MIT and CalArts are the Latest Colleges to Expose the Rape Crisis

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has released a new survey about sexual assault at the university, and it makes us feel all sorts of things: the now-familiar depression and rage, of course, but also, somewhere deep down, a tiny, unfamiliar tendril of tentative optimism.

The depressing and rage-inducing part is that about 17 percent of women and 5 percent of men said they had been sexually assaulted during their time at MIT. (The full survey can be found here. The school polled nearly 4,000 undergraduate and graduate students. The survey was sent to nearly 11,000, but only about 35 percent responded). And, like the other studies, this one also found that most of them didn’t report those incidents to an authority figure. The study’s authors write, “Close to two-thirds (63%) of respondents who indicated they had an unwanted sexual experience at MIT told someone else about the incident(s), but fewer than 5% reported the experience(s) to someone in an official capacity.”

These numbers correspond pretty closely with a similar survey released by the University of Oregon earlier this month, as well as a Department of Justice study released in 2007. Despite how fervently rape apologists like George Will stick their fingers in their ears and try to yell it away, all the available evidence suggests that about one in five women are raped or sexually assaulted during their college years, and few of them want to report it. A full 72 percent of the people at MIT reporting they’d been sexually assaulted said they didn’t report because they “did not think the incident(s) was serious enough.”

The survey also pointed out some pretty encouraging campus attitudes about rape. A solid 83 percent of students understood that an incident can be rape or sexual assault even if the victim didn’t verbally say “no.” The majority also understood that rape doesn’t happen “because people put themselves in bad situations,” and nine out of 10 students agreed “most MIT students would respect someone who did something to prevent a sexual assault.” Things seem to be progressing nicely in terms of generational awareness of how rape works: recall, if you will, that Bill Frezza is an MIT alum. He wrote that obnoxious, quickly-deleted Forbes piece stating that “drunk female guests” and their bewildering rape allegations could destroy the fraternity system. But there’s still some confusion about consent: more than half of the respondents agreed with the statement, “Rape and sexual assault can happen unintentionally, especially if alcohol is involved.”

“Sure, the data tells us things that we maybe didn’t want to hear,” Cynthia Barnhart, MIT’s chancellor, told the New York Times. One of the most disturbing, she added, is that “there is confusion among some of our students about what constitutes sexual assault.”

The MIT survey indicates how seriously the school is taking the problem, and the fact that they’re willing to publicize the results says a lot about their commitment to transparency.

But it’s also becoming increasingly clear that when schools won’t address their sexual assault problem, students will do it for them: last week, around 150 students at CalArts, a small liberal arts school near Los Angeles, staged a mass-walkout to protest how the school had handled a rape allegation last year. According to Al Jazeera, who first reported the story, the student, a freshman, was raped in a bathroom by someone she’d briefly dated. The school, she alleges, asked a number of bizarre and insulting questions during a two-month investigation of the incident. From Al Jazeera:

[S[he said school administrators asked her questions about her drinking habits, how often she partied, the length of her dress, how oral rape was even possible, whether she climaxed and whether climaxing was an issue when she’d been with her alleged rapist before.

The perpetrator was ultimately suspended from school for one year. The victim has filed a federal title IX complaint against the school with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, alleging they mishandled her complaint.

Anna Knecht Schawrzer, a CalArts student who helped organize the walkout, says the student protesters are pushing for a new campus policy, one she hopes could become a model for other schools nationwide.

“I want CalArts to be known for a culture that promotes sexual respect,” she says. “To make this possible, we as a community need to construct an architecture that facilitates accountability and health.” They’re recommending, among other things, a better and clearer campus sexual assault policy, a staff member solely devoted to addressing these issues, and better training for all staff and faculty on how to handle sexual assault reports.

MIT, meanwhile, has a lot of data, but seemingly hasn’t quite figured out what to do with it. For now, they’ve set up an email account to take suggestions. The survey’s authors write, at the very end of their report: “If you have ideas now about how MIT can reduce the incidence of unwanted sexual behavior on campus and improve the support the Institute offers when it does occur, please contact [email protected].

MIT’s Simmons Hall; Image via Graysky/Flickr

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