Reif ‘disturbed’ by results of MIT’s sexual assault survey

One in six female undergrad respondents report having been sexually assaulted while at Institute

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INFOGRAPHIC BY Justine Cheng; Source: 2014 Community Attitudes on Sexual Assault Survey Results

MIT released the results Monday of the sexual assault survey sent to all undergraduate and graduate students in April. Seventeen percent of female undergraduate respondents said that they had experienced behaviors defined as sexual assault at MIT, and President L. Rafael Reif said he is “disturbed by the extent and nature of the problem.”

Only five percent of students who indicated that they had experienced behavior defined in most academic literature as sexual assault said they reported their experience to the Institute.

Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart PhD ’88, who spearheaded the survey effort, also announced new Institute policies and programs designed to combat sexual assault.

Barnhart cautioned that the results, reflecting a 35 percent (3,844-person) response rate, are subject to selection bias and cannot be reliably generalized to the rest of the MIT community.

Nevertheless, the 17 percent rate is on par with the widely cited statistic that, on average, one in five US undergraduate women have experienced sexual assault, though such statistics are usually measured by random sample.

Five percent of undergraduate male and graduate female respondents said they had experienced behavior defined as sexual assault, as did one percent of graduate male respondents. These experiences included unwanted sexual touching or kissing, attempted oral sex, oral sex, attempted sexual penetration, and sexual penetration.

Thirty-five percent of undergraduate female respondents said they had experienced behaviors defined as sexual harassment, unwanted sexual behaviors, or sexual assault or rape, while this figure was 14 percent for undergraduate male respondents.

Overall, undergraduate students consistently indicated that they had experienced unwanted sexual experiences at higher rates than graduate students during their time at MIT.

The survey results indicate that 14 percent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that “rape and sexual assault happen because people put themselves in bad situations,” while 27 percent neither agreed nor disagreed with the statement.

Twenty-eight percent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that “sexual assault and rape happen because men can get carried away in sexual situations once they’ve started.” More than half of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that “rape and sexual assault can happen unintentionally, especially if alcohol is involved.” Eight percent said that “an incident can only be sexual assault or rape if the person says ‘no.’”

While 97 percent of respondents agreed that they would respect someone who did something to prevent sexual assault, 56 percent who knew a perpetrator said that they did not take any action with that knowledge. More than one in five undergraduate respondents indicated that they knew a perpetrator.

Of the undergraduates who experienced unwanted sexual behavior, over four-fifths of them said that the unwanted sexual behavior occurred on campus, which was defined loosely and included dormitories as well as fraternities, sororities, and independent living groups. However, the survey made no distinction between where the attacks occurred among the living groups themselves.

According to data obtained by The Huffington Post through the Freedom of Information Act, no expulsions from sexual assault sanctions occurred from fiscal years 2011-2013, and only four suspensions were handed out during that time.

“What are the sanctions for sexual assault is very hard to answer,” said Barnhart. “The whole range of sanctions are possible. It could be that an investigation results in a decision that no actions should be taken. It could be that an investigation resulting in a panel hearing… results in a student being expelled. The whole range is possible.”

In response to the survey, Barnhart said that the administration has increased training of the Committee on Discipline and created a task force to develop new educational programs, as well as “clarified the policies and procedures” related to sexual assault.

“One thing we learned from the survey… is that if we’re successful — and we must be — in training more people and responding to their needs, then we need to have more staff,” said Barnhart. “We’ve already made a commitment to increase resources so that we can increase education and support.”

Barnhart said students are vital to combating sexual assault, with an emphasis on bystander training and peer-to-peer support. She said that the survey indicated that over 80 percent of students said they “always or usually” took steps to protect friends at parties, outings, or similar situations and referenced training programs by the Panhellenic Association and Interfraternity Council as promising student-led efforts.

She said she hopes “to have the students take the lead in a lot of this.” “Clearly, with this topic students have to be the ones driving the solution.”

Barnhart wrote that a number of the new policies are designed to lower barriers to reporting, which she said helps MIT look for harmful patterns or serial perpetrators. She said that while the Title IX office would investigate complaints it received, it is up to affected students whether to pursue disciplinary action.

The survey also revealed a gap between the number of students who said they had been sexually assaulted and the number who reported experiences defined as sexual assault in the academic literature.

“That indicates to us that there is confusion around what sexual assault is,” said Barnhart in a conference call with several national newspapers. “That’s why it’s imperative, I think, that we open up this dialogue and increase education about what constitutes sexual assault and consent.”

MIT is the first of its peer institutions to send out a sexual assault survey. In May, the Obama administration released a list of 55 colleges under investigation for the way that they have handled sexual assault complaints. Princeton, Harvard, and Dartmouth were among those named.

Barnhart said that the purpose of the survey was not to compare MIT to national figures on sexual assault. “While the comparison [of sexual assault rates with other colleges] can be helpful in terms of understanding others who are doing things better than we are, in some ways the comparison doesn’t matter,” said Barnhart. “What we care about is what’s happening on our campus, and I think what we learned here is that we have a problem, and that’s why we’re releasing these results, and unleashing the collective problem solving and creativity that our community is so well known for.”

