October 29, 2014

IT’S COME TO THIS: Half of MIT Students Think It’s Possible to “Accidently” Rape Someone (Thanks, Affirmative Consent!)

Media are reporting that one in six female undergraduates at MIT have been sexually assaulted (with this translating in some headlines and social media shares to “one in six have been raped”). But the MIT survey suffers from the same issues that plague previous studies on campus sexual assault.

First, the survey’s methodology: In April, MIT emailed its sexual assault survey to all 10,831 undergraduates and graduate students. Students could then opt to take the survey or not. Ultimately, 35 percent of MIT students did. But whenever you have an opt-in survey, those who self-select to take it are not necessarily representative of a given population. Or, as MIT researchers put it, “response bias is expected in virtually any voluntary survey, particularly one focused on a narrow topic. … the rates based on those who responded to the survey cannot be extrapolated to the MIT student population as a whole.”

It’s also worth noting that the definition of sexual assault—in both the MIT survey and previous campus sexual assault studies—is a broad one, including forced sexual penetration, forced oral sex, and unwanted “sexual touching” or kissing. Of course there are all sorts of levels of sexual assault, and just because something doesn’t approach the level of forced intercourse (i.e., rape) doesn’t mean it’s not a serious violation. But let’s be clear that MIT’s “1 in 6” stat is decidely not about the number of students who are rape victims, nor is the much bandied-about “1 in 5” college women stat.

So!, now that we’ve cleared up what the MIT study did not find, let’s look at what it did, starting with intriguing student attitudes toward sexual assault. Contra the affirmative consent crowd, it doesn’t seem that a lack of respect or enthusiasm for obtaining sexual content is a big problem: 98 percent of females and 96 percent of males agreed or strongly agreed that it’s important to get consent before sexual activity.

But students are confused about how alcohol and intoxication affect consent, which perhaps speaks to increasing progressive activism around the idea that drunk people can’t give consent. Only about three-quarters of respondents said they feel confident in their own ability to judge whether someone is too intoxicated to consent to sex. And more than half agreed that “rape and sexual assault can happen unintentionally, especially if alcohol is involved.”

I just want to repeat that one more time: Half of the MIT students surveyed think it’s possible to “accidently” rape someone. When you consider undergraduates alone, this rises to 67 percent.

This is what we get when people push an idea that rape is really often a matter of consent confusion or a drunken misunderstanding and not something that one person (the rapist) intentionally does to another. This is exactly what those of us opposed to affirmative consent standards mean when we worry about it muddying the waters of consent and confusing the definition of rape.

Good grief.

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