Editor’s Note: This story discusses sexual assault on campus.
Six percent of students experienced nonconsensual sexual contact involving force or incapacitation in the 2022-2023 academic year, Cornell’s Sexual Assault and Related Misconduct survey revealed on Thursday, Oct 5. This is a twofold increase from three percent in the 2020-2021 school year, but is the same percentage as both the 2016-2017 and 2018-2019 academic years.
“[We] remain deeply concerned about the continued prevalence of sexual misconduct and related violence on Cornell’s campus,” Vice President of Student and Campus Life Ryan Lombardi said in an interview with The Sun. “We’re glad that we haven’t seen tremendous spikes, but we’re disappointed that we haven’t seen it decline at the same time, so [we’re] grateful to people for continuing to inform us of that, and [it’s] really a charge for all of us to stay committed to eradicating this behavior on our campus.”
The SARM survey was administered via email to a random sample of 6,000 students in Spring 2023 in accordance with New York State Education Law Article 129-B, which requires Cornell to conduct a survey of campus sexual violence no less than every two years. The survey estimates the prevalence of different forms of nonconsensual sexual contact, harassment, stalking and domestic and dating violence among students at Cornell and examines the context within which these forms of violence occur.
A total of 2,163 students responded to the survey, for an overall response rate of 36 percent.
Nonconsensual sexual contact involving force or incapacitation is defined as penetration or sexual touching during which an individual was experiencing or threatened by physical force, incapacitated due to drugs or alcohol, coerced by, for example, threats of non-physical harm or promises of rewards, or did not provide affirmative consent.
In the 2022-2023 academic year, 13 percent of undergraduate women reported that they experienced nonconsensual sexual contact involving force or incapacitation. In the 2020-2021 school year, six percent of undergraduate women reported the experience.
Administrators said this increase may be attributed to Cornell’s return to “mostly normal” after two years of significant interruption during the COVID-19 pandemic. This may have led to “an increase in risk-taking behaviors by Cornell students, including increased alcohol and drug use, which contribute to incidences of sexual violence,” according to the report.
Before the pandemic, 12 percent of undergraduate women reported nonconsensual sexual contact of the same nature in the 2016-2017 school year, and 13 percent reported the experience in the 2018-2019 academic year, comparable to this year’s survey.
Additionally, the 2022-2023 school year saw the highest percentage in nonconsensual sexual contact involving force or incapacitation for undergraduate men at five percent. In 2020-2021, only one percent of undergraduate men reported experiencing this contact, and four percent reported this experience in both 2016-2017 and 2018-2019 — both pre-pandemic years.
The report breaks down the responses of undergraduate women by class year. When compared to 2021, prevalence rates reported in 2023 increased across the board for women at all stages of their Cornell undergraduate career. However, excluding 2021 due to pandemic-related factors, the 2023 results are comparable to previous years.
When examining the percentage of students who experienced nonconsensual sexual contact involving force or incapacitation since entering Cornell, as opposed to in the current academic year, 2023 is comparable to other school years. Eleven percent of 2023 respondents indicated that they experienced this contact since entering Cornell, the same percentage of respondents as the 2021 and 2017 surveys. In 2019, 13 percent of respondents said they had experienced this nonconsensual sexual contact since entering Cornell.
In the 2023 survey, women who experienced nonconsensual sexual contact almost exclusively identified their perpetrators as men, whereas 70 percent of undergraduate men identified their perpetrators as women. Eighty-three percent of students said their offender was a Cornell student, with the majority of students reporting that they knew their offender, at least casually. Nine percent, however, said the perpetrator was someone they did not know or recognize.
A residence hall was reported as the most common location where the nonconsensual sexual contact experience occurred among undergraduate women and men at 24 percent of all incidents. Twenty-five percent of incidents reported by undergraduate women occurred at a fraternity chapter house and 13 percent of undergraduate women reported the incident occurring at an off-campus house or apartment unofficially affiliated with a student club or organization.
Lombardi said the University is committed to increasing community building and establishing respectful relationships in residence halls to “foster a productive climate.” He added that Cornell is working “aggressively” with the Greek system on new interventions in event management and education.
About two-thirds, or 67 percent of respondents, reported experiencing physical, emotional or social impacts because of the nonconsensual sexual contact incident, most commonly reporting feeling numb or detached, fearfulness or safety concerns, decreased social activities and feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. Forty-six percent described experiencing academic or professional impacts, including difficulty concentrating on studies or assignments and decreased class attendance.
Of respondents who reported a nonconsensual sexual contact experience, only 11 percent said they had contacted a Cornell- or community-based resource to receive support. However, the majority of students indicated that they talked to someone, most often a friend, about their experience.
The University is working to make resources more accessible to students, according to Laura Weiss, program director of the Sexual Harassment and Assault Response and Education Office and Victim Advocacy Program. Cornell has partnered with the Intergroup Dialogue Program, an academic initiative that engages in critical dialogue, to encourage students to think about increasing sexual awareness on campus and brainstorm ideas on preventative tactics.
One of the most significant findings of the report is that instances of stalking more than doubled in 2023 compared to any other year. Thirteen percent of respondents indicated that they experienced stalking behavior in 2023, whereas in 2017, 2019 and 2021, only five percent reported experiencing any form of stalking.
“That was a really interesting number for all of us to see,” Weiss said. “It really does stand out as a shift in that experience.”
The number of stalking cases officially reported to the University also increased drastically in 2022 compared to the previous two years, according to Cornell’s Annual Security Report.
The majority of respondents indicated that they had received unwanted calls, emails or messages more than once by the same individual in 2023, at eight percent. This is up from three percent in previous years.
“It’s a lot of digital things that are happening, so the use of technology and how that is being twisted in ways that people aren’t comfortable with, stuff like Snapchat and Find my Phone and Find my Friend, and all of those things that maybe people are more broadly sharing than they know, or really want to, is a piece of this,” Weiss said. “We wonder too whether the increased usage of social media or messaging services for interpersonal relationships during COVID, and just through regular communication, might have enabled more of that to occur,” Lombardi added.
The prevalence of stalking was highest among transgender and gender non-conforming students, at 23 percent, and undergraduate women, at 21 percent.
Weiss said the University plans to increase education around social media and location-sharing services.
Members of the Cornell Community may consult with the Victim Advocate by calling 607-255-1212, and with Cornell Health by calling 607-255-5155. Employees may call the Faculty Staff Assistance Program (FSAP) at 607-255-2673. An Ithaca-based Crisisline is available at 607-272-1616. The Tompkins County-based Advocacy Center is available at 607.277.5000. For additional resources, visit health.cornell.edu/services/victim-advocacy.