2015 Study: Sexual Assault at Cornell

A year ago, a comprehensive survey was released with disturbing figures for student sexual violence at Cornell University: 9.9 percent of participating undergraduate women and 3.9 percent of women graduate students reported being victims of rape or attempted rape (“experiencing nonconsensual penetration”) through physical force or while incapacitated since entering college.

Of Cornell female seniors participating in the “campus climate” survey during the Spring 2015 semester, 31.6 percent—nearly 1 in 3—reported being victims of rape or sexual battery during their years in college; 12.8 percent said they had experienced non-consensual penetration through force or incapacitation.


With a new academic year getting started, the results in the report on the Cornell survey are important to keep in mind. Here’s what the late Cornell President Elizabeth Garrett had to say about the report:

“Student sexual assault is a serious national problem, occurring with unacceptable frequency at Cornell and on campuses across the country. The results also underscore there is still more work to be done to educate and to help protect our students. Even one instance of sexual assault on our campus is one too many.”

A total of 3,906 out of 20,547 Cornell students (19 percent) took part in the “campus climate” survey. Two-thirds (66.8 percent) of the reported incidents of “nonconsensual penetration” through force or incapacitation involving female victims occurred on the Cornell campus or affiliated property; 93.6 percent of the reported incidents on university property occurred in a dorm or a fraternity/sorority house.

The report on Cornell defined penetration as “when one person puts a penis, finger, or object inside someone else’s vagina or anus,” or “when someone’s mouth or tongue makes contact with someone else’s genitals.” The report defined physical force as “when someone was “holding you down with his or her body weight, pinning your arms, hitting or kicking you, or using or threatening to use a weapon against you.” The report defined incapacitation as a student being “unable to consent or stop what was happening because you were passed out, asleep or incapacitated due to drugs or alcohol.”

The report explained that tactics of force or incapacitation for nonconsensual penetration “generally meet legal definitions of rape”; while the same tactics for nonconsensual sexual touching “generally meet the legal definitions of sexual battery.”

In the Cornell study, 17.8 percent of undergraduate women and 6.7 percent of women graduate students reported experiencing nonconsensual “sexual touching” since entering college (“sexual touching” being defined as: “kissing; touching someone’s breast, chest, crotch, groin, or buttocks; or grabbing, groping or rubbing against the other in a sexual way, even if the touching is over the other’s clothes.”

The report cited alcohol as a factor. In 72.9 percent of the rape incidents, the male offender was drinking alcohol. The female rape victim was voluntarily drinking alcohol in 66.5 percent of incidents; in 6.5 percent, the victim suspected she was given alcohol or drugs without her consent.

The report cited serious physical and psychological consequences of the sexual violence. The report said that 11.3 percent of the female rape victims reported physical injuries, usually external bruises, cuts, scratches, or swelling, or internal vaginal or anal tearing. Emotional distress was much more prevalent. Victims in reported incidents involving penetration through physical force or incapacitation reported:

Difficulty concentrating on studies, assignments or exams (56 percent of victims raped through physical force; 39.8 percent of victims who were incapacitated)

Fearfulness or being concerned about safety (44.4 percent, 16.6 percent)

Loss of interest in daily activities, or feelings of helplessness and hopelessness (32.9 percent, 28.9 percent)

Nightmares or trouble sleeping (27.4 percent, 20.4 percent)

Feeling numb or detached (43.6 percent, 43.8 percent)

Cornell female students were reluctant to report rape and sexual battery. Nearly three-quarters of the rape and battery incidents were not reported to a campus “agency or organization.” Among penetrative acts, only 26.8 percent of the victims said that an incident involving physical force was reported; 16.2 percent said that a penetrative incident involving incapacitation was reported.

According to the Cornell survey results, a significant percentage of women said an incident was not reported because they did not think anything would be done about it (38.6 percent); because they felt embarrassed or ashamed (33.3 percent); or feared it would not be kept confidential (21 percent). The most-cited reason for non-reporting—by 75.8 percent—was because “I did not think it was serious enough to report.”

The report on Cornell was part of a survey conducted by the Rockville, Maryland research firm Westat for the Association of American Universities during the Spring 2015 semester at 27 institutions of higher learning across the country; 150,072 students participated in the survey. The study, “Report on the AAU Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct,” was released on September 21, 2015; the Cornell study of the same name was released on September 18, 2015.

