Forty-eight percent of undergraduate women at Duke University say they have been sexually assaulted since enrolling, according to a 2018 survey of students released last week. Twenty-two percent reported experiencing sexual assault during the 2017–18 school year alone. 

Nationally, about one in five undergraduate women report being survivors of sexual assault, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network and the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. Most cases—80 percent or more—aren’t reported to the police. 

The same is true at Duke, according to the Student Experience Survey, which was first reported by the Duke Chronicle. Only 9 percent of students’ sexual assaults were reported to law enforcement or university officials, the survey says. Another 62 percent of incidents were relayed to roommates, family, or friends. 

This news comes less than three weeks after Meredith Watson, a Duke alumna, accused Virginia Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax of raping her while they were classmates in 2000. Watson has also accused former Duke basketball star Corey Maggette of raping her. Both men have denied the allegation. 

The Student Experience Survey, which replicates a survey of undergraduate, graduate, and professional students conducted in 2016, defines sexual assault as “any unwanted, nonconsensual sexual contact. It includes both sexual battery”—i.e., nonconsensual sexual fondling or kissing—“and rape.” 

Compared to 2016, the 2018 survey found that a higher percentage of undergraduate women reported experiencing sexual assault (48–40 percent) and sexual battery (30–24 percent) since enrolling, while the percentage of women who reported being raped stayed relatively flat (6–5 percent). The number of male undergrads who reported experiencing sexual assault rose as well, from 10 percent to 14 percent. 

Larry Moneta, Duke’s outgoing vice president for student affairs, told the Chronicle he thinks the number of undergraduate women who have experienced sexual assault is actually much higher than 48 percent. After “a lot of conversations with students,” he said, “the consensus answer I got was between eighty and ninety percent.” He added that, contrary to the oft-repeated one-in-five statistic, he doesn’t believe this estimate is unusual compared to other institutions. 

Sixty percent of undergraduate women who been assaulted told the Student Experience Survey that their perpetrator was affiliated with Duke, and 63 percent said it was someone they knew. More than 60 percent of these incidents involved drug or alcohol use. As in 2016—and consistent with national data—the 2018 survey found that most sexual assaults happen in August through November, and first-year students are the most common targets. 

About half of undergraduate women who said they experienced sexual assault reported finding the experience “upsetting” or “very upsetting.” This feeling was much greater among women who had been raped than it was among those who had experienced sexual battery. A majority of those in the latter category—but not the former—said the incidents had not affected their schoolwork, jobs, or friendships.  

The survey also found that 56 percent of undergraduate women and 24 percent of undergraduate men reported being sexually harassed during the 2017–18 year, up from 45 percent and 16 percent, respectively, two years prior. Most often, especially for women, sexual harassment took the form of unwanted comments, jokes, or advances. Gay, lesbian, and bisexual students reported the highest rates of harassment. 

As the survey points out, it’s difficult to tell whether these numbers show an actual increase in incidents or a greater willingness to report misconduct in the wake of the #MeToo movement. After all, significantly more students reported being sexually assaulted before they came to Duke in 2018 than in 2016.  

In addition, the survey notes, most students said they feel safe on campus. 

However, a substantial minority of undergraduate women—more than 11 percent—do not feel safe. And only 58 percent of undergraduate women said Duke provided a clear sense of appropriate and inappropriate behavior, only 74 percent believed Duke tried hard to keep its students safe on campus, and just 75 percent agreed that the “Duke administration is genuinely concerned about my well-being.” 

Moreover, only 60 percent of undergraduate women said Duke takes sexual assault training and prevention seriously, 56 percent said Duke is doing a good job educating students about sexual assault, and less than half—48 percent—said Duke is “doing a good job of trying to prevent sexual assault.”

And while a majority of male undergrads said Duke handles sexual assault claims properly, less than a third of undergraduate women believed Duke holds people accountable for sexual assault. 

Duke’s most recent Sexual Misconduct Report, which was released in September and covered the 2017–18 academic year, says that the Office of Student Conduct received 189 reports of sexual misconduct during that period, up from 139 the year prior. Of those, 179 were closed or resulted in no disciplinary action, either because of a lack of information, because the person making the complaint did not respond to university officials’ outreach, or another reason.  

Of the ten cases the university investigated, five resulted in a hearing, and, in three, the accused was found responsible for an act of sexual violence and suspended. 

Critics say a proposed rule released last year by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos will make it more difficult for universities to hold perpetrators of sexual misconduct accountable and discourage survivors from coming forward. Among other changes designed to bolster the rights of the accused, it would severely narrow the definition of sexual harassment and allow those accused of sexual assault to have lawyers cross-examine survivors during campus disciplinary hearings.

Asked about the university’s plan to address sexual assault on campus, Moneta declined to comment, referring the INDY to the survey’s “Next Steps” section. 

That section focuses on connecting students with more resources, coordinating existing programs led by the university and student groups, extending education programming beyond orientation, and developing a “systematic and consistent prevention and education strategy.” 

It also asks Duke’s Sexual Misconduct Task Force to create recommendations to enhance “prevention and response efforts” and to identify issues requiring more information that could be explored in future forums and surveys. 

One suggestion: “A significant number of undergraduate female students continue to believe that Duke is not doing a good job of trying to prevent sexual assault or of investigating or adjudicating reported cases. How much of this is based on objective information, or does this perception reflect a lack of awareness of what Duke is actually doing?”

Contact editor in chief Jeffrey Billman by email at, by phone at 919-286-1972, or on Twitter @jeffreybillman. Read the full report below. 

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