Survey Reveals ‘Troubling’ Sexual Assault Climate at Harvard, Faust Says

Sixteen percent of senior undergraduate females surveyed reported experiencing sexual penetration or attempted penetration without their consent

{shortcode-9bb4e61cf74100d19dea4e04a547d3fddc6d79f9} UPDATED: September 22, 2015, at 3:20 a.m.

Thirty-one percent of senior undergraduate females at Harvard College who responded to a sexual conduct climate survey last spring said they had experienced some form of sexual assault—what the survey termed “nonconsensual sexual contact”—during their time at the College. Sixteen percent, or 90 women, reported that they had experienced sexual penetration or attempted penetration without their consent during that time.

Results of the survey, which were released on Monday and come as the College faces an ongoing investigation into its Title IX compliance, offer an in-depth look at the climate surrounding sexual assault at Harvard, an atmosphere University President Drew G. Faust called “deeply disturbing” in an email to students, faculty, and other Harvard affiliates on Monday. {shortcode-1e1b3b226c5a1cb74f3a4f0ce401f7f0477c693f}

The survey at Harvard used the term “nonconsensual sexual contact” to include three forms of nonconsensual behavior: sexual touching, attempted penetration, and completed penetration. The survey also asked whether the conduct involved physical force or incapacitation, and if alcohol was involved. In the survey, “penetration” included acts of sexual penetration “when one person puts a penis, fingers, or object inside someone else’s vagina or anus,” and acts of oral sex.

The Association of American Universities—which developed the survey and administered it at 27 schools through the research firm Westat—also reported aggregate results on Monday. Across the 27 schools, 27.2 percent of senior female undergraduate respondents reported experiencing nonconsensual sexual contact involving physical force or incapacitation since entering college. At Harvard, though, the conversation turned inward on Monday after results painted what leaders called a “troubling” picture of the sexual climate.



Last spring, Harvard and 26 other schools issued their version of a sexual assault climate survey developed by the AAU. Harvard received the highest response rate, at 53.2 percent University-wide, and 57.4 percent of undergraduates alone, compared to a 19.3 percent response rate for the AAU as a whole.

University wide, Harvard’s results fell below the AAU average. Slightly more than 4 percent of all respondents reported that they had experienced nonconsensual penetration and sexual touching since fall 2014, while the rate among all 27 AAU schools was 6.5 percent.

For undergraduates, however, Harvard’s numbers were above the AAU average. Slightly more than 29 percent of Harvard senior women—a category which includes some students in the Division of Continuing Education—reported that they had experienced nonconsensual penetration and sexual touching since coming to college. The rate was 27.2 across all 27 AAU schools. When Harvard DCE students were removed, the prevalence rate of nonconsensual penetration and sexual touching rose from 29.2 percent to 31.2 percent of Harvard respondents.

In a report to Faust, former Provost Steven E. Hyman, the chair of the Task Force on the Prevention of Sexual Assault, wrote that alcohol is a “potent” risk factor for sexual assault. When force was a tactic reportedly used by perpetrators, more than 60 percent of surveyed respondents said the incident involved alcohol. When incapacitation was involved, more than 80 percent of surveyed students reported that the incident involved alcohol.

Hyman also noted “a relationship between social spaces and sexual assault” and urged further investigation of the issue. Of Harvard College female respondents who reported sexual assaults, more than 75 percent of the incidents reportedly occurred in dorm rooms. At least 15 percent of sexual assault incidents were reported at “single-sex organizations that are not fraternities or sororities”—the second most common reported location for sexual assault.

Economics Professor David I. Laibson ’88, a member of the University’s sexual assault task force who helped design the AAU survey, said that category, while generalized for all AAU universities, was tailored to encompass activity at Harvard’s single-gender final clubs.

While other groups at Harvard are single-gender—such as some singing groups—Laibson said he “would assume that most students who identify that space are thinking about final clubs.” Laibson added that the responses in the single-sex organization classification caught his attention.