Nationally, 27.2 percent of female seniors reported unwanted sexual contact through force or incapacitation since entering college; 13.5 percent said they had experienced nonconsensual penetration by one of these means.

The figure of 9.9 percent of Cornell female undergraduates who reported being raped was slightly lower than the national average of 10.8 percent; the figure of 3.9 percent of Cornell female graduate students was the same as the national average.

In the national survey results, the researchers found that freshmen female students were more vulnerable to sexual assault “because they are not as familiar with situations that may lead to an incident of sexual assault or misconduct.” Among current freshmen nationwide, 16.9 percent of females reported rape or sexual battery (6.6 percent reported being raped), compared to 14.8 for sophomores, 12.4 for juniors, and 11.1 for seniors. At Cornell, the percentages remained more constant: 14.6 percent for freshmen, 14.6 for sophomores, 11.2 for juniors, and 13.5 for seniors.

For more information: see Cornell’s SHARE website (Sexual Harassment and Assault Response and Education)


LGBTQ Teenagers in Trouble

A crisis requiring urgent attention from school administrators, teachers, parents, and the community at large: lesbian, gay, and bisexual teenagers are experiencing severe levels of depression, bullying, and violence, according to an important new study released August 12 by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nearly 30 percent of LGB students reported attempting suicide in the past year, five times the rate of heterosexual students.

“The intensity of homophobic attitudes and acceptance of gay-related victimization, as well as the ongoing silence around adolescent sexuality, marginalizes a whole group of young people,” Elizabeth Miller, chief of adolescent and young adult medicine at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, told the New York Times. That marginalization, Miller added, “increases their vulnerability to exploitative and violent relationships.”

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The DC Center for the LGBT Community summarized the findings of the study, entitled “Sexual Identity, Sex of Sexual Contacts, and Health-Related Behaviors Among Students in Grades 9–12 — United States and Selected Sites, 2015”:

LGB students are significantly more likely to report:

—Being forced to have sex (18% LGB vs. 5% heterosexual)

—Sexual dating violence (23% LGB vs. 9% heterosexual)

—Physical dating violence (18% LGB vs. 8% heterosexual)

—Being bullied at school or online (at school: 34% LGB vs. 19% heterosexual; online: 28% LGB vs. 14% heterosexual)

LGB students at substantial risk for serious outcomes:

—More than 40% of LGB students seriously considered suicide and 29% reported attempting suicide in the past year.

—Sixty percent of LGB students reported having been so sad or hopeless that they stopped doing some usual activities.

—LGB students were up to 5 times more likely than other students to report using several illegal drugs.

—More than 1 in 10 LGB students have missed school during the past 30 days because of safety concerns.

The CDC study marks the first time that a nationwide survey of American high school students on health-related behaviors included sexual identities  data to be broken down by sexual categories.

The report concluded that schools have “a unique and important role to play” in helping reduce stigma and discrimination by creating and sustaining positive school environments through the following policies and practices:

—Encourage respect for all students and do not allow bullying, harassment, or violence against any student.

—Identify “safe spaces” (e.g., counselors’ offices, designated classrooms, or student organizations) where sexual minority students can get support from administrators, teachers, or other school staff.

—Encourage student-led and student-organized school clubs (e.g., gay/straight alliances) that promote school connectedness and a safe, welcoming, and accepting school environment for all students.

—Ensure that health classes and educational materials include information that is relevant to sexual minority students and use inclusive words or terms.

—Implement professional development opportunities and encourage all school staff to attend on how to create safe and supportive school environments for all students, regardless of sexual minority status.

—Make it easier for students to have access to community-based health care providers who have experience providing health services, including HIV/STD testing and counseling and social and psychological services, to sexual minority youth.

—Promote parent engagement through outreach efforts and educational programs that provide parents with the information and skills they need to help support sexual minority youth.

Happy Birthday, Sophie

Today would have been Sophie’s 24th birthday. Here’s a photo of Sophie on her 18th birthday, a newly minted Cornell freshman outside her Risley Hall dorm.

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This is an occasion for us to thank the nearly 100 people who have made generous donations to The Sophie Fund. We have spent the past few months meeting local mental health care providers and organizations to learn about their programs. The Sophie Fund looks forward to working closely with all of them and supporting initiatives aiding young people in the greater Ithaca community.

We’d also like to thank the Community Foundation of Tompkins County for its invaluable support for The Sophie Fund.

