Some sexual assault survivors say AAU survey caused flashbacks

Researchers defend explicit language, say it results in the best information

Institutions that offered the Association of American Universities (AAU) sexual assault climate survey say that some students who had been assaulted said the language triggered difficult memories for them.

Project history

The survey was conceived by AAU, in part, to preempt efforts in Congress to require universities to gather data on sexual assault annually. By using a standard measure of assessment across institutions, the AAU survey could also provide a way to compare universities.

However, the project has come under criticism for lacking the input of experts on sexual assault and being too restrictive with data. Specifically, some are concerned that AAU has only pledged to publish survey results in aggregate, although the manner in which they will be presented is still being determined.  

Overall, only 27 of AAU's 60 members elected to participate in the survey, which was created and administered by research firm Westat.

Aggregate data will be released in the fall—along with campus-specific information, if individual schools choose to publish it.


Some students from the University of Michigan, Harvard University, and University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) took issue with the survey. They were particularly concerned about questions regarding specific gender-based misconduct, such as in-person and online harassment, sex while unable to consent because of intoxication, and other forms of sexual assault.

At Michigan, some students gave feedback that the diction and definitions used made them uncomfortable.

Researchers say that the more specific language is, the more accurate data are. But if survivors of sexual assault decide not to fill out the survey to avoid such "trigger[s]," that could skew results.

"In order to understand the climate here, we need to ask direct questions about topics that some may find sensitive. It is only by directly collecting this information from students will we be able to prevent negative experiences and effectively respond when they do happen," read a statement from Michigan.

Fear of sparking "PTSD re-experiencing" among sexual assault survivors should not prevent researchers from employing best practices for discovering rates of attacks, says Mary Koss, a public health professor at the University of Arizona.

But phrasing has also come under attack for what some call a conflation of sexual assault and minor aggressions.

"So which is which? What is sexual assault? What is sexual misconduct? What is harassment? And is there any category for simply obnoxious behavior?" wrote Naomi Schaefer Riley, a senior fellow at the Independent Women's Forum, for the New York Post.

Increasing response rates

Some UPenn students say they deleted the survey email because it was simply referred to as a "climate survey" and they were under the impression it had to do with climate change.

Contrarily, Harvard saw a 52% response rate—following a large campus ad campaign that featured a video from alum Conan O'Brian (New, Inside Higher Ed, 5/27; Riley, New York Post, 4/20).

Thoughts on the story? Tweet us at @eab_daily and let us know.

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