Sexual assault: research vs. reality

Jen Lassen and Kerong Kelly , Editor-in-chief and News Editor

An associate psychology professor’s recent research presentation on campus-wide sexual assault has caused University administrators and officials to question his definitions, methods, and data.

Associate Professor of Psychology Bill Flack, on behalf of his research with the Bucknell Sexual Assault Research Team, presented their findings from the 2013-2014 campus-wide Sexual Assault Survey to the public on March 20.

Flack, along with the research team comprised of University students, updated their most recent findings. According to the new data that was collected between the fall of 2012 to the spring of 2013, of the 1,752 randomly selected male and female students in the sophomore, junior, and senior years, 35 percent responded, of which 40 percent were women and 30 percent were men. The new 2013 data showed that 23.8 percent were groped, 15.8 percent were raped or experienced attempted rape, and 28.5 percent experienced overall “sexual assault.”

While the Revised Sexual Experiences Survey (RSES) never explicitly defines the terms “sexual experience,” “groping,” or “attempted rape or rape” in relation to the term “sexual assault,” Flack used the term “sexual assault” to title his March 20 presentation. Flack’s presentation includes bar graphs referring to percentages of “groping” and “attempted rape or rape” at the University from the survey findings.

The usage of the term “sexual experience” versus “sexual assault” has aroused questioning of Flack and his team’s research from University officials. These definitions directly relate to the data collected by Flack and his team based on the RSES. The RSES (Koss et al., 2007) is a national anonymous survey intended to gather data about unwanted sexual experiences.

“We use the Revised Sexual Experiences Survey [to gather data]. The SES was revised in 2007 in order to improve the measure. Some changes include updated wording for assessing consent, more behavioral specificity, and conversion to gender neutrality. This is the best current measure of victimization and perpetration of unwanted sexual experiences,” Bucknell Sexual Assault Research Team member Caroline Higgins ’14 said. 

The RSES refers to sexual experiences as “groping” and “attempted rape or rape” through various stem items, like “Someone had oral sex with me or made me have oral sex with them without my consent by … ” and “A man put his penis into my vagina, or someone inserted fingers or objects without my consent by … ” that are meant to imply rape and sexual assault as unwanted sexual experiences. Students who took the survey were then asked to respond to these stem items by looking at a list of possible lead-in situations to “groping” and “attempted rape or rape” incidents and choose which situation more accurately reflects what led the perpetrator and the victim to become involved in “groping” and “attempted rape or rape.”

According to University officials, the University, Pennsylvania state, and federal government definition of “sexual assault” differs from the wordage in the RSES, and furthermore from Flack and his team’s conclusions about sexual assault from the RSES results.

“In terms of definition, the [RSES] asks respondents about sexual conduct. This approach is a useful tool for evaluating the situations students have been exposed to and how they have reacted. Professor Flack, however, has interpreted all affirmative survey responses to constitute instances of sexual assault, defining sexual assault more broadly than, to my knowledge, any college, university, or criminal justice agency defines it. One implication is that Professor Flack’s results thereby overstate rates of assault in a way that make comparisons to other institutions and studies difficult, if not impossible,” Provost Mick Smyer said. 

The Bucknell Student Handbook defines “sexual assault” as “having or attempting to have sexual intercourse, cunnilingus, or fellatio without consent. Sexual intercourse means anal or vaginal penetration by a penis, tongue, finger, or inanimate object.” The Student Handbook defines “consent” as “knowing and voluntary; to give consent, a person must be awake, of legal age, and have the capacity to reasonably understand the nature of her/his actions. Individuals who are physically or mentally incapacitated cannot give consent.”

According to Pennsylvania State Law: Sexual Assault (18 Pa. C.S. § 3124.1), sexual assault is defined as: “a person commits a felony of the second degree when that person engages in sexual intercourse or deviate sexual intercourse with a complainant without the complainant’s consent.”

On the United States Department of Justice website, the Department defines sexual assault as “any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient. Falling under the definition of sexual assault are sexual activities as forced sexual intercourse, forcible sodomy, child molestation, incest, fondling, and attempted rape,” in which case Flack’s data about “groping” and “attempted rape” would fall under the category of sexual assault.

While this may be true, another major discrepancy about Flack and his team’s data collected in 2013 was the difference in the survey reference period from survey period to survey period. In the 2010-2012 surveys, students were asked to recall their sexual experiences from the previous two to six semesters. The 2013 survey differed, taking information only from the prior two semesters.

Flack and the Bucknell Sexual Assault Research Team tentatively extrapolated the 2013 rates by two in order to represent the equivalent of four semesters. The 2013 extrapolated number showed that 34 percent had experienced attempted rape or rape. 

“I have not yet found a better way to do this,” Flack said.

Additionally at his presentation, Flack addressed the limitations of the nature of his research. These limitations include the fact that all responses were self reported, the lack of information about LGBTQ assault(s), and a lack of surveying other types of sexual or gender-based violence. 

Despite the discrepancies of Flack’s data, both the University and Flack recognize the need to address sexual misconduct on campus. 

In 2012, Psychological Services and the Women’s Resource Center collaborated and were awarded a $300,000 grant to reduce sexual assault, dating violence, and stalking from the Department of Justice, Office on Violence Against Women. The grant is active from October 2012 to September 2015.

University initiatives funded by the grant so far include hiring a full-time Interpersonal Violence Prevention Coordinator; providing mandatory prevention education programming for all incoming students; providing various educational opportunities for students, including a theatre-based performance and discussions with athletic teams and student organizations; taking part in three technical assistance institutes required and provided by the Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women (DOJ-OVW); developing a new dating violence curriculum for our peer education program; and providing law enforcement training for the Bucknell Department of Public Safety and Buffalo Valley Regional Police Department. 

Psychological Services has increased the amount of programming geared towards supporting survivors of sexual assault. In the fall of 2013, Psychological Services offered a support group for survivors titled “Befriending Your Body: Yoga Support Group for Survivors of Sexual Assault.” 

“While statistics can be informative, one cannot rely on numbers alone to tell the story of all that Bucknell is doing to address sexual assaults on campus. In fact, our hope is that an increase in reports of sexual misconduct, which is a broader term encompassing sexual assault, is an indicator that we’re making progress in creating an environment that encourages individuals to report. I think it’s important to focus on the efforts Bucknell is undertaking to prevent sexual misconduct and, when it occurs, to address it properly rather than on statistics, which may be misleading and distract from the work that needs to be done,” interim Vice President for Communications and Community Relations Andy Hirsch said.

“While it’s a new day at Bucknell, it remains to be seen what type of impact these new prevention programs will have,” Flack said.

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