Harvard Survey Highlights Attitudes About Campus Sexual Assault

Dec 19, 2016
Originally published on May 2, 2017 3:32 pm
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There are big differences in the way male and female college students think about sex. A new survey by researchers at Harvard highlights that gap and suggests that it may underlie some cases of sexual assault on college campuses. As NPR's Tovia Smith reports, the researchers say the data can help them design more effective violence prevention programs.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: Tess Brooks says she's long been troubled by the fact that most students who are sexually assaulted are not attacked by strangers on the street but rather by people they know in their own dorms. So as a student at Harvard Business School, she designed a national survey of some 1,200 students to find out more.

TESS BROOKS: We just started trying to understand what's really going on here.

SMITH: Instead of just the usual two categories of assault - physical force or incapacitation - her survey offered 16, yielding a lot more nuanced data, like, nearly a third of women say they've been socially coerced into sex by a guy who was just relentlessly persistent.

MADDIE SNYDER: Yes, I have - multiple times.

SMITH: Senior Maddie Snyder is one of several Harvard students who say they can totally relate. Discussing the survey, Snyder says some level of persistence is expected as, quote, "just part of the game." Indeed, the survey shows that 1 in 4 men believe women need some convincing to have sex, and 1 in 10 women believe that, too.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I would like to be able to say no to that question, but the fact that I've been raised in an environment that has taught me that women should be a little bit, like, cute and shy, I hate that I have to say that I would need, quote, unquote, "some convincing."

SMITH: It can be a recipe for disaster for guys who are taught no means no but deep down believe that the first few no's might actually just be part of the social script.

NEEL MEHTA: Especially when you're younger, like, even if you try your best to not apply pressure, sometimes you might unintentionally do that.

SMITH: Harvard junior Neel Mehta says things get even dicier with some of the other beliefs highlighted in the survey. For example, nearly half of men think going home with a woman means sex is a given. Most women don't see it that way. But as Mehta says, some guys figure they don't need to ask for consent 'cause they already got it.

MEHTA: When someone agrees to go home with you, like, it shows that there is definitely some kind of interest. I think it is very common - and I've certainly experienced this, too - to assume this means that you have, like, a blank check to, you know, whatever you want.

SMITH: Harvard senior William Greenlaw nods.

WILLIAM GREENLAW: You know, it becomes very clear with this more nuanced data that there are situations that are severe miscommunications.

SMITH: But any suggestion that a sexual assault can be chalked up to some big misunderstanding infuriates advocates. Even the term unintentional assault, as the Harvard researchers call it, makes many cringe.

LINDSAY ORCHOWSKI: That's a tough one.

SMITH: Brown University professor Lindsay Orchowski prefers the term unpremeditated. Clunky as it may be, she says, at least it doesn't sound like it's excusing what happened.

ORCHOWSKI: That's a slippery slope.

SMITH: For her part, Tess Brooks insists her survey was never meant to let perpetrators off the hook. It's about unpacking the roots of sexual assault, she says, in order to better prevent it. She's launched a startup to develop and sell new programs.

BROOKS: It's the opposite of letting them off the hook. We're trying to make them aware that what they did is sexual assault and that they're responsible for it instead of allowing people to make excuses for themselves.

SMITH: But some question how much the approach could help.

ALAN BERKOWITZ: That in and of itself would only be a drop in the bucket.

BERKOWITZ: Alan Berkowitz, an expert in sexual assault prevention, says most incidents are committed by serial predators who would not be deterred by this kind of intervention.

BERKOWITZ: If I'm a serial predator looking to score, I'm not interested in having that conversation of clarifying expectations.

SMITH: Berkowitz says that's why bystander intervention is key not only to swoop in and stop an assault but also to resist some of these deep-seated attitudes. Tess Brooks says it's also important this data about men's attitudes be shared with women. No one wants to put the onus of prevention on would-be victims, she says, but women need to understand what they may be walking into.

BROOKS: I think it's valuable for women to also make their own informed decisions about whether they want to go home with the person, whether they really aggressively say, OK, let's go have a drink, but I'm not having sex with you right up front. Like, if I had an 18-year-old sister right now, I would definitely want her to know these numbers, too.

SMITH: As long as these mismatched expectations persist, Brooks says, it's information women should be armed with. Tovia Smith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.