Assessing Sexual Violence Among Students

Solutions require ‘the commitment of every single member of our community.’

December 2019

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When the American Association of Universities released the results of its 2019 Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Misconduct on October 15, reactions ranged from appalled to unsurprised—sometimes in the same person. Stanford was among 33 universities whose students took the survey, which assessed the prevalence of sexual assault and sexual harassment. The upshot: While individual measures for Stanford were sometimes higher or lower than the AAU average, the report as a whole makes it clear that sexual violence and harassment are epidemic at universities across the nation. Moreover, certain students—women and those who are LGBTQ, multiracial or disabled—are disproportionately likely to experience nonconsensual sexual contact at Stanford.

Officials say the survey is an important step in deepening Stanford’s commitment to measuring, educating about, and eradicating sexual assault and harassment. “I think the initial findings are a call to reexamine where we are and how far we need to go,” says Lauren Schoenthaler, senior associate vice provost for institutional equity and access. 

‘Despite many efforts at Stanford over the years, it is evident that much more needs to be done.’

Students asked to participate in the AAU survey after, in 2015, Stanford used an alternative survey that was conducted at fewer schools. This year, students responded in droves: 62 percent of them took the survey, nearly triple the AAU average and a proportion that provides a high level of confidence in the results. 

According to the report: 

  • Since entering Stanford, 38.5 percent of undergraduate women in their fourth year or higher have experienced nonconsensual sexual contact (actual or attempted penetration, or sexual touching) by means of physical force, inability to consent, coercion or lack of voluntary agreement.   
  • Since entering Stanford, 23.8 percent of undergraduate women and 21.7 percent of all transgender women, transgender men, nonbinary/genderqueer, gender questioning and gender not listed (TGQN) students have experienced nonconsensual sexual contact by physical force or inability to consent. 
  • Just 19 percent of TGQN students and 29 percent of undergraduate women thought campus officials were very or extremely likely to conduct a fair investigation, compared with 44 percent of the student body overall.
  • About 80 percent of the incidents of nonconsensual sexual contact were committed by fellow students. 
  • About half of all nonconsensual sexual contact occurred in Stanford residence halls or dorms.
  • Nearly 50 percent of women and 40 percent of men who experienced nonconsensual sexual contact reported adverse academic consequences as a result. 
  • More than 20 percent of all students have experienced sexual harassment. For female grad students and for TGQN students, the harasser was a faculty member or instructor about one-fifth of the time.

When the results were released, provost Persis Drell wrote a letter to the campus community. “Incidents of sexual violence and harassment have considerable and long-lasting effects on individuals who have experienced them,” she said. “One incident is too many.” Drell went on to acknowledge that this is a public health problem that requires solutions from many angles. “Despite many efforts at Stanford over the years,” she said, “it is evident that much more needs to be done.” 

Schoenthaler concurs: “There’s no magic answer. It’s having research teams study this. It’s reviewing how we respond; it’s asking our residential education team to work with students around scenario-based activities; it’s giving our students more tools to stand up and interrupt concerning behavior. It’s all of those things,” she says.

“I’m hoping Stanford moves away from ‘I’m so surprised’ to making concrete changes,” says Meghan Warner, a graduate student in sociology who served on a university committee that made survey recommendations to the AAU. “There are clearly flaws in Stanford’s institutional responses, and I hope they realize the survey shows that and that they make changes at the university level.”

Stanford plans to commission an external review by national experts of its current prevention and education programs to see how they can be strengthened. A transgender support website will be launched this winter. Stanford Medicine’s Gender-Based Violence Prevention Collaboration will study the efficacy of the university’s prevention programs and examine how Stanford approaches interventions—education directed at individual students who have come close to violating a policy—to ensure the most positive outcome. And Schoenthaler says it will be key to share best practices among universities. “Some of us are probably doing things well in one area and not in other areas. We need to actually lean into each other and collaboratively work together.”

Student input will be crucial. “The students themselves are saying, ‘Hey, we want this [topic] to be more present in our dialogue with the university,’ ” says Schoenthaler. “And that’s great.”

Change, however, will require sustained effort. Drell closed her letter to the community by committing the university to drive that effort, but added that “real and lasting solutions will not come about unless we have the commitment of every single member of our community to participate in the culture change that is needed to end sexual violence on our campus and on college campuses nationwide.”

Sexual Assault

Students who have experienced the highest rates of nonconsensual sexual contact by means of physical force or inability to consent since entering Stanford

Graph on sexual assault statistics.

Sexual Harassment

Students who have experienced at least one incident of harassing behavior since entering Stanford

Graph on sexual harassment statistics.

Summer Moore Batte, ’99, is the editor of Email her at

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