09/22/2015 09:33 EDT | Updated 09/22/2015 09:59 EDT

University Sexual Assault Study Sees Unwanted Contact For Almost 1 In 4 U.S. Female Undergrads

The problem is widespread across all schools.

Paul Giamou via Getty Images
Harvard University in Boston

Almost one in four undergraduate women at 27 U.S. schools report non-consensual sexual contact in a survey released by the Association of American Universities (AAU) Monday.

Ivy League institutions such as Harvard and Yale partook in an extensive study that yielded responses from over 150,000 professional, graduate and undergraduate students.

It was called "one of the largest surveys on sexual assault and sexual misconduct to provide insight into students' perceptions of campus climate in terms of both number of schools and number of students."

The survey was carried out in the spring of 2015, with an overall response rate of 19.3 per cent.

Of the students who responded, 23.1 per cent were female undergrads who said they had experienced "non-consensual sexual contact by physical force, threats of physical force, or incapacitation since they enrolled at their university." Almost half of them (10.8 per cent) had endured penetration.

Of all students, 11.7 per cent reported such contact, while 5.4 per cent of male undergrads said they had experienced it.

Drugs and alcohol played a role in a "significant percentage" of unwanted sexual encounters.

Rates of unwanted sexual contact by "physical force or incapacitation" were as high or higher than numbers shown in previous surveys across all the participating institutions. The risk of experiencing such serious contact, however, fell between students' first and senior years, a downturn that was not as obvious among other kinds of contact.

Students cited various reasons for not reporting sex assault or misconduct. Over half of victims felt their encounters weren't "serious enough," while others felt embarrassed, and still others were not confident their schools would do anything about them.

The AAU did, however, hear from several students (over six in 10) who were confident that universities would take their incidents seriously, and 56 per cent felt the schools would protect their safety.

But sexual assault and conduct isn't just an issue at American schools.

Earlier this year, CBC News released the results of an investigation that looked at sexual assault incidents at Canadian universities over the past five years.

Overall, the network found that 700 sexual assaults had been reported to colleges and universities over the time period, but experts said the reporting rate was "laughingly low."

"It's just not that possible that they're that low," Vancouver Rape Relief and Women's Shelter spokesperson Lee Lakeman said. "I can get more reports of sexual assault by walking across the street on a campus [and asking students directly]."

CBC News found the highest rate of sexual assault per 10,000 students over five years at Nova Scotia's Acadia University, at 11.518, followed by Mount Allison University at 11.429 and St. Francis Xavier University at 10.37.

Acadia, however, challenged CBC's findings, saying, "Inter-institutional comparisons have little meaning since each individual campus has its own unique set of circumstances including the size of the community in which it is located and the variances inherent in reporting requirements."

An Acadia University student was charged with alleged sexual assault on the first day of classes this year, reports the CBC, and though the accused is not allowed any direct or indirect contact with the accuser, he is allowed to continue to attend classes.

“We consider that any sexual offence is unacceptable and take the issue of sexual offences seriously,” Susan Mesheau, Acadia University's vice-president of enrolment and student services, wrote in an email to students. “We encourage anyone who has been assaulted to report the incident.”

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