Sexual assault less likely, gender discrimination more likely on Christian campuses

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GRAPEVINE—Students at faith-based colleges and universities are somewhat less likely to experience sexual assault but more likely to experience gender-based discrimination than their peers on secular private or public campuses, new research indicated.

“We need to recognize and dismantle the hierarchy that prioritizes assault over other forms of violence,” said researcher Neil Best from Geneva College in Pennsylvania. “In fact, I think that the solution to preventing assault may actually begin by ending gender-based discrimination. Or to put it another way, ending gender-based discrimination is the work of violence prevention.”

Best and Jim Vanderwoerd from Redeemer University College in Ontario presented their findings from separate studies during a session on “Ignorance Isn’t Bliss: Sexual Violence on Faith-Based Campuses” at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities 2018 Forum in Grapevine.

Assault and dating violence

Neil Best

Best surveyed 6,643 students at 38 schools in the United States—Christian-affiliated colleges and universities, four-year public and four-year private institutions. The vast majority of the students who responded to the survey questions were female (71.6 percent) and white (73.7 percent).

He discovered 15 percent of the students at Christian schools reported having been sexually assaulted, compared to 21 percent at public colleges and 27 percent at private schools.

Similarly, 13 percent of the students from Christian-affiliated colleges reported experience with dating violence, compared to 18 percent at public colleges and 20 percent at private schools.

The differences were less clear-cut with regard to stalking. One-third of students (33 percent) at private colleges reported incidents of stalking, compared to 27 percent at public schools and 28 percent at Christian-affiliated colleges, Best found.

Gender-based discrimination widespread

Three-fourths of all students surveyed reported experiences with gender-based discrimination from students (75 percent) and one-third from faculty (35 percent).

In both instances, students at Christian-affiliated schools reported a greater percentage.

Best discovered 79 percent of students at Christian colleges reported gender-based discrimination from students and 40 percent reported experiencing it from faculty.

In comparison, 72 percent of students at public colleges and 75 percent of students at private schools experienced gender-based discrimination from students, while 31 percent of the public college students and 34 percent of the private college students reported experiencing it from faculty.

Examine ‘constellation of violence’

College administrators need to look at the “constellation of violence” rather than focusing only on its most egregious expressions, Best asserted. A campus culture that allows gender discrimination is creating a climate where other forms of sexual aggression against women can occur, he warned.

“When we allow certain forms of sexual violence, it can metasticize into more extreme and severe forms,” Best said.

Vanderwoerd surveyed 669 students at eight private Christian colleges in Ontario and compared his findings to published incidence rates of sexual violence at secular campuses.

Looking specifically at violence within relationships, Vanderwoerd found half (51 percent) of respondents reported having experienced psychological aggression in the past year, compared to 18 percent who reported physical assault and 11 percent who reported sexual coercion.

Among those who reported experiencing some form of sexual aggression or victimization in the past year, 18 percent reported unwanted sexual contact from a partner.

One female student in 10 reported having been obsessively pursued by someone who invaded her personal space (10.7 percent) or left unwanted messages (10.6 percent).

Alcohol as a risk factor

Vanderwoerd also examined risk factors, noting the probability of unwanted sexual experiences increased significantly among students who became drunk, frequented a bar or attended a party where alcohol was served at least one or twice a week.

“As in secular campuses, alcohol remains a risk factor for sexual violence victimization on religious campuses, despite restrictions on alcohol use on these campuses,” he observed.

College administrators and others need to communicate clearly the risks of sexual violence associated with alcohol, without falling into the trap of blaming victims, he added.

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