Today’s forecast is nonconsent: The sexual assault emergency of campus climate

Opinion by Lily Zheng
Oct. 5, 2015, 11:00 a.m.

On October 1st, President Hennessy and Provost Etchemendy released the results of a survey conducted late last academic year concerning sexual assault on campus. In Spring 2015, the survey was released in order to obtain information on the prevalence of sexual assault, harassment and relationship violence at Stanford, and gauge student attitudes on safety, wellbeing, and trust on campus. Not coincidentally, it came after the news of a federal investigation into Stanford’s handling of sexual assault cases and a long string of student activism.

I opened the email last night and was instantly drawn to this statistic: the prevalence of sexual assault on campus, as described in the email and in the report, was stated to be 1.9% of all students. “To us, any number above zero is unacceptable” declared Hennessy and Etchemendy, and as I read on, the message briefly touched on “strengthened prevention, support, response, and adjudication mechanisms” before concluding. Vague and somewhat optimistic, I thought. A very administration-esque response.

I closed the email and stared at my computer for several minutes, puzzled, feeling that something was off with the words I had just read. 2% was a low rate of sexual assault – ridiculously low, compared to what I knew about other universities and the sexual assault epidemic that is running rampant on college campuses nationwide. I downloaded the 35-page report, frowned at its length, and went off to dinner. I would read it later that night.

It was 9 p.m., and I was on page three of the report. A distinction was being made between “sexual assault” and “sexual misconduct,” with the key factor being “threat of violence, force, and/or when the respondent was incapacitated.” With this definition, the following data was reported concerning rates of sexual assault: For undergraduates, 6.6% of “gender-diverse” students, 4.7% of cisgender women and .6% of cisgender men had experienced what constituted “sexual assault.” These were the numbers that had been averaged out to give the surprisingly low statistic of 1.9%.

There are several ways in which these numbers are misleading. While the report had clear statistics on the percentage of Stanford students in general, these numbers do not accurately summarize the undergraduate experience – when some students have been on campus for one year and some for four, how can their experiences be similarly weighted? The report did include the more exact data on undergraduate seniors – for cisgender undergraduate women, 6.5% have experienced sexual assault, according to Stanford’s definition, and it is this number that can be said to accurately represent what percentage of cis women can expect to experience sexual assault during their time at Stanford.

6.5% is almost certainly too small a number. For a response to be categorized as sexual assault during the survey, a student had to first describe their inability to object as due to alcohol or drugs (coercion led to a categorization of the entry as “sexual misconduct”), as well as the “asleep or unconscious and unable to resist” item. A failure to select both options led to a categorization of the entry as “sexual misconduct,” and not “sexual assault.”  This narrow and misleading entry mechanism further lowered the percentage of students whose experiences of rape were accurately entered.

Furthermore, focusing on the statistics of assault alone is not nearly enough. While Stanford defines sexual assault and misconduct as distinctly separate, we cannot grudgingly accept one and write off the other. For those students whose experiences aren’t deemed “bad enough” to be included in Stanford’s collective sympathy, it can be easy to feel abandoned by peers and administration alike. The data, from page 25 of the report: for undergraduate seniors whose experiences constituted what Stanford calls “sexual misconduct,” an additional 36.8% of cisgender women reported in.

So what does this all mean? Given that the categories of “assault” and “misconduct” were defined exclusive to each other, the math is easy: for senior undergraduate cis women, at least 43.3% have experienced some form of serious Prohibited Sexual Contact, according to Stanford’s definitions.

This is a far cry from the 1.9% statistic that Stanford administration is choosing to focus on. When more than two-fifths of cisgender undergraduate women at Stanford experience nonconsensual activity that Stanford recognizes, this is an emergency, not simply a “concerning issue.” And what of those activities that Stanford recognizes as “nonconsensual sexual contact” but aren’t “bad enough” to qualify as assault or misconduct? If somebody aggressively kisses me at a party or suddenly pulls off my clothing without consent – it doesn’t matter?

We need to indict this system that disproportionately inflicts violence and trauma onto cisgender women and “gender diverse” students, and hurts cisgender men as collateral damage. It isn’t just about policies and regulations – it’s about the culture we have on campus that licenses and enables nonconsent to embed itself in our daily activities and lives. There need to be cultural solutions for cultural problems – and along with that, critical interrogation of our own beliefs and values. We are all part of the problem until we are part of the solution, and that starts with recognizing the state of emergency we are in.  

Contact Lily Zheng at lilyz8 ‘at’

Lily Zheng '17, is a weekly columnist for The Stanford Daily, a Social Psychology major and co-president of the student group Kardinal Kink. Her weekly column revolves around consent culture, queer and trans identity, social justice and activism. In her spare time, she enjoys wearing too much black clothing, accidentally sleeping in her makeup and spending quality time with her partners. Contact her at lilyz8 'at' – she loves messages!

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