If you happen to be dining today at any of Sophie’s favorite eateries in Ithaca (that’s just about all of them!) raise a glass to her.

Thrive, New York!

Thrive NYC is an $850 million initiative launched by New York City First Lady Chirlane McCray that is a model for the way all communities across America can better address our growing mental health crisis. The core of the effort includes training 250,000 New Yorkers in Mental Health First Aid, which teaches people how to help friends, family members, and co-workers who may be suffering. A public awareness campaign called “Today I Thrive,” consisting of TV, newspaper, and subway ads and social media outreach in 11 languages is another part of the effort that aims to convince New Yorkers that seeking help is a sign of strength not weakness.


McCray, wife of Mayor Bill de Blasio, discussed Thrive NYC in a Q&A with Shefali Luthra in Kaiser Health News published this week. McCray’s experience with mental illness is very personal: her parents as well as her daughter have struggled with depression.

Here’s an extract from the interview:


Kaiser Health News: What role can cities play in bolstering access to mental health care? Are there unique advantages they have?


McCray: Cities can lead because mayors are uniquely positioned in terms of being really close to the people. I attended the U.S. Conference of Mayors. And unlike governors, and unlike members of Congress, mayors are right there, dealing with the everyday struggles of people. They are more sensitive in terms of what people need, on a day-to-day level. Cities can actually mobilize different types of resources: community-based organizations and churches and synagogues and mosques. All of these different first responder type organizations are much more available. Mayors are much more plugged in.


Kaiser Health News: How do New York’s needs and plans compare with that of other cities?


McCray: In New York, we have everybody. We have a large LGBT community, we have the largest Jewish community. We are the United Nations of cities. Whatever we do in New York, if it can be done here, dealing with all of those questions of culture, religion, ethnicity—all of those things—then it can be done anywhere.


Kaiser Health News: One of the big problems regarding the mental health care system is its shortage of providers. In your plan for New York, you talk about how to build that supply and make it more diverse. 


McCray: We are not going to grow the workforce we need overnight. That is clear. But we can look at alternative methods, which have evidence-based proven ways to address the situation. We are doing that by training a quarter of a million New Yorkers in mental health first aid. We are working to raise the level of awareness, educate people, and sort of demystify mental illness and substance abuse so people can help their family members and friends. We are making sure that we actually are reaching into high-need communities, communities that don’t have professionals that look like them. I heard this over and over again, everywhere I went. “I want to talk to somebody who looks like me, who speaks my language, who understands my religion. And it doesn’t exist.” There are a lot of ideas that are burbling about, but this is one of our priorities.


Kaiser Health News: It sounds like one idea you are thinking of is more ‘midlevel’-type providers—someone who is not a psychiatrist but is more knowledgeable than my next-door neighbor.


McCray: When you think about our teachers, members of our clergy—they do this work, even though they may not be trained to. Some of them actually are somewhat trained — some of them have been social workers or doctors—but you don’t necessarily need that. You don’t need a psychiatrist to treat depression, which is the number one cause of disability now in our nation. You don’t need a psychiatrist to help someone with anxiety disorder, necessarily. All these diseases have a range from mild to severe. We are also thinking about training a new class of worker: a community mental health worker, who works with members of the community—whether it be through involvement in a community-based organization or at a church, et cetera—to screen for mental health needs and refer to help as needed. And there are models in other countries of people who do this work and are able to help folks who suffer from things like depression and anxiety.


Kaiser Health News: Might that address some of the diversity concerns you described?


McCray: Absolutely. Because they will come from the neighborhood and be trusted and understand how to talk to people in a way that is sensitive and understands the history and culture of the place.


Kaiser Health News: You have been able to line up nearly $1 billion to fund your initiative. Is that something other cities will need to do, too, in order to meet their mental health care needs?


McCray: Every city will not have that [level] of resources. But then again, every city is not as big as New York City, so they may not need that kind of money. And everything we are doing doesn’t require funding. Something like screening pregnant women and mothers for maternal depression is something that requires a new approach by doctors and pediatricians and OB/GYNs. It just requires them asking a series of questions. But we had to actually gather people together and say, “Look, we can have a huge impact on something that could have lifelong consequences for a child and a family, by just doing work a little differently.” It’s not a change in the funding. It’s just a change in the way they approach the conversation. We’re training our police officers in crisis intervention training. We’ve already saved lives. We’re making naloxone [which treats opioid overdose] available without a prescription. We’ve saved so many lives already with that. It really depends on the needs of the city.


