2021 Survey: Sexual Assault at Cornell University

Female students at Cornell University continue to report disturbing rates of sexual violence.

According to the “2021 Cornell Survey of Sexual Assault and Related Misconduct,” 9.8 percent of participating undergraduate women—nearly one in 10—reported being victims of rape or attempted rape involving physical force or incapacitation since entering college. Extrapolated, the percentage means that potentially hundreds of Cornell’s 7,000-plus female undergrads were affected by such sexual violence.

Cornell University campus

The survey showed that 19.1 percent of female undergrads—nearly one in five—reported incidents of nonconsensual sexual touching involving physical force or incapacitation since entering college.

Among women graduate and professional students, the survey showed that 4.7 percent reported being victims of rape or attempted rape involving physical force or incapacitation since entering Cornell; 8.3 percent reported incidents of nonconsensual sexual touching.

Among Cornell female seniors participating in the survey, 30.3 percent—nearly one in three—reported being victims of rape or attempted rape (“experiencing nonconsensual penetration, attempted or completed”) or sexual battery (“nonconsensual sexual touching”) through physical force or incapacitation during their years in Ithaca.

Survey results showed that 88.2 percent of sexual assault offenders were male, and 82.1 percent were Cornell students. Among male undergraduate students, 5.8 percent reported being victims of nonconsensual sexual contact—assaults involving penetration or sexual touching—through physical force or incapacitation since entering college.

The highest percentages of surveyed sexual assault at Cornell involved transgender, genderqueer, and nonconforming (TGQN) students; 25.7 percent reported experiencing nonconsensual sexual contact through physical force or incapacitation since entering Cornell.

Separately, also in compliance with New York State’s “Enough is Enough” law to combat collegiate sexual violence, Cornell’s Title IX office reported 205 incidents of sexual assault, dating violence, domestic violence, and stalking in 2020; the figure represented the highest number of reports among all the colleges in New York State.

Another in an occasional series of articles about campus sexual violence. For more information, go to The Sophie Fund’s Sexual Assault Page.

For just the 2020-21 academic year, 3.1 percent of all surveyed students reported experiencing nonconsensual sexual contact, a significant drop from 6.3 percent in the previous survey conducted in 2019; of undergraduate women, 6.3 percent reported such sexual assaults in 2021 compared to 13.3 percent two years earlier.

The decreases in 2021 may be related to Covid-19 pandemic conditions, however; Cornell officials noted that most courses were held online, activities were halted or held remotely, and students were cautioned about socializing to reduce virus transmission.

The 2021 survey was distributed to a random sample of 6,000 students on the university’s Ithaca, Weill Cornell, and Cornell Tech campuses; 2,303, or 38 percent, provided responses.

Two-thirds (66.2 percent) of the “most serious” incidents of “nonconsensual sexual contact” involving undergraduate female victims occurred on Cornell or affiliated property—residence halls, fraternity chapter houses, fraternity annexes, and off-campus housing affiliated with another type of student club. Eighteen percent of such sexual assaults occurred at other off-campus houses, apartments, and private residences.

The 2021 survey defined penetration as “when one person puts a penis, finger, or object inside someone else’s vagina or anus.”

The survey defined nonconsensual sexual touching 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 survey 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 survey 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.”

LEARN MORE: April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month

The Cornell administration responded to the survey results in a statement on November 29, 2021 signed by Ryan Lombardi, Vice President for Student and Campus Life; Mary Opperman, Vice President and Chief Human Resources Officer; and Jamal D. Lopez, Senior Director of Institutional Equity, Weill Cornell Medicine.

“The prevalence rates reported through Cornell’s Surveys of Sexual Assault and Related Misconduct have remained largely static since 2015, highlighting the need for strategic public health prevention efforts,” the statement said.

“Sexual assault, harassment and other forms of related misconduct are never acceptable. Working together, we believe that we can—and will—make Cornell a safer, more respectful environment for all community members.”