“That result surprised me because I associate final clubs as non-residential spaces, and of course our students do not spend nearly as much time there as dormitories, and of course only a fraction of students have an affiliation,” he said. “That number was an alarm bell for me.”

Other figures highlighted in Hyman’s report included the differing rates of sexual assault among respondents who identify as straight and those who do not. Undergraduate students who identified in the survey as LGBAQN—lesbian, gay, bisexual, asexual, questioning, or not listed—reported experiencing sexual assault at higher rates. Among LGBAQN undergraduate females, 17.9 percent reported experiencing nonconsensual contact involving physical force or incapacitation since fall 2014; 12 percent of straight undergraduate female respondents, meanwhile, reported experiencing it during that time. For LGBAQN undergraduate males, that rate of experiencing nonconsensual penetration and sexual touching was 10.9 percent in that time, compared to 2.7 percent among their straight male peers.

According to Hyman, 73 percent of surveyed undergraduate women said they had experienced sexual harassment—a term that includes women who said others have made sexual or crude jokes and comments, offensive comments about their bodies, emailed or texted offensive sexual remarks, or repeated unwanted request for dinner, drinks, or sex. Among male undergraduates, 51 percent of respondents said they had experienced sexual harassment.


As Harvard continues to face scrutiny for its handling of sexual assault from both students and federal officials investigating the College’s Title IX compliance, the spring survey results also show that student respondents lacked awareness of and confidence in Harvard’s resources for responding to sexual misconduct. Just 16 percent of female Harvard undergraduates, compared to a 37 percent AAU average, said they thought it was very or extremely likely the University would take action against offenders, according to Hyman’s report.

A majority of Harvard student respondents—71 percent—said they were not at all or only a little bit knowledgeable about what happens when a student reports an incident of sexual assault or misconduct, while 8 percent said they were very or extremely knowledgeable about the process. Just 15 percent of surveyed students said they were very or extremely knowledgeable about how sexual assault and misconduct are defined at Harvard; 21 percent said they were not at all knowledgeable.

In line with previous research on the topic, the survey suggests that incidents of sexual assault go vastly underreported at Harvard. Eighty percent of female College students who reported having experienced nonconsensual penetration by incapacitation, and 69 percent of those who experienced penetration by force, did not file a formal report, according to Hyman. In the survey, Hyman wrote, “the most frequently cited reason for not reporting was a belief that it was not serious enough to report.”

The survey also revealed information about the behavior of bystanders. Fifty-four percent of surveyed Harvard students reported that had not taken any action when they had “seen or heard someone who was acting in a sexually violent or harassing way,” Hyman wrote. Of those who “witnessed a drunk person heading for a sexual encounter,” 80 percent said they did not take action.

Thirty-two percent of female undergraduates said sexual assault or misconduct is very much or extremely problematic at Harvard, while 19 percent of male undergraduates said the same.


In campus communications and a town hall forum on Monday night, officials balanced questions about the survey with pledges of future action.

Observers on Monday and questioners at the forum also highlighted potential oversights in the survey that may factor into future steps. Laibson acknowledged that the survey, for instance, did not in his mind offer usable data that would allow officials to normalize for a larger population the prevalence of sexual assault in final clubs, nor did it ask about locations where actions leading up to reported assaults may have occurred.

Hyman will send Faust his task force’s final report in January 2016, and he wrote Monday that those recommendations will build on changes that have already been made, including increased funding to the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response and an online web port, SHARE, that offers resources to victims.

Hyman was adamant, though, that much work remains to be done.

“[A]s we have learned from our work, and most notably from the survey, these and other initial actions fall far short of what will prove necessary,” he wrote. “Based on the high prevalence of assault and other forms of sexual misconduct, it is clear that the University must achieve inclusive and authentic engagement of our students, and indeed the entire community.”

—Staff writer Theodore R. Delwiche can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @trdelwic.

—Staff writer Mariel A. Klein can be reached at Follow her on Twitter@mariel_klein.