First, the caveats about that survey at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology about campus sexual assaults: Not all students participated, and the 35 percent who replied were self-selected. But the findings that nearly 17 percent of undergraduate women experienced sexual assault were consistent with other national studies and underscored yet again the serious problem this issue poses for colleges and universities. By undertaking such a detailed fact-finding mission — and publishing the results — MIT has signaled that it is serious about finding solutions, and it offered a model that other institutions would do well to emulate.

Seventeen percent of female undergraduates and 5 percent of male undergraduates said they experienced a form of non-consensual sexual behavior, ranging from penetration to sexual touching that used force, threat or incapacitation. And another 12 percent of women and 6 percent of men said they had experienced the same kinds of unwanted sexual contact but without force, threat or incapacity.

The responses provide insights into perceptions about sexual behavior. Foremost is the tendency, by both men and women and including those who have been assaulted, to blame the victims. More than half the respondents, for example, agreed that “rape and sexual assault can happen unintentionally, especially if alcohol is involved” and 44 percent of those who said they had an unwanted sexual experience said they “felt they were at least partly at fault or it wasn’t totally the other person’s fault.” Such thinking likely goes a long way in explaining why sexual crimes are underreported.

Information gleaned from the survey — hailed by victim advocates for its thoroughness and transparency — will be used by the university as it tailors its approach to sexual assault. This includes stepping up education about the link between intoxication and sexual assault, and encouraging students to report assaults by helping them to understand the complex and sometimes unpredictable psychological impact of unwanted sexual behavior.

MIT launched its survey two days before a White House task force called on all colleges and universities to survey students on these issues. MIT is not alone in its proactive approach; the University of Maryland at College Park, for example, last month adopted a new sexual misconduct policy, and that’s encouraging. It suggests that after years of turning a blind eye to a widespread problem, schools are finally paying attention and taking needed action.

Editorial by The Washington Post

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