Survey: Half of UNC-Chapel Hill’s female students experience some form of sexual assault

Survey: Half of UNC-Chapel Hill’s female students experience some form of sexual assault

More than 72 percent of those surveyed said their assailant was a fellow student. (Image: Adobe Stock)

Nearly half of the female students at UNC-Chapel Hill have experienced some form of sexual assault by their fourth year at the school, a new survey of North Carolina’s flagship university says.

“I was shocked to see the statistics,” said Malin Curry, a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill who serves as Secretary for the Undergraduate Executive Branch of Student Government. “But I was also, unfortunately, not surprised in a way.”

Almost 6,000 students at UNC’s campus participated in this year’s Association of American Universities’ (AAU) Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct.

The goal of the survey, which included 32 of the association’s 62 public and private institutions, was to “to gain understanding of the general climate on campuses across the country regarding sexual assault, sexual harassment, intimate partner (relationship) violence and stalking.”

Students and campus leaders called the survey disturbing. “We’ve seen these statistics are very real,” Curry said, adding that students who pay attention to the issue know it’s a pervasive problem on campuses.

“These numbers are pervasive on college campuses and it’s a microcosm of our larger society,” said Monika Johnson-Hostler, executive director of the North Carolina Coalition Against Sexual Assault. “Especially for the young women who are most vulnerable — they are at the college age, 18 to 24, whether or not they are in college.”

Among the results:

  • 7 percent of all respondents reported experiencing sexual touching or penetration involving physical force; inability to consent or to stop what was happening because the student was passed out, asleep or incapacitated due to drugs or alcohol; coercion or without a voluntary agreement.
  • 4 percent of all respondents reported experiencing sexual touching alone that included the same factors
  • 2 percent of all respondents experiencing sexual penetration alone that included the same factors.

The group most likely to report these experiences were undergraduate women in their fourth year or higher (45 percent). Undergraduate women respondents in general made up 35 percent of those who reported such experiences.

Malin Curry serves as Secretary for the Undergraduate Executive Branch of Student Government.

The next highest category was students who identify as transgender men or women, non-binary, questioning or who did not list a gender identity. More than 26 percent of undergraduate students in that category reported sexual touching or penetration without consent — and more than 29 percent in that category who are fourth year or higher undergraduate students.

More than 72 percent of those surveyed said their assailant was a fellow student. Only 23 percent said the perpetrators were not associated with UNC-Chapel Hill.

It is frightening to know there are so many people not only experiencing sexual assault on campus, Curry said — but also so many perpetrators. But that, too, is a reality more people need to understand, Curry said.

“Most of the time the perpetrators of these terrible crimes are someone the students knows,” Curry said. “Often times, the perpetrator is not the scary man hiding in the bushes.”

Fifty-seven percent of respondents in the survey said the perpetrator was drinking alcohol before their assault. Sixty-three percent said they themselves were drinking. Nine percent said they were certain or suspected that they were given alcohol or drugs beforehand without their consent.

Monika Johnson-Hostler, executive director of the North Carolina Coalition Against Sexual Assault

Curry said it’s important to weigh that information carefully, not making victims feel as though they are in some way at fault if they were drinking before they were assaulted.

“People feel like they can’t seek help or seek resources because they were drinking,” Curry said. “That’s a narrative that really needs to be shifted.”

Johnson-Hostler agreed.

“Alcohol doesn’t cause sexual assault,” Johnson-Hostler said. “Not everyone who drinks is assaulted or sexually assaults. It can be used as an excuse though. ‘Oh, we were both drunk, so it doesn’t count as assault,’ that kind of thing. And people are also more brazen to do things under the influence that maybe they had thought about doing anyway.”

The survey results show a reluctance to seek help after an assault. More than 82 percent of those surveyed said they did not contact a university resource or program. Nearly 58 percent said they didn’t think it was serious enough to report.

More than 75 percent said they felt that way because they weren’t physically injured. About 43 percent said incidents like theirs seemed common, which made it feel less serious. About 36 percent said they considered it less serious because it began consensually and 28 percent said they felt that way because drugs or alcohol were present.

The student government is organizing a town hall on the report, which will be held Oct. 21 at 7 p.m. in the Room 100 auditorium of the Genome Sciences Building.

UNC leadership: We need to change our culture

UNC-Chapel Hill interim Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz

UNC- Chapel Hill’s administrators responded to the survey results Tuesday through a prepared statement by UNC-Chapel Hill’s Interim Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz and Becci Menghini, the Interim Vice Chancellor in the Division of Workforce Strategy, Equity and Engagement.

“The data are very concerning and reinforce what we know to be true both on our campus and across the country: sexual assault and sexual harassment are serious problems that deeply affect our community,” the statement said. “These behaviors have profound physical and emotional effects on the people who experience them and also have lasting impacts on other members of the campus community. And while many of you have been very active in raising awareness and staying engaged in the issue, we need the help of every person — now more than ever — to change our culture.”

UNC-Chapel Hill has put more resources toward prevention and response to sexual assaults over the past five years, the statement said, including organizing a campus-wide sexual assault task force to revise university policies and strengthening its training programs. They’re now beefing up those efforts, the statement said, and will convene a coalition of students, faculty and staff to develop a comprehensive strategy for prevention and awareness in the next month.

In August, some students and community members expressed concern over the school’s selection of new UNC-Chapel Hill Chief of Police David L. Perry, saying the choice didn’t speak to the university’s commitment.

Perry’s tenure as chief of police at Florida State University was marred by criticism of how his office handled 2012 rape allegations against Jameis Winston, then a star football player for the university.

The N.Y. Times reported on the controversy, which was also the subject of the Emmy-nominated documentary, “The Hunting Ground,” documenting a sexual assault epidemic on American college campuses.

The Times investigation found “there was virtually no investigation at all, either by the police or the university.”

“The police did not follow the obvious leads that would have quickly identified the suspect as well as witnesses, one of whom videotaped part of the sexual encounter,” the report said. “After the accuser identified Mr. Winston as her assailant, the police did not even attempt to interview him for nearly two weeks and never obtained his DNA.”

Prosecutor William Meggs said the investigation was badly mishandled from the beginning. Charges were not filed. Winston was eventually cleared of violating the student conduct code by an FSU hearing in which retired Florida Supreme Court Justice Major B. Harding said he did “not find the credibility of one story substantially stronger than that of the other.”

Winston and his accuser filed civil suits against each other which were ultimately settled out of court.

The student who alleged she was raped sued FSU, claiming  the university “in concert with Tallahassee Police, took steps to ensure that Winston’s [alleged] rape of plaintiff would not be investigated either by the university or law enforcement.”

The university settled the suit for $950,000.

Winston went on to have a series of legal and disciplinary problems after he joined the NFL, including a three-game suspension in 2018 for the alleged groping of a female Uber driver.

The controversy over Perry’s role in the 2012 investigation hasn’t been addressed by UNC leadership.

“It gives me pause as an advocate as to why an institution that has just devoted resources to this issue would make that selection,” Johnson-Hostler said. “Perception is their reality. As a university and especially as a university that has had some sexual assault and Title IX problems in the past, that’s a surprising hire.”

With these statistics illuminating the problem, Curry said, a solution is everyone’s responsibility.

“Everyone deserves to go to a school, a place you call home, that is safe,” Curry said. “The challenge now is to make sure that everyone sees that this is everyone’s problem. A threat to any student on our campus is a threat to every student.”