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23% of women report sexual assault in college, study finds

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Story highlights

  • Nearly 11% said unwanted contact included penetration or oral sex
  • Survey involved more than 150,000 students at 27 universities

Kelly Wallace is CNN's digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life. Read her other columns, and follow her reports at CNN Parents and on Twitter.

(CNN)A new survey of college students, one of the largest ever focusing on sexual assault and sexual misconduct, has reignited the debate over just how big a problem sexual assault on campus really is.

Among female college students, 23% said they experienced some form of unwanted sexual contact -- ranging from kissing to touching to rape, carried out by force or threat of force, or while they were incapacitated because of alcohol and drugs, according to the new survey by the Association of American Universities (AAU). Nearly 11% said the unwanted contact included penetration or oral sex.
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    "I think one takeaway is that this problem is a broad problem within society as well as on campus, so I think it's something all of us have to be concerned about," said AAU President Hunter Rawlings in an interview.
    While the survey's findings are fairly consistent with those of other recent studies, the significance of this latest effort is its size: More than 150,000 students participated from 27 universities, including some of the most prominent schools across the country. All the members of the Ivy League took part with the exception of Princeton, along with schools such as Iowa State University, the University of Florida and the California Institute of Technology.
    For college women seniors, the number reporting nonconsensual sexual contact of any kind carried out by force or while incapacitated was even higher than the 23% for all female college students: 26% of female seniors said they had experienced it at some point during their four years in college. At some of the country's most elite schools, that number climbed even higher: 34% for University of Michigan female seniors, 32% at Yale and 29% at Harvard.
    "The results warrant the attention and concern of everybody in our community," Drew Faust, president of Harvard, said in a statement. "Sexual assault is intolerable, and we owe it to one another to confront it openly, purposefully and effectively. This is our problem."
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    Faust said Harvard has doubled its staff for its Office of Sexual Assault and Prevention, expanded orientation and training on sexual assault and created an office charged with investigating reports of misconduct. She has also requested a task force to come up with recommendations by January 2016.
    "We must commit ourselves to being a better community than the one the survey portrays," she said.

    Critics: 'Unwanted sexual contact' too broad

    For many years, the "one in five" statistic -- that one in five women are sexually assaulted on college campuses -- has been widely cited by advocates and policymakers. The number stems from a 2007 Department of Justice study, which faced some criticism for being limited in scope since the survey involved only two colleges.
    The 2007 study, along with the newer survey by AAU, incorporated a broad definition of sexual assault to include activities such as unwanted kissing and fondling, along with rape and attempted rape.
    That is a problem, said John Foubert, national president of One in Four, an organization that is dedicated to the prevention of rape through education and research.
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    "Many of the statistics that are widely cited in the public about sexual violence are of 'rape or attempted rape' -- I believe rightfully so," wrote Foubert, who is also professor of higher education and student affairs at Oklahoma State University, on the One in Four Facebook page. "Those are the most serious types of sexual violence, and also, based on my experience, those most likely to result in PTSD [post traumatic stress disorder]. When we throw 'unwanted sexual contact' into the mix, we risk equating a forced kiss (which is a bad thing obviously) with rape (which is a fundamentally different act)."

    Why women don't come forward

    The survey, developed by a group of researchers, program administrators and methodologists, was emailed to nearly 780,000 students. More than 150,000 completed the online questionnaire, which is a response rate of just over 19%, lower than several other surveys on sexual assault and misconduct, which Foubert said was another issue with the survey.
    It is possible that the results could be slightly biased since students who didn't participate may have been less likely to report they experienced any unwanted sexual contact.
    Foubert also said the sample -- 27 universities -- was not as broad as it could have been with most of the participants coming from elite institutions.
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    "Those participating are most of our nation's most selective, large institutions. It did not include any Christian universities, small colleges, community colleges ... or other institutions of great importance," wrote Foubert, author of seven books that deal with the prevention of sexual assault.
    Rawlings, while not commenting directly on Foubert's criticism, said the survey was the "first very large scale survey of students" and included more specificity than other surveys in terms of what students were asked to gain a better sense of what is really happening on campuses across the country.
    The questions "are much more specific about the type of incidents that the students were asked to respond to. Did it involve violence? Did it involve force? ... And then what was the type of incident? Was it harassment? Was it penetration? All of those details, I think, are very important because definitions turn out to be very significant in understanding what the students are experiencing."
    Sofie Karasek, director of education and co-founder of the advocacy group End Rape on Campus, said the significance of the survey is that it provides evidence for many of the things she and other advocates thought were happening on campus, including how many students are reluctant to come forward after they are a victim of sexual assault.
    More than 50% of the women who reported some of the most serious incidents, including forced penetration, didn't report it because they didn't think it was "serious enough," according to the survey. Others said they didn't come forward because they were embarrassed, ashamed or thought it would be too emotionally difficult or that they didn't think anything would be done about it.
    "I think that evidence is really important to have in terms of specific policies that we would use to combat this type of victim blaming mentality," said Karasek.
    Topping that list would be widespread education, she said, as early as middle school, in the areas of affirmative consent, healthy relationships, respect, what constitutes sexual assault and how and where to go to report it.
    "It was clear before but now it's even clearer that campus sexual assault is widespread and we need to be tackling it from a variety of standpoints."
    What do you think is the best way to stop sexual assaults on college campuses? Share your thoughts with Kelly Wallace on Twitter @kellywallacetv or CNN Parents on Facebook.