Columbia University Sexual Assault Researchers Publish First Results

Similar to national averages, 22 percent of undergraduates reported experiencing any kind of sexual assault; more than half involved alcohol or another incapacitating factor

November 8, 2017

The first published findings of the Sexual Health Initiative to Foster Transformation (SHIFT), a major study of sexual violence and sexual health among Columbia University and Barnard College undergraduates, highlight the extent and multiplicity of undergraduates’ sexual assault experiences. Results appear in the journal PLOS ONE.

The findings come from a survey that is one component of the SHIFT project led by researchers at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health and Columbia University Medical Center’s Department of Psychiatry, implemented with input from administrators and undergraduate advisory boards, and funded by the Office of the President. (More on SHIFT below.)

The researchers sent an online survey to a randomly-generated sample of 2,500 students, representative of the Columbia and Barnard undergraduate student bodies. Of those selected for the survey, 1,671 or 67 percent took part, a very high response rate for studies of sexual assault on college campuses. Among the respondents (ages 18-29 years), 22 percent said they had experienced a sexual assault since starting college. This finding is in line with rates seen in previous studies of undergraduates. Women had much higher rates of sexual assault than men (28% vs. 12%), and risk was even higher for gender non-conforming students (39%).

“This study, one of the most robust undertaken to date, is a stark reminder that sexual assault is all too frequent an experience for undergraduates, particularly women, but also for LGBT students and men,” says first author Claude A. Mellins, PhD, SHIFT co-principal investigator and professor of Medical Psychology in Psychiatry and Sociomedical Sciences.

Many Different Experiences of Sexual Assault 

The SHIFT survey revealed that the most common kind of assault was unwanted and non-consensual sexualized touching—including kissing, fondling, or grabbing in a sexual way—with over one-third of those who experienced sexual assault reporting an experience of sexualized touching but no other type of assault. Rates of attempted and completed penetrative (oral, anal, vaginal) sexual assault were half those for touching (15%)—“but still unacceptably high,” Mellins emphasizes. No matter the type of assault, incapacitation (such as from alcohol or drugs) was the method of perpetration reported most frequently (>50%) by women, men, and gender non-conforming students. Women were much more likely to report use of physical force against them than were men (35% vs. 13%); equal proportions of men and women (33%) reported verbal coercion, which includes criticism, lying and threats to end the relationship or spread rumors.

“The implication of this variation in sexual assault experiences is that a ‘one size fits all’ approach to prevention is unlikely to be effective,” says Mellins. “For example, what’s going to stop unwanted sexualized touching at a party is likely to be different from what’s going to stop rape among intimate partners. Bystander interventions that ask students to prevent assault among peers may be effective in social settings like fraternity parties with a lot of drinking, but may not be sufficient for incidents in contexts without others around and where verbal coercion methods or physical force may be used.” 

Identifying Undergraduates Most at Risk 

The SHIFT findings point to a number of risk factors for sexual assault—including non-heterosexual identity, sorority membership, casual sexual encounters (“hook ups”), binge drinking, and having experienced sexual assault before college—that have been seen in earlier studies. The study also uncovers risk factors for victimization or survivorship about which little has been written—in particular, experiencing economic hardship and fraternity participation (the research literature typically only focuses on fraternity members as perpetrators). Very few differences in prevalence were found across different ethnic and racial groups, though Asian students, both women and men were the least likely to experience assault.

Freshman year, particularly for women, was the period when the greatest percentage of students experienced an assault, a finding in line with other work identifying freshman year as a critical time for prevention efforts. However, risk accumulated over the following three years, so that among seniors, 36 percent of women and 16 percent of men had experienced some kind of sexual assault. The survey also found high rates of re-victimization during college; students who were assaulted experienced an average of three sexual assaults.

The survey described here is one component of SHIFT’s larger work, which also included a longitudinal daily diary study, a 16-month anthropological study, and extended work with the University to develop innovative and comprehensive prevention approaches.

“SHIFT helps us think more critically about how to create healthier communities on college campuses,” says senior author Jennifer S. Hirsch, PhD, SHIFT co-director and professor of Sociomedical Sciences. “To address campus sexual assault, we need a systems-based public health approach that recognizes the multiple power asymmetries that create vulnerability to assault. Preventive programming should address the drivers of widespread use of alcohol, but we also need a life-course perspective. Most parents spend more time talking with their children about how to cross the street safely, or about choosing healthy foods, than about sex as a normal part of a satisfying life.

“We are grateful to everyone who lent their support to this study,” Hirsch continues, “particularly the students who shared their experiences in order to help our University and society at large remedy this all too pervasive problem, and the students on our Undergraduate Advisory Board who played such a critical role in helping us achieve that tremendous response rate.”

Study co-authors include Kate Walsh, Aaron L. Sarvet, Melanie Wall, Louisa Gilbert, John S. Santelli, Martie Thompson, Patrick A. Wilson, Shamus Khan, Stephanie Benson, Karimata Bah, Kathy A. Kaufman, and Leigh Reardon. They are affiliated with the following: Clemson University, Columbia’s Department of Sociology, Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia’s School of Social Work, Columbia University Medical Center, New York State Psychiatric Institute, and Yeshiva University.

About SHIFT 

The Sexual Health Initiative to Foster Transformation (SHIFT) is a comprehensive research project that examines the individual, interpersonal, and structural (cultural, community, and institutional) factors that shape sexual health and sexual violence for undergraduates at Columbia and Barnard. SHIFT’s research aims are 1) To understand the prevalence of sexual assault on campus; 2) To understand the ecology of sexual assault by examining key individual, interpersonal/social, and contextual and institutional risk and protective factors associated with sexual violence and sexual health and 3) To work with key stakeholders to translate findings into interventions and policy. SHIFT will generate important new information that Columbia, Barnard, and other institutions of higher education can use to inform innovative evidence-based programming to prevent sexual assault and to promote sexual health. Research that has been done to date has largely focused on individual factors, rather than on the social and institutional factors that play a significant role in shaping young people’s experiences on campus. SHIFT, which is supported by the Office of the President, looks holistically at the undergraduate experiences, using a public health approach to examine policies and practices.