Survey results showed that 27.6 percent of the sexual assault offenders were “someone I just met at a social event”; 26.8 percent were current intimate partners; 22.6 percent were friends; and 18.2 percent were acquaintances.

The survey cited alcohol as a potential factor in sexual assaults at Cornell. In 55.6 percent of the cases reported by female undergraduate students, the perpetrator drank alcohol prior to the incident. The female victim drank alcohol in 57.4 percent of incidents.

According to the survey, 16.9 percent of undergraduate women, 24.8 percent of TGQN students, and 13.4 percent of Cornell students overall, reported experiencing domestic or dating violence since enrolling at Cornell. The survey showed that 5.1 percent of respondents reported experiencing stalking.

Nearly one in 10 victims of sexual assault said they did not report an incident to the Cornell or Ithaca police, Cornell’s Title IX office, or other campus and community resources. Despite the prevalence of sexual assault at Cornell, Cornell Police received only seven rape reports, all taking place in campus residential facilities, during 2021, according to the Cornell Police 2022 Annual Security Report.

During the 2020-21 academic year, nine formal sexual assault complaints were filed against undergraduate, graduate, and professional students with the Cornell Title IX office. One student was dismissed, two were suspended, one received a reprimand, two cases resulted in no-contact orders, and three of the accused were found not responsible.

Among the reasons given in the survey for not reporting: “not serious enough” (54.3 percent); “did not think talking about it would make me feel better” (40.8 percent); “other things to focus on” (37.6 percent); “felt partly responsible” (32.1 percent); “wanted to forget” (31.2 percent); “embarrassed or ashamed” (25.4 percent); “did not think anything would be done” (21.8 percent); “did not have proof” (21.5 percent).

The Cornell report on the student survey cited serious physical and psychological consequences of the sexual violence. The survey showed that 4.5 percent of victims suffered physical injuries as the result of their most serious sexual assault incident. Also, 37.6 percent reported feeling numb or detached; 30 percent feelings of helplessness and hopelessness; 27.6 percent experienced fearfulness or concerns about personal safety; and 19.8 percent had nightmares or trouble sleeping.

As for academic impacts, 36.5 percent of victims said they had difficulty concentrating on studies, assignments, or exams; 15.3 percent reported decreased class attendance, 8.6 percent considered leaving school or their program, and 2.1 percent took a leave of absence.

DOWNLOAD: “Be Safe at College” Resources

In general, Cornell’s sexual assault prevalence appears to track with data compiled through national surveys by the Association of American Universities (AAU).

According to AAU’s most recent survey, conducted prior to the Covid-19 pandemic in 2019, 25.9 percent of undergraduate women reported being the victim of rape, attempted rape, or sexual battery through force or incapacitation since entering college; 12.8 percent reported the same experiences for that academic year.

The pre-pandemic 2019 survey at Cornell showed that 26.8 percent of undergraduate women reported being the victim of rape, attempted rape, or sexual battery through force or incapacitation since entering college; 13.3 percent reported the same experiences for that academic year.

Among undergraduates nationwide, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), 26.4 percent of females, 6.8 percent of males, and 23.1 percent of TGQN college students have been sexually assaulted.

Cornell conducts the surveys in compliance with New York State “Enough is Enough” Education Law Article 129-B, adopted in 2015, which requires colleges to submit and publish data reports no less than every other year on incidents of domestic violence, dating violence, stalking, and sexual assault.

Cornell provides comprehensive information about its 2015, 2017, 2019 and 2021 reports on its Sexual Harassment and Assault Response and Education (SHARE) webpage.

Ways for Cornell students to report sexual assault:

Cornell Police: 1-607-255-1111

Cornell Title IX Office: 1-607-255-2242

Ithaca Police: 1-607-272-9973

Advocacy Center of Tompkins County: 1-607-277-5000

National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline: l-800-656-4673