No, 1 in 6 MIT undergraduates have not been sexually assaulted By Ashe Schow


Another day, another false statistic trying to tell women that college campuses are no safer than the slums of South Africa.

This time, the survey comes from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and claims that one in six female undergraduates at the university have been sexually assaulted.

First, let’s point out that the survey was sent to all 10,000+ MIT students, but only 35 percent actually responded (and they received $10 for doing so). This low response rate tends to skew the answers, as people who choose to take the survey may do so because they have experienced some kind of sexual assault or harassment. The MIT researchers behind the survey admitted such bias in their report on the findings.

“Response bias is expected in virtually any voluntary survey, particularly one focused on a narrow topic,” the report says, adding that it isn’t possible to know if respondents who had experienced sexual assault were more or less likely to participate.

“This does not make the findings from the survey any less accurate; it simply means that the rates based on those who responded to the survey cannot be extrapolated to the MIT student population as a whole, and cannot be validly compared to results from other surveys,” the researchers noted.

Of course, extrapolating the study to the larger MIT student population and comparing it to other surveys was the first thing media outlets did.

Now, for that one-in-six number, which only applies to the 914 female undergrads who responded. That was found by broadening the definition of “assault” to include unwanted touching or kissing. Not surprisingly, this was the unwanted attention most likely experienced by female undergrads.

Seventeen percent of female undergraduate respondents — 155 people — said they experienced one or more unwanted sexual behaviors, but most of these (15 percent of the whole) identified unwanted touching or kissing as one of these experiences. Six percent, or about one in 17, said they had experienced unwanted sexual penetration. That's still far too high a number, but it's not very close to one-in-six.

It’s not acceptable to go around touching or kissing people, and surely this sometimes constitutes assault, but without more in-depth information like, "did the person stop when you pulled back or said 'no'?", it’s not even possible to distinguish ill intent from a momentary misunderstanding based on this survey.

Elizabeth Nolan Brown, staff editor at Reason, addressed these issues, and also pointed out that half of the MIT students surveyed thought it was possible to “accidentally” rape someone.

Fifty-three percent of women respondents and 53 percent of male respondents agreed or strongly agreed that “Rape and sexual assault can happen unintentionally, especially if alcohol is involved.” Among undergraduates, that belief jumps to 67 percent.

“This is what we get when people push an idea that rape is really often a matter of consent confusion or a drunken misunderstanding and not something that one person (the rapist) intentionally does to another,” Nolan Brown wrote. “This is exactly what those of us opposed to affirmative consent standards mean when we worry about it muddying the waters of consent and confusing the definition of rape.”

Also of note, but largely ignored: 5 percent of male undergrad respondents reported being sexually assaulted, including 4 percent who said they had experienced unwanted touching or kissing.

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