According to the MIT News Office, the survey was launched at Reif’s behest in response to an anonymous letter published in The Tech in January, which detailed an MIT student’s rape by her mentor and subsequent PTSD. Reif responded to the letter with an email to the entire community, writing that the account made him “profoundly sad and angry” and announcing that he had charged the then-newly appointed Chancellor “to make the subject of sexual assault a central priority.”

While MIT surveys typically offer only raffled prizes, this survey offered a guaranteed $10 to anyone who completed the survey. According to Jag S. Patel ’97, the Associate Director of Institutional Research, over 40 percent of respondents chose to donate their $10 to groups that aim to combat sexual assault.

Barnhart says that the administration plans to conduct the survey in the future on an “ongoing basis,” although the exact timing has not yet been decided.

MIT community members who have any questions about the results or how sexual assault is handled at MIT can send them to

Anonymous over 9 years ago

As an alum, I think Reif spends too much time being "disturbed", "sad" and "angry" and too little explaining how he will change MIT's campus climate. These numbers and the nature of the Tech letter can not come as a surprise if he is even minimally competent. During my time at MIT, I witnessed a gang rape (multiple people going separately into the room of an inebriated woman) and really inappropriate things being written in public spaces about women's sexuality and behaviors. The married RA was too busy making passes at undergrad women to actually perform his job. What is being done to address this behavior? Is it one-off training that will soon be superceded by peer experiences? How is he involved with fraternities and male athletes whose cultures are often demeaning to women (see Bill Frezza article)? How does MIT know they are truly complying with best practices when it comes to sexual assault? What is the involvement of students and alums? Any president who was not able to address the issue of 1 in 5 computers being stolen would be castigated at best, what is he doing now? P.s. with that endowment of $12 billion there is no shortfall of funds to ensure women have a safe and healthy learning environment.

Anonymous over 9 years ago

Its so hard; we survive by making allies. But when even the local police wink at rape, and have rape porn on their own computers (I'm a poor mother now barely surviving on a broken STEM career, so there is no way I can report what I saw safely), it is understandable that a huge cultural change must take place. I commend everybody for their efforts, just telling you there are a lot of preconceptions we've had, and you're making a big start but addressing this publicly. Don't feel alone in having not done enough, and weirdly, BE POSITIVE. You are going in a great direction. There are so many good police out there... just like I've made them my allies, make your own allies as you clean up these attitudes that lay the groundwork for suffering and the loss of dignity of the abuser and the abusee.t

Jim over 9 years ago

"Only five percent of students who indicated that they had experienced behavior defined in most academic literature as sexual assault said they reported their experience to the Institute."

This is the most telling sentence in the whole article. This whole "rape epidemic" thing is a completely phony controversy, ginned up by people who have something to gain. If 1 in 6 MIT women were really being sexually assaulted, would they come here? Would their parents allow the to attend? No way, but that's not what is really happening. 95 of such incidents are not "sexual assaults" at all, not even by the very low threshold of reporting, let alone proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Rather women are "experiencing behavior defined in most academic literature as sexual assault". Maybe there is something wrong with the academic literature then. If 95 of the "survivors" can't be bothered to pick up a phone, maybe they haven't really been "assaulted" after all.

There is currently a video circulating which claims that a woman was "verbally harassed" over 100 times in a single day walking on the streets of NY, but if you actually watch the video, much of the "harassment" consists of men politely saying "How are you" and making other innocuous remarks. This survey is of a piece with that video - if you manipulate the survey questions sufficiently to define "sexual assault" downward, you can get the answers that you are looking for in order to gin up some headlines.

America periodically goes thru hysterias - there are witches, there are Communists, we are infested with campus rapists, we are all going to catch Ebola, etc. In the end all of these turn out to be largely if not entirely false. Humans are prone to such panics - we are herd animals. But in every case, there are people with something to gain who are fanning the flames of the panic in order to serve their personal (and often fascistic) agendas. P.S. the "harassment" video ends with a fund raising appeal.

Bob Miller over 9 years ago

Start questioning the premise that premarital sex in any form is good for students or others.

Jim over 9 years ago

Bob Miller is right - that's where this is headed. If that's not where you want it to go, then shut down these busybodies now. If you, God forbid, have been raped, call the Cambridge Police immediately and report the crime. Otherwise, your sex life is no one's business but your own. Don't give dignity to these bogus "surveys" with a hidden agenda.

Anonymous over 9 years ago

And comments 3-5 illustrate the attitudes we're talking about.

People don't report for a lot of reasons, and the biggest one is fear. Fear their attacker will retaliate, fear that they'll be publicly shamed and vilified, fear that the process of reporting will make them fall behind in their classes... and that doesn't even cover the fact that telling the story of the assault can be horrific because of PTSD.

Usually the first person a victim tells is a friend. If their friend doesn't believe them, do you think they're going to have the courage to tell the police? Look at what happened to the Steubenville victim: there was video evidence of the crime and people still harassed, blamed, and threatened her.

If you came to the survivor storytelling during DVA Week, you would have heard the story of a girl who didn't think at the time that her assault counted because she didn't say "no" (because she was drugged), and the story of a girl who was kicked out of her church because sexual assault had made her "impure."

American college campuses have a rape problem, and we need to admit that the problem isn't just rapists - it's also the people who enable them.