A new, 2.2-million-dollar study conducted over two years by Columbia researchers has found that, by senior year, more than one-third of undergraduate women who participated in the survey experienced some form of assault, defined as sexualized touching, penetrative assault, or attempted penetrative assault.
Of those who reported assault, the study found, one third were coerced by physical force, and low-income students, LGBTQ students, and students in Greek organizations are at increased risk for assault.
The sweeping report was based on findings of the Sexual Health Initiative to Foster Transformation, a research initiative that began in 2015, the same year that the American Association of Universities released a study that reported one in four undergraduate women at Columbia had experienced sexual assault in some form—a number that aligns with national statistics across college campuses. The new report is the first of many to be released in the coming year based on the research initiative, which will inform sexual assault prevention practices at universities nationwide.
The SHIFT study, released Thursday, which surveyed 2,500 Columbia and Barnard undergraduate students, found a slightly higher rate of assault than the AAU report and validated the AAU report’s findings on assault by incapacitation or force. However, the more recent study sheds new light on correlations between sexual assault and affiliation with Greek life.
Although the risk of sexual assault was found to be highest during women’s first years at college, the cumulative risk of assault grew year by year. Of women in their senior year who completed the survey, 36.4 percent had experienced assault (the 2015 AAU survey found that 26.1 percent of senior women had experienced assault).
Women and gender-nonconforming students reported sexual assault at the highest rates—28 and 38 percent, respectively—according to the report, while 12.5 percent of undergraduate men reported having experienced assault. The report found a high rate of re-victimization—among the 350 students who reported sexual assault, the median number of assaults experienced was three.
More than 50 percent of those who reported sexual assault said the incident occurred while they were incapacitated by drugs or alcohol, and 34.6 percent of women who reported assault said they were coerced by physical force.
The study found that a number of demographic groups were associated with a higher rate of experiencing sexual assault, including low-income students and LGBTQ students. Both men and women who participate in Greek life were more likely to have experienced sexual assault than those who are not affiliated with Greek organizations. According to the report, these findings align with pre-existing research on trends in sexual assault on college campuses.
“[Prior] research has identified men in fraternities as more likely to be perpetrators, but few, if any, studies have looked at fraternity members’ vulnerability to sexual assault,” the report says. “Our data suggest a need for further examination of the cultural and organizational dimensions of Greek life that produce this heightened risk of being assaulted for both men and women.”
To combat sexual assault at Columbia and elsewhere, SHIFT researchers recommended that colleges bolster programs and policies that reduce substance use and promote understanding of consent, but warned against a “one size fits all” approach, instead advocating targeted prevention efforts meant to address groups that face unique risks.
Going forward, SHIFT investigators will share findings with advisory boards at Columbia and recommend potential changes to alcohol policies, Counseling and Psychological Services, Residential Life policies, the New Student Orientation Program, and the allocation of space across campus.
Columbia researchers who helped author the study were not immediately available for comment on Thursday night.
Check back for updates.