Eighteen percent of undergraduates committed unwanted sexual acts

Media Credit: Anna McGarrigle | Senior Designer

Eighteen percent of undergraduate students who participated in an anonymous sexual violence survey said they had engaged in “unwanted sexual behavior.”

The behavior listed in the survey included making sexual jokes, sending sexual pictures or asking for a sexual favor. About a quarter of undergraduates said they had experienced unwanted sexual behavior during their time at GW.

But because the behaviors listed in the survey never mention sexual abuse or rape, it’s difficult to actually gauge what’s happening on campus, said David Lisak, a forensic consultant who has conducted leading research on rapists’ behaviors.

“They don’t seem to have asked questions about the more serious end of the spectrum of sexual assault. It sort of fades into criminal behavior but then stops,” Lisak said.

No male undergraduates said they had “forced someone to do something sexual.” Lisak said to gain a more exact understanding of behavior on campus, surveys should ask about specific situations like whether a student forced someone intoxicated to have sex.

“If you say, ‘Did you force someone to do something sexual?’ A respondent could say ‘Well, I guess I did sort of get somebody to do X or Y,’ which was in their mind a sexual behavior, but never involved touching or contact. It’s very uncertain,” Lisak said.

Of the students who participated in the survey, 27 percent of upperclass men and 27 percent of undergraduate LGBT students said they have made unwanted sexual comments, jokes or looks. Seven percent of junior and senior men and 7 percent of junior and senior women said they have sent unwanted sexual pictures or notes.

Ariella Neckritz, co-president of Students Against Sexual Assault, said because of the work she does with survivors on campus, she was “not at all surprised” by the statistic that 18 percent of undergraduates had perpetrated unwanted sexual behavior.

“Our campus culture is condoning violence and normalizing violence, so I’m not surprised it’s so high,” Neckritz said.

Experts also say the results reflect a larger trend – that sexual harassment frequently occurs, and not just at the college level. About 80 percent of the students who participated in the survey said GW should do more to spread awareness of sexual harassment.

Colby Bruno, the senior legal counsel at the Victim Rights Law Center in Boston, said the results show the importance of targeting perpetrators when trying to make a culture shift – instead of only focusing on sharing information about resources.

“A college campus, though small and insular, is representative of the larger society,” Bruno said. “You walk down the street and get cat-called or get a gross, disgusting joke on your email or see something offensive on Facebook. That’s a representation of our society.”

Bruno said more effort should go toward training on sexual harassment, which she said is “still an everyday thing.”

GW Title IX Coordinator Rory Muhammad said students may “realize in retrospect” that they engaged in unwanted behavior, similar to how survivors may not immediately recognize that they were sexually harassed or abused. He said understanding that perspective will help officials decide whether to add additional training around consent, which teaches students to ensure mutual agreement before engaging in sexual activity.

And issues like sexual harassment on campus show that students should have received training about “where the line was” before they even went to college, said Maggie Wells, the outreach coordinator at the University of New Hampshire’s Sexual Assault and Harassment Prevention Program.

“When I talk about consent and unwanted sexual behavior, there’s a good handful of students that look at me like, ‘Seriously, are you kidding me?’ And I can’t blame them,” Wells said. “They’ve grown up in a culture where people tell them that’s OK behavior.”

The survey, which the University issued last spring to gauge the climate on campus, found that 40 percent of junior and senior women knew someone who had been forced to do something sexual.

About five percent of upperclass men and women in the survey said they’ve started sexual rumors or have sent unwanted sexual messages. About four percent of undergraduate LGBT students in the survey said they have flashed someone or asked for a sexual favor.

“It’s no surprise people have done some of these things, especially on a lower range,” Wells said. “Maybe they’ve never sexually assaulted someone, but they’ll say they’ve definitely grabbed someone or pressured someone because [they] don’t see that as crossing the line.”

Ellie Smith contributed reporting.

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