Survey reveals how MIT students view sexual harassment and assault

Experts call it most thorough, clearest to date

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) on Monday published a campus climate survey providing a rare, detailed look at sexual harassment and assault among undergraduates on campus.

Few school-specific surveys have been conducted, and victim advocates cite MIT's as the clearest and deepest to date. Officials asked the entire student body to take the survey, and about 35% completed it.

"A big-name school like MIT being ahead of the curve like this matters," says Andrea Pino, co-founder of End Rape on Campus, adding that she hopes other colleges follow suit.

Addressing student attitudes toward sexual misconduct

According to undergraduate-specific findings, 17% of women and 5% of men reported having been sexually assaulted. That's roughly in line with another survey that says about 19% of undergraduate women had experienced attempted or actual sexual assault.

"Sure, the data tells us things that we maybe didn’t want to hear," said Cynthia Barnhart, MIT chancellor, adding that it also provided significant insight into how deep the problem is and that many students are confused about what counts as sexual assault.

The survey queried students about a range of unwanted sexual contact from touching to penetration—with "force, physical threat, or incapacitation" and without.

Twelve percent of women and 6% of men reported experiencing the latter type—but only 11% and 2% respectively considered that sexual assault.

A similar trend emerged in sexual harassment responses. Large majorities of both sexes reported hearing sexist and inappropriate comments about people's bodies, and one in six women said she had been repeatedly asked out despite saying no. Only 15% of women and 4% of men considered those situations sexual harassment.

Additionally, most survivors of unwanted sexual contact said they told a friend, but just 5% reported it to a school official, and nearly half considered themselves partially at fault.

How to establish anonymous sexual assault reporting on campus

Even more concerning is that many students were "excusing the perpetrator and blaming the victim," says John Foubert, an Oklahoma State University professor who studies campus sexual assault.

Two-thirds of undergraduates said that sexual assault and rape "can happen unintentionally, especially if alcohol is involved." A third said because "men get carried away," and about one in five said it was because the victim did not clearly refuse, and that drunk victims are "at least somewhat responsible."

Foubert also warned against comparing surveys from among schools, citing wording and content differences.

In response to the survey results, MIT is increasing the number of assault-response staff and founding a prevention task force (Carapezza, WGBH/PBS NewsHour, 10/28; Pérez-Peña, New York Times, 10/27). 

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