Kaiser Health News: What do you hope to see moving forward?

McCray: The most important thing is changing the culture. We’ve already been taking great strides. It is change in the culture and ability to know there’s always someplace that a New Yorker can go to get help. No matter who you are as a New Yorker, it’s OK. Mental illness and substance abuse disorders are treatable. And, there’s somewhere to go. That’s what success looks like to me. Of course I want to do even more but if we do those things, I think that will be a huge sea change.


Thrive NYC says its initiative is guided by six key principles:

Change the Culture: Make mental health everybody’s business. It’s time for New Yorkers to have an open conversation about mental health.

Act Early: Give New Yorkers more tools to weather challenges and invest in prevention and early intervention.

Close Treatment Gaps: Provide New Yorkers in every neighborhood—including those at greatest risk—with equal access to care that works for them and their communities, when and where they need it.

Partner with Communities: Embrace the wisdom and strengths of local communities by collaborating with them to create effective and culturally competent solutions.

Use Data Better: Work with all stakeholders to address gaps, improve programs, and create a truly equitable and responsive mental health system by collecting, sharing, and using information and data better.

Strengthen Government’s Ability to Lead: Affirm City government’s responsibility to coordinate an unprecedented effort to support the mental health of all New Yorkers.

Read “Thrive NYC: A Roadmap for Mental Health for All,” and a progress report on the initiative, “Thrive NYC 150-Day Update.”


Greater Than Gold

The 2016 Rio Games are upon us, a good moment to reflect on the struggles that athletes and even Olympic champions endure with mental illness. One of the hardest things athletes face is the stigma of mental illness, which can be all the more difficult for people constantly striving to be the best.

David Boudia is an American Olympic medalist in diving who shares the story of his battle with depression in a book out this week titled Greater Than Gold: From Olympic Heartbreak to Ultimate Redemption.

His struggles after coming up short in the 2008 Beijing Games included overcoming suicidal thoughts. In 2012, he went on to win the gold medal in diving at the 2012 London Games. You can catch Boudia’s performances at the 2016 Rio Games—see the NBC Today Show’s pre-Rio interview with Boudia here.

Clara Hughes, a six-time Olympic medalist in cycling and speed skating, is a Canadian athlete who shares her personal struggle in the fight against the stigma of mental illness. After the 1996 Atlanta Games, she lapsed into daily crying spells and gained weight, only to feel more isolated when she threw herself into more intensive training. In 2006, she went on to become the first athlete to win multiple medals at both the Summer and Winter Games. Since 2010 she has been the national spokesperson for the Bell “Let’s Talk” Day.

In 2013, after publishing a memoir titled Open Heart, Open Mind, she talked about the difficulties of overcoming the stigma herself:

“I definitely underestimated how hard this was going to be. There’s a lot of just really personal issues I have struggled with over the years and experiences over the years, familial and in the sporting world that I still am trying to understand, and it’s been really traumatic, it’s been really, really hard. It makes me realize that I still have a lot of healing that I need to do and I have a long way to go in my own mental health.”

Silken Laumann, a three-time Olympic medalist in rowing, became a national hero in Canada for winning Bronze in the 1992 Barcelona Games just weeks after suffering a shattering injury. But Laumann says sharing the story of her depression and anxiety even with her future husband was a more grueling experience. By writing a memoir titled Unsinkable and working with organizations that support child development, she joined the fight against the stigma that prevents people from getting help. As she wrote in Unsinkable:

“Even though I’m terrified to be so open about my journey, I have a deep faith in people’s ability to hear with their hearts. I also believe that life is a beautiful, challenging, terrible and exhilarating experience in which we must strive to realize our greatest potential no matter how forbidding that path.”

In Huffpost Maggie Crum presents a good discussion of the sporting life and mental illness. It includes the story of 2012 American gold medalist in swimming Allison Schmitt:

“I didn’t really understand it. I came back from the most successful summer I’ve had. Everything had always seemed to go my way. So I was like, well, I’ve had great friends, great family. I’ve had success in the sport that I wanted. I went back to school, finished my degree. I was like, what could possibly be wrong with me? I know I was grateful for all those times but at the same time, I wasn’t happy. But I couldn’t really understand why I was unhappy. I was like, why would I be depressed? I have no reason to be depressed.”