A third of female undergraduate UNC students reported sexual assault, survey found

Sexual assault is part of the college experience for many students at UNC-Chapel Hill, particularly women, a survey released Tuesday says.

Nearly half of young women in their fourth year or higher at UNC reported experiencing nonconsensual sexual touching or penetration during college, according to the 2019 survey by the Association of American Universities.

More than a third of all female undergraduate UNC students reported being sexually assaulted during their time in college.

Nearly 6,000 UNC students responded to the survey, which is part of an effort by the group of research universities to help its members across the nation combat sexual assault and misconduct on their campuses.

The rates were “alarming” and higher than they were in a 2015 survey, UNC officials said in a report released to the campus community Tuesday.

Among the findings at UNC:

  • 20% of undergraduate women said they had experienced nonconsensual sexual penetration since entering college.

  • That number was 27% for undergraduate women in their fourth year or higher.
  • 35% of undergraduate women at UNC said they had experienced nonconsensual sexual touching or penetration in college.
  • That number was 45% of undergraduate women in their fourth year or higher.

The survey defined nonconsensual penetration as penetration involving physical force (including attempts), coercion, no voluntary agreement or the inability to consent or stop what was happening because the student was passed out, asleep or incapacitated due to drugs or alcohol. Nonconsensual sexual touching was defined under the same circumstances.

Serena Singh, a senior advisor for the UNC Undergraduate Executive Branch of Student Government, said she would define that as rape.

“It’s horrifying,” Singh said of the results. “I can’t speak for every student on this campus, but people that I have talked to are very concerned.”

She said she was shocked at how high the numbers were, but not surprised at the upward trend from 2015.

Interim Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz and Becci Menghini, interim vice chancellor for the Division of Workforce Strategy, Equity and Engagement, sent students and the campus community a letter Tuesday acknowledging that sexual assault and harassment are serious problems at UNC and across the country. They said the data are “very concerning.”

“These behaviors have profound physical and emotional effects on the people who experience them and also have lasting impacts on other members of the campus community,” the letter said. “And while many of you have been very active in raising awareness and staying engaged in the issue, we need the help of every person — now more than ever — to change our culture."

Sexual assault impacts all types of students

While the statistics showed the high prevalence of sexual misconduct affecting undergraduate women on campus, many others are impacted.

About 10% of undergraduate men reported nonconsensual sexual touching or penetration and that rose to about 15% for male undergraduate students in their fourth year or higher.

UNC students who identify as trans man or woman, genderqueer or nonbinary, questioning or who did not list an identity also experienced high rates of sexual assault during college. About 26% of those students who responded to the survey said they experienced nonconsensual sexual touching or penetration. It increased to 29% for those students in their fourth year or higher at UNC.

The prevalence of sexual assault were slightly lower for graduate and professional students at UNC. About 16% of women reported experiencing nonconsensual sexual touching or penetration during college. About 16% of students that identify as trans man or woman, genderqueer or nonbinary, questioning or who did not list an identity also reported that experience. And 6% of men said they’d been assaulted during college.

Most students who responded said they didn’t think it would happen to them. However, about 40%of undergraduate women said they feel that they will experience sexual assault or misconduct at UNC.

“There needs to be a larger conversation about why people come into college campuses feeling so concerned for their safety,” Singh said. “That’s a larger societal problem that is really showing itself in that statistic.”

The survey found that the majority of offenders are another UNC-Chapel Hill student (72%). And the student usually knows the person who assaulted them, whether it’s a friend, classmate or intimate partner.

The incidents also frequently involved alcohol, and they occurred most often in university dorms, fraternity houses and other residences.

How are victims and survivors responding to the assault?

The results showed that the majority of UNC students who reported being assaulted told someone, in most cases a friend. Less than 20% contacted a professional or university resource or program like the campus health center, Title IX and gender violence services coordinators or police.

The biggest reason students didn’t contact programs or resources for help was because they didn’t feel like it was serious enough. Many said they didn’t think the assault was worth reporting because it seems common, they weren’t injured or hurt, it started as consensual or alcohol or drugs were involved.

Students found the gender violence services coordinator the most useful resource to help them if they’ve been sexually assaulted, but only 25% of all students are aware of it. For those students who went to off-campus police, nearly 60% said they were “not at all useful,” according to UNC.

What is the university doing to combat sexual assault?

UNC said it has put more resources to campus sexual assault and harassment prevention and response efforts. The university said it has organized a campuswide Sexual Assault Task Force to revise university policies, hired additional staff to provide support services and resources and strengthened training programs.

“This survey is a reminder of the importance of those actions, but also that our work is not done,” Guskiewicz and Menghini said in the letter.

After reviewing the survey, UNC plans to create a coalition of students, faculty and staff to help devise a strategy for prevention and awareness. The university will also work with experts to improve prevention programs, consent education and bystander intervention training.

UNC senior Malin Curry said he and other members of student government met to discuss the survey with university officials in the equal opportunity compliance office, which handles and investigates Title IX issues.

Curry said the numbers were disheartening but there are administrators who have a willingness to work with student leaders and activists on the ground to bring the statistics down.

“Students deserve to go to a place and space that they feel comfortable and that their safety is not in jeopardy,” Curry said. “While [sexual assault] is something that’s become entangled with the college experience it should not be that way.”

UNC student government is also hosting a meeting on Oct. 21 for students to talk about the survey, reflect on the campus climate and find ways to move the needle on the issue of campus sexual assault.

Related stories from Charlotte Observer

Kate Murphy covers higher education for The News & Observer. Previously, she covered higher education for the Cincinnati Enquirer on the investigative and enterprise team and USA Today Network. Her work has won state awards in Ohio and Kentucky and she was recently named a 2019 Education Writers Association finalist for digital storytelling.
Support my work with a digital subscription