This week, Columbia released two sets of data about sexual assault on campus. They indicated that 24.4 percent of undergraduate female seniors at Columbia reported being sexually assaulted during college, compared to 26.1 percent across the 27 institutions, including Columbia, that participated in a national Association of American Universities survey.
These numbers illuminate a stark reality: Both nationally and at Columbia, one in four female undergraduates reported being sexually assaulted. The data is even more concerning when it comes to transgender, genderqueer, nonconforming, and questioning students: Three in 10 undergraduates identifying as such in the AAU survey reported being sexually assaulted. This incidence rate almost guarantees that every person on campus—even those who do not experience sexual assault directly during their time at Columbia—will be affected by sexual assault in some way. To remain passive in the face of these statistics would be a huge mistake.
The complexity in all of this is that it is not immediately obvious, outside of pressuring the administration to improve its policy, how we, as a student body, can take action. The answer to this, though, might actually lie in the data as well.
One AAU survey question asked students if they had ever witnessed a “drunk person heading for [a] sexual encounter.” Of those who answered “yes,” nearly 80 percent said that they did not act, either because they were unsure of what to do or “for another reason.” Another question asked whether students had “witnessed someone acting in [a] sexually violent or harassing manner.” Fifty-seven percent of respondents who answered “yes” said they did not intervene. Simply put, this is a terrifying failure on our part as colleagues, neighbors, and community members.
To intervene is not necessarily to interfere. Depending on the situation, a helpful action can be as simple as expressing concern or asking whether someone is OK. But intervention should not be dismissed when inconvenient or when it is unclear whether any form of action will be beneficial. If the aforementioned 57 percent of respondents had intervened when witnessing “someone acting in [a] sexually violent or harassing manner,” our campus would already be safer. The data makes it clear: It is far better to err on the side of caution than to gamble with somebody's safety.
It does not appear that inaction is due to ignorance of the situation—both survey questions alluded to ongoing or potential incidents of sexual assault. Yet the majority of respondents admitted that they still had not intervened. This is even more shocking in light of the administration's recent efforts to implement bystander-awareness campaigns, such as Step UP! during NSOP and the University wide Sexual Respect and Community Citizenship Initiative.
It is no secret that Columbia hasn't traditionally succeeded at fostering a strong sense of community. Already, the exuberance of the first weeks of school has given way to more muted gestures: A smile at a classmate is met with a nod, a comment about summer is swallowed up by uncomfortable silence in the elevator. Ours is a fragmented community, given the variety of diversions pulling people away from school. It is not difficult to imagine that a lack of cohesion could lead to a lessened sense of concern for our peers. Regardless, we do bear a responsibility to look after one another, namely via intervention, despite the risk of confrontation or embarrassment.
In the past few years, we've come a long way in terms of learning about and confronting sexual assault. Yet needless to say, there is still more to be done. To that end, the lack of required consent-education programming this year is troubling: The administration deserves criticism for backing away from a program that is more effective with repetition. Moreover, the data shows that students overwhelmingly do not trust administrators to properly handle sexual assault—only 31 percent of students (undergraduate and graduate) believed that campus officials were “extremely” or “very” likely to conduct a fair investigation.
However, we should not lose sight of the important role that we as students play in preventative assistance. This week's deluge of data ought to spur each and every Columbian to act. If our goal is to eradicate violence from our campus, we must not only be able to rely on our peers to intervene in the moment, but also to know that the same is expected of us. Every member of this community has the opportunity and the obligation to help make it safer. The question is: Will we do our part?
To respond to this staff editorial, or to submit an op-ed, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.