Project: Unwanted Sexual Experiences

Unwanted Sexual Experiences and Other Forms of Relational Aggression: A Study of New England College Students

The University of New Hampshire is a national leader on the important issue of ending unwanted sexual experiences and relationship abuse on campus.

An early important part of this leadership has been an ongoing series of panel studies of unwanted sexual experiences at UNH. The studies have been designed and conducted by UNH faculty – in 1988, 2000, 2006 and 2012.

Contact

Ellen Cohn
Professor of Psychology and Coordinator of the Justice Studies Program
323 Conant Hall and 202F Huddleston Hall
Phone: (603) 862-3197
Fax: (603) 862-2966
Mail to: ellen.cohn@unh.edu

 

Unwanted Sexual Experiences and Other Forms of Relational Aggression: A Study of New England College Students

The April 4, 2011 visit of Vice President Biden and Secretary of Education Duncan to the University of New Hampshire (UNH) highlighted this campus' national leadership on the important issue of ending unwanted sexual experiences and relationship abuse on campus. An early important part of this leadership has been an ongoing series of panel studies of unwanted sexual experiences at UNH. The studies have been designed and conducted by UNH faculty – in 1988, 2000, 2006, and 2012. Each panel has included the same set of questions about unwanted sexual experiences as the core of the survey. Each panel has also then had a set of questions that differ from panel to panel and that reflect a specific set of questions of concern to the scientific community and campus communities at the time. The study has also explored the impact of different methods of data gathering including in person surveys and web based data collection.

The 1988 study was initiated in response to campus-wide concerns about violence against women. The "Stoke Hall incident" had just occurred (spring 1987), and general awareness about acquaintance rape was low. At this time, the Sexual Harassment and Rape Prevention Program (SHARPP) was a part-time program with a small budget and a part-time coordinator. Since 1988, the services on campus have greatly expanded, in part as a result of the efforts of the President's Committee on Violence Against Women.

Important information has come out of the studies. The 2000 study of 651 students showed that 78% knew where to go if they needed information about sexual assault and 30% reported that they had attended a SHARPP presentation. However, there were still gaps in awareness and in services available for sexual assault survivors. In the 2000 study, approximately 30% of male victims and 20% of female victims told no one about their unwanted sexual experience. Those who did tell usually disclosed to friends or roommates rather than campus staff or service providers. In 2006 we explored this question further and found that 1 in 5 male and 1 in 3 female undergraduates had a friend tell them that they had an unwanted sexual experience. Such findings have informed prevention and education efforts on campus including a just released awareness campaign by SHARPP focused on helping friends to help friends.

In the 1988 study, students reported "unwanted sexual experiences," including sexual contact, attempted sexual intercourse, and sexual intercourse. Thirty-four percent of the female respondents reported having experienced unwanted contact, 20% unwanted attempted intercourse, and 10% unwanted intercourse during the academic year in which the data were collected. In addition, the students answered detailed questions about the most serious incident. In 2000, we saw a decrease to 20% of women reporting unwanted contact during the academic year, but no significant change in the more serious "unwanted intercourse." The 2006 results were similar to those of 2000 (28% of female undergraduates and 12% of men reported some type of unwanted contact between September and February of the academic year; 3% of undergraduate women reported unwanted sexual intercourse where the perpetrator used force or threat of force during that time). In the 2012 study, we also assessed sexual victimization experiences using parallel questions to the 1988, 2000, and 2006 studies to provide a comparison of the campus another 6 years later. In 2012, additional questions about stalking and physical intimate partner violence were added given the high rates of co-occurrence among various forms of interpersonal violence. The 2012 survey also included a sample of other New England colleges and universities who were invited to participate in the web version of the survey.

A multi-method approach to selecting a sample and administering the survey has been used in the past two panels: online web-based versus in class paper (the 2006 survey used similar methodology and we learned that students were more likely to report incidents on the web version of the survey). A second panel of data will confirm these differences in findings and inform data collection efforts on this and other campuses.