Delivering American University's news and views since 1925. | Friday, September 22, 2017

Survey: Nearly 30 percent of AU’s grad students say they’ve had an unwanted sexual experience

Graduate students see campus resources as ‘something for undergraduates,’ researcher said

Survey: Nearly 30 percent of AU’s grad students say they’ve had an unwanted sexual experience

Nearly 30 percent of AU graduate students have "experienced unwanted sexual activity in their lifetime," according to a survey by researcher Jane Palmer. 

Graduate students are walking into AU having experienced unwanted sexual activity before starting their advanced degrees — and there’s a vacuum of on-campus resources available for treatment, according to a study by an AU researcher.

Jane Palmer, a lecturer in the School of Public Affairs who teaches courses in community-based research and gender-based violence, asked more than 900 graduate students in spring 2015 about their past experiences with sexual violence and their opinions about the University’s resources for them.

Palmer found that nearly 30 percent of the survey’s participants experienced unwanted sexual activity in their lifetime. In a separate question, nearly 7 percent of the surveyed students experienced an unwanted sexual activity since the start of the fall 2014 semester. Yet, in a similar spring 2017 survey with over 1,000 graduate school participants, nearly 40 percent said they disagreed, strongly disagreed or were unsure when asked whether they knew where to go on campus if they or a friend were sexually assaulted.

“Graduate students see campus resources as something for undergraduates,” Palmer said. “Many use coping skills to get them through school, but many do need a better support system from AU.”

Palmer said she defines unwanted sexual activity as unwanted touching of private areas of the body or having intercourse, which is a broader interpretation compared to other sexual violence experts. She also said the percentages include alcohol related incidents.

She noted that graduate students do not receive the same types of orientation seminars that incoming undergraduate students do, such as the new consent training from the Peer Wellness Education program, directed by AU’s Wellness Center.

Scott Patrick, a graduate student pursuing a Ph.D. in political science, sees a connection between the marketing of services at AU and the business model of higher education.

“There is an overwhelming focus on the undergraduate experience because that is the primary ‘product’ of universities,” Patrick, who underwent counseling sessions at AU and is now seeing a therapist off-campus, said. “They are the bread and butter because you can fit many of them in auditorium-sized general ed courses, rather than small graduate level-style courses, where there is more discussion and a higher expectation of knowledge.”

Palmer said the messaging about the different resources sticks to a single, present-time narrative, such as where to go to file a complaint or to collect evidence of an unwanted sexual experience. The language focuses on sexual assaults per incident and not on issues which many survivors face months or years later, Palmer said.

“Most students think that resources on campus are for immediate treatment after a sexual assault,” Palmer said. “If a student is triggered by something brought up in class, they can get help for it.”

AU’s graduate students typically seek help for dating violence than sexual assault, on-campus advocate said

Sara Yzaguirre, the University’s coordinator for victim advocacy services at the Wellness Center, said that the graduate students who seek support from her office are typically dealing with precarious issues stemming from unhealthy long-term relationships rather than unhealthy dating or a single sexual assault.

“Graduate students are in different life stages than undergraduates,” Yzaguirre said. “They are more likely to be in a committed relationship, where undergraduates are dating, and are definitely more vulnerable to sexual violence — largely because of the risk factors associated with the ‘red zone.’”

Graduate students who seek help from AU’s Office of Advocacy Services for Interpersonal and Sexual Violence (OASIS) at the Wellness Center are more likely to be dealing with stalking by an abusive partner after a bad break up or finding safe housing, rather than for single sexual assaults or rape, Yzaguirre said.

Rob Hradsky, the University’s assistant vice president of campus life and dean of students, said that his office helps students who are being stalked by an abusive partner find emergency housing and rearrange their class schedule if the perpetrator is an AU student. His office will also bar non-AU students from campus.

He also said his office is one of many resources on campus, but if a student needs a service that is outside the scope of his role, such as counseling, then a staff member will call the appropriate office to arrange appointments on the student’s behalf.

“I’m sorry to hear that graduate students don’t feel like they have any resources at AU,” Hradsky said. “I think that’s a marketing issue. My office sees about 100 graduate students per year, and the number is growing.”

Yzaguirre said her office provides all AU students who are victims of dating violence with on-campus options to separate them from their abusers or to refer them to off-campus resources if an AU student is victimized by a non-AU student. Options range from figuring out a safety plan to deciding whether or not to file formal charges with the Title IX office.

“A safety plan is a term used to describe an individualized planning process that is catered to an individual,” Yzaguirre said. “It matters less whether or not a person is undergrad or grad and more the specifics of their life circumstances.”

Those circumstances may include whether or not a student has children or lives with the accused abuser. However, a conversation with an OASIS staff member is also centered around the status of the relationship and how the student seeking help wants to proceed with their partner.

If a student is being stalked by a non-AU student, then OASIS will explain the process for obtaining a temporary protective order or a civil protective order, which is essentially a restraining order against an accuser, Yzaguirre said.

If a graduate student -- who is in the middle of a bad relationship or has been sexually assaulted before graduate school -- can squeeze in on-campus appointments, Palmer said treatment at AU is short-term help. The caveat is that the on-campus resources are already overloaded with students, so if a graduate student wants to use the services, they will probably have to wait, she said.

“I know of one student who really needed help a few years ago,” Palmer said. “But since they worked during the day and had class at night, they couldn’t get on-campus counseling because the office closes at 5 p.m.”

Patrick said that graduate students need campus resources to support them through their education process just as much as undergraduates, but the services provided cater to undergraduates instead.

“Even though we face the same problems many undergraduates face, such as mental anguish from stress and anxiety or harassment and other inappropriate behavior by faculty, the administration highlights resources and facilities it knows will attract prospective undergraduates and satisfy current ones,” Patrick said.

sdolezal@theeagleonline.com


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