Tackling Sexual Assault

Following a groundbreaking survey, MIT takes steps to minimize unwanted sexual behavior.

Dec 18, 2014

Last spring, after the Tech published a young alumna’s account of being sexually assaulted as an undergraduate, MIT became the first major university to conduct a comprehensive survey on unwanted sexual behavior. Upon finding that the prevalence of sexual assault at MIT is comparable to what’s been reported on residential campuses nationwide, the Institute announced immediate steps to minimize it.

“I am disturbed by the extent and nature of the problem reflected in the survey results,” President L. Rafael Reif wrote in an October letter to the MIT community. “As a community, we depend on mutual respect and trust. Sexual assault violates our core MIT values. It has no place here. I am confident that, with this shared understanding and armed with this new data, the MIT community will find a path to significant positive change.” Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart, who led the survey effort, summarized the results simply: “These are painful facts, and we must take action.”

MIT, which shared the survey so other institutions can use it, is taking seven initial steps to minimize unwanted sexual behavior. These include increasing staffing to respond to those who experience sexual assault; finding new ways to let students know where to turn for help; removing barriers to reporting and addressing complaints; launching a Sexual Assault Education and Prevention Task Force; and increasing education for students, especially through peer-to-peer programs, on bystander intervention and on the connection between alcohol, drugs, and unwanted sexual behavior.

The voluntary survey, e-mailed to all 10,831 MIT undergraduate and graduate students in April, generated a 35 percent response rate, although Barnhart noted that the results may reflect a degree of self-selection and cautioned against generalizing about the prevalence of unwanted sexual behavior for all MIT students. The survey found that for undergraduate women who responded, nearly 17 percent reported experiencing rape or sexual assault under conditions of force, threat of physical harm, or incapacitation. A widely cited statistic for undergraduate women nationwide is about 19 percent. In total, 539 respondents (including 284 undergraduate women) mentioned experiences ranging from unwelcome verbal sexual conduct to rape while at MIT; these acts were usually committed on campus by someone they knew. Close to half of those 539 said that someone took advantage of them while they were drunk, high, asleep, or otherwise impaired.

In November, Barnhart hosted a community forum to discuss the results and kicked off the “It’s on Us MIT” campaign to promote awareness about sexual assault on campus. She also invited members of the MIT community to send ideas and comments to stop-assault@mit.edu

“MIT is a community of problem solvers,” Barnhart wrote in a letter accompanying the report. “As we have demonstrated in the past, we are not afraid of self-examination and are very good at learning from data and facts, even unpleasant ones. Ultimately, we will arrive at a serious solution only if we draw on ideas generated by the MIT community at large.”