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University Survey Highlights Role of ‘Verbal Coercion’ in Sexual Assault

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An internal survey at the University of Michigan of students’ experience with sexual misconduct found that more than 20% of undergraduate women had been touched, kissed or penetrated without their consent, prompting the university to use new tactics to address the problem.

University administrators were not surprised by the high level of reported misconduct, but they conducted the survey to identify particular areas for improvement. Ten percent of female undergraduates surveyed said they had experienced unwanted sexual conduct as a result of “verbal pressure,” an area administrators say now warrants greater focus.

“The role that verbal pressure and coercion play has not had the same national spotlight that sexual assault has had,” said Holly Rider-Milkovich, director of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center at the University of Michigan.

In response to the survey results, the University of Michigan will expand the healthy sexual relationship training the school already holds for incoming freshmen to sophomores, juniors and seniors, so that they can address age-specific issues as students mature, Rider-Milkovich said.

Ever since the White House recommended anonymous sexual misconduct “climate” surveys in April of last year, they have been an important hallmark of reform at many colleges. Sexual assault is a vastly underreported crime and the surveys are designed to give a more realistic picture of what is happening on campus. The University of Michigan is one of the few colleges that have chosen to make its survey results public.

Though it is difficult to compare surveys that ask different questions on different campuses, there are similarities among the results at schools across the country.

In October, MIT published survey results that showed 17% of female undergraduates experienced unwanted sexual behaviors while at MIT, involving use of force, physical threat or incapacitation. The University of New Hampshire, a unique school in that it has been doing climate surveys for years, found in 2012 that 16% of its undergraduate women had experienced unwanted sexual contact or intercourse through force, threat or harm, or intoxication.

MORE: The Troubling Statistic in MIT’s Sexual-Assault Survey

Similar, external surveys have also produced somewhat similar findings. The 2007 Campus Sexual Assault Study conducted at two large public universities, one in the Midwest and one in the South, found that 19% of undergraduate women had experienced sexual misconduct, a study that has become the basis for the 1-in-5 statistic often cited by the White House and victims’ advocates. A recent Washington Post–Kaiser Family Foundation poll of a random sample of 1,053 women and men who were students at a four-year college, or had been at some point since 2011, found that 25% of young women experienced “unwanted sexual incidents” in college.

The surveys conducted by colleges often include a broad range of sexual misconduct, not just forcible rape, a wide net that Rider-Milkovich believes is important to capture all behavior that endangers students. The threshold for “verbal pressure” in the survey, she said, was deliberately high — defined to include: “telling lies, threatening to end the relationship, threatening to spread rumors about them, showing displeasure, criticizing your sexuality or attractiveness or getting angry.” The purpose of climate surveys, she said, is to figure out areas where the specific campus needs to focus new efforts.

Reform efforts at colleges across the country have included healthy sexual-relationship training for incoming freshmen, bystander-awareness training to teach students to step in to stop sexual assault, climate surveys and changes in college-disciplinary-board rules.

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At Michigan, Rider-Milkovich said the data shows that the real need on the campus is in “changing our cultural expectations, so that sex is something people engaged in when it is equally desired, not a goal that someone strives toward, regardless of objection.” At Michigan, she added, “We are really transforming how students think about way interact with each other. We will put everything we have towards that goal.”

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