We know that sexual assault is an issue on all college campuses, but how significant is the problem at our individual school or in our organization? We may have prevalence data, but do we know the impact sexual assault has on our students? Could we be inadvertently harming our students by not fully understanding the resulting trauma? It’s important to dive a little deeper in defining the problem of sexual assault on our campuses to come up with impactful solutions that adequately address the needs of our communities.
Dr. Jennifer Freyd has introduced an important term that has deep relevance to these important questions for institutions of higher education: institutional betrayal. This is defined as wrongdoings against an individual by an institution they depend on. Sexual assault survivors may experience institutional betrayal if they, upon reporting a case of sexual assault, believe their institution has failed to respond responsibly and supportively. Institutional betrayal has been connected to negative emotional consequences including an exacerbation of some of the effects of trauma (e.g., anxiety, dissociation, and sexual problems). According to Dr. Freyd’s research, of students who came forward to disclose a sexual assault, 41% experienced institutional betrayal.
Climate surveys are a way of demonstrating outward commitment to the issue of sexual assault. They demonstrate institutional courage through proactively collecting accurate data on related attitudes, beliefs, experiences, and behaviors. Though they are an important step in gathering foundational insights upon which to direct our initiatives, it is essential that we make known how we intend to use the data we collect and follow through with that commitment. Completing a climate survey can be a difficult experience, especially for survivors of sexual assault. If we ask deeply personal questions and do nothing with the information that we glean, we are likely doing as much of a disservice as not asking the questions at all.
The sense that an institution is not going to be supportive of a survivor can keep someone from coming forward to report, further exacerbating the issue. In 2014, 91% of schools reported zero sexual assaults in their Annual Security Reports. Based on what we know about sexual assault on campus, it is highly unlikely that this many schools truly had no sexual assaults, but rather that students (for one reason or another) didn’t feel that they could come forward to report. We must consider how we can leverage data to change this statistic and the culture that perpetuates it. How can we make it so that, through our policies, our programs, and our processes, we are creating an environment where survivors feel safe and supported to report their experience?
The first step is to collect foundational data. Findings can shed light on knowledge gaps and ensure that resources are being used to effectively address an institutional need. EVERFI’s climate survey data shows that 23% of college students have experienced an assault before arriving at their current school. Knowing this, what considerations must we have about programs, policies, and services that we put in place before students step foot into our classrooms? Are our efforts survivor-centered and done with prior trauma in mind?
EVERFI data also shows that 13% of students experience an assault after coming to college. Comparing this percentage of the student body population to other forms of sexual assault-related data on campus, there is likely a large gap between this figure and what may be reported through Clery statistics. Often, data can point out a story that’s not being told. If the numbers are different, why are we seeing this gap? What barriers exist that make it so students report anonymously in a climate survey but not to campus officials (or even counseling professionals).
One barrier worth exploring is the perception of how alcohol use may be perceived in a report of sexual assault. High-profile cases in the media often reference alcohol in a way that blames the victim and minimizes perpetrator accountability. EVERFI’s climate survey data shows that 55% of assaults involved the use of alcohol by either the survivor or perpetrator, a data point well aligned with other national research. What does this number tell us, and what might we do to acknowledge it to make change? We know alcohol use often co-occurs with sexual assault, but there is a lot of reticence to talking about the issues together. This data should be a sign that we cannot NOT talk about the role of alcohol – the way that we do it just has to be thoughtful and sensitive.
Ultimately, it is important to think about our efforts to address sexual assault through the lense of some key questions. What do we know about our students? What don’t we know? Where should we focus our efforts? What financial, personnel, intellectual, or other? And finally, how do we measure success? Is it in quantity of programs that we put out? Changes in student knowledge? Decrease in reporting? Or even an increase in reporting? The answers will be unique to your community, but it’s important to lay the groundwork in thinking about these important considerations as part of a comprehensive prevention strategy.