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)