers will for the most part submitted for publication by December, and we look forward to sharing them with the Columbia community as each paper is released.

Have any initial observations been made?

The survey achieved a response rate of 66 percent (1,651 students participated), which included a sample representative of Columbia’s and Barnard’s diverse undergraduate student bodies. The diary study had 420 participants and 70% of all daily diary entries were completed over the 60-day period. The ethnographic research team conducted in-depth interviews with 151 undergraduates, about half of whom were recruited by the research staff and about half of whom volunteered to be interviewed. They were broadly representative of the undergraduate student body. We also did 18 interviews with key university staff, administrators and student leaders, 17 focus groups, and conducted more than 500 hours of participant observation.

As we are still in the process of data analysis, we cannot yet share detailed findings. However, we can provide some broad-brush indications of the directions of our research, in four points.

First, the analytic work we’ve done underlines the many interconnections among mental health problems, sexual assault, and binge drinking. We are therefore considering how a holistic approach to addressing all three issues could complement existing prevention efforts.

Second, there is not going to be one ‘magic bullet’ that can prevent sexual assault. Much of the prior work in this area has examined people’s attitudes and interactions, but has paid less attention to how modifiable elements of the institutional context may create vulnerability. Our findings point to the importance of prevention that encompasses policy changes at the institutional level, as well as interventions targeted at group dynamics and individual attitudes.

Third, even the term ‘sexual assault’ lumps together a very diverse set of behaviors and experiences. Effective prevention of unwanted sexual touching by strangers, for example, might differ from strategies to prevent rape in the context of an ongoing hookup. To be effective with prevention, it’s important to focus in a more targeted way on the specifics of what we are trying to prevent.

Finally, campuses exist in a broader world. By the time students arrive on campus as freshmen or transfer students, they have grown up in families, attended schools, consumed media, developed peer networks, and participated in religious institutions, organized athletics, music and arts groups, and many other group or community activities – all of which shape who they are, what they think, and how they interact with other people. And some students have experienced sexual assault even before arriving at Columbia University. It is important, therefore, to consider the broader social context, and particularly what role prevention at the middle- and high school levels could play. One recommendation that we can share right now is that effective prevention should take a life-course approach. Specifically, that would mean starting with age-appropriate comprehensive education about gender and sexuality, which teaches about consent as well as about healthy relationships, sexual pleasure, sexual health, and a host of other topics that would be useful for students to know about before they start college.

What hypotheses did you have before the start of the study? 

Our conceptual framework was Bronfenbrenner’s ecological model, which examines factors at the individual, interpersonal, and institutional level that may produce vulnerability.

Have these changed at all over the course of the two years that the study has gone on?

We knew from our own prior work, as well as from a great deal of other work in social and behavioral science, that it’s important to think about sex as a social behavior, not only as a health or individually-driven behavior. The study reinforced for us the importance of looking at whether sex is healthy and consensual, but also going beyond that, and taking into account how sexual practices take shape in relation to students’ projects regarding their identities, reputations, and intimate lives.  

What greater impact do you see this study having for the Columbia community?

We are enthusiastic about continuing our collaboration with the university to develop institutionally-workable, cutting-edge, comprehensive strategies for sexual assault prevention.