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Participant Reactions to Questions about Gender-Based Sexual Violence: Implications for Campus Climate Surveys

Jennifer M. Gómez, Carly P. Smith, Marina N. Rosenthal, Jennifer J. Freyd


Gender-based sexual violence (GBSV) on college campuses has recently gained national attention in the United States.  In April 2014, the White House recommended that institutions of higher education conduct campus climate surveys to assess GBSV; however, despite decades of research on this topic, concerns continue to be raised about the safety of asking participants about prior victimization. Do college students experience harm from participating in campus climate surveys? This article examines findings and implications of a recent study using data from a recent campus climate survey that was designed to assess students’ reactions to participation and that was administered among undergraduates at a large public university.  The survey questions were based on risk-benefit concepts at the heart of institutional review board deliberations: (1) Do GBSV-related questions cause distress?; (2) Are GBSV-related questions rated as important?; (3) Is asking about violence perceived as a good idea? The majority of students indicated that they did not find the survey more distressing than day-to-day life experiences, they evaluated the questions about sexual violence as important, and they indicated that, taking into account both risks and benefits, asking about sexual violence is a good idea. Race did not impact participants’ reactions, while female gender affected slightly higher distress, and GBSV history impacted slightly more distress and greater perceived importance of the study; however, the practical significance of these small differences remains uncertain.  Collectively, the study’s findings can inform nationwide efforts in addressing GBSV on college campuses. The authors discuss limitations of the study and conclude with a consideration of directions for future research.


survivors; Association for American Universities; ethnic minority; distress; history of trauma; institutional betrayal; intervention; Madison Summit for Campus Climate and Sexual Misconduct; Violence Against Women Act; trauma research; student reactions


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DOI: 10.21768/ejopa.v4i2.75