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October 27, 2014

Seventeen percent of female undergraduates surveyed said they had been a victim of sexual assault at MIT's campus. (Chris Devers/Flickr CC). 

In an unprecedented broad-based survey, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology polled students about their attitudes and experiences with sexual assault on campus. One in six female undergraduate students who responded to the survey say they've experienced sexual assault on the Cambridge campus, although fewer than 5 percent reported the experience to authorities or to the school. 

MIT released its comprehensive survey results Monday. The poll is the first of its kind for the MIT community, and it goes beyond the scope of similar studies at other colleges and universities. Nearly 11,000 undergraduate and graduate students were surveyed last spring, and 35 percent responded.

Students answered questions about their attitudes and views on sexual assault, their experience with sexual misconduct, and their thoughts on bystander intervention. 

Administrators took a decidedly scientific approach, collecting data and facts to help understand the issue. Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart has been charged with proposing solutions. She says MIT faces a serious problem.

"What we find from the survey is that we need more education in our community, and that's exactly what we're positioning ourselves to do," said Barnhart.

Courtesy of MIT.

When asked directly whether they had been "sexually assaulted," 10 percent of survey respondents said yes. However, when asked whether they had experienced any of the specific experiences that fall under the institutional definition of sexual assault, 17 percent of respondents said yes.

Barnhart says that's troubling because it indicates genuine confusion among students about what actually constitutes sexual assault.

"There's a gap between the percentage of students who say that they've been sexually assaulted and the number of students, that by answering the behavioral questions, indicate that they've been sexually assaulted," said Barnhart.

MIT defines sexual assault as sexual touching or kissing, attempted oral sex, oral sex, attempted sexual penetration, or sexual penetration under use of force, physical threat or incapacitation.

While virtually all survey respondents agreed that it's important to get consent before sex, more than half said "rape and sexual assault can happen unintentionally, especially if alcohol is involved." 

Full result surveys are available here

Twenty five percent of male undergraduates that responded to the survey, agreed that "a person who is sexually assaulted or raped while drunk is at least somewhat responsible for putting themselves in that position." That is in contrast to 15 percent of female undergraduates who say the same.

Courtesy of MIT.

MIT will be increasing staff who respond to reported sexual assaults and has launched a Sexual Assault Education and Prevention Task Force. 

The results of MIT's survey provide context to the national conversation on sexual assault on college campuses. 

In the spring, the White House called on all U.S. colleges and universities to survey their students. Several schools, including Harvard and MIT, have hired sexual assault investigators. And many schools have seen a dramatic increase in the number of reported sexual assaults on campus.

sexual assault, MIT, increasing access and success

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