Students: Sexual harassment all too common on campus

January 24, 2006

Nearly two-thirds of undergraduates, male and female, say they have been sexually harassed either verbally or physically while in college, and another student or group of students usually is the perpetrator, a new report says.

And though more than 70% of women and 40% of men said they "would be somewhat or very upset" to be on the receiving end of sexual comments, jokes, gestures or looks, 51% of men and 31% of women had harassed someone. Most (59%) said they did so because they thought it was funny.

"College students’ attitudes about sexual harassment are a combination of uncertainty and contradiction," says the report released Tuesday by the American Association of University Women Educational Foundation, a non-profit that promotes equity in education.

The group announced initiatives at 11 colleges and universities aimed at "building a sexual harassment-free campus."

About 25% of students overall said they were touched, grabbed or pinched; 53% cited comments, jokes, gestures or looks. About 7% said the source was a professor.

Findings are based on an online survey in May of 2,036 full- and part-time undergrads ages 18 to 24 enrolled in a two- or four-year college last spring. Data were adjusted to be nationally representative.

In some cases, students said they were so upset by harassment that they dropped a course or changed schools.

One in four women who reported being harassed said the incident undermined her college experience. Among lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students, 60% said they had taken steps to avoid the harasser; 9% said they transferred.

Colleges that receive federal money are required to designate a representative to handle sexual harassment. Most students (79%) said they were aware of campus policies against sexual harassment.

Findings suggest harassment is more common on large campuses and more prevalent at four-year campuses than two-year colleges. Also, white students were most likely to say they had been harassed.

Some experts caution schools against overreacting.

"There are aspects of harassment that nobody disagrees with," says Greg Lukianoff of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a Philadelphia-based non-profit. But "too many people think harassment is the same thing as being offended. Offending somebody is not a crime."

The survey has a sampling error of plus or minus 2 percentage points.