A survey sponsored by the University of Michigan and administered by the Association of American Universities on sexual assault on college campuses uses language so explicit some students have found it triggering, raising questions about how to best gather information on sexual abuse. This survey, the largest survey done on campus sexual assault to date, is being administered to over 800,000 students at 27 universities. While providing a unique opportunity to tackle the the terrifying level of sexual assaults found in college, some thought descriptions, including “when one person puts a penis, finger, or object inside someone else’s vagina or anus” and touching “breast, chest, crotch, groin or buttocks” when one was “passed out, asleep or incapacitated due to drugs or alcohol” went too far, Fox News reports.
Hannah Crisler was one of the students who found the language triggering, telling Fox News she was “uncomfortable with the questions that were being asked and stopped participating” and that several of her friends had the same experience.
The University of Michigan has attempted to address this, including the following information in a FAQ page on their website:
Some of the language used in this survey is explicit and some may find it uncomfortable, but it is important that the questions are posed in this way so that students are clear about the meaning. Information on how to get help appears on the bottom of each page and at the end of the survey.
Although some students found the survey went too far, others agreed with the University’s stance and were impressed at the initiative. Grant Strobl told Fox News“it’s nice to see the university hold itself accountable to see if their awareness efforts are effective”.
This discrepancy is an important one—because not everyone, even those with the same experiences, will find the same language or descriptions triggering. Some victims may find it empowering to see very specific language, recognizing exactly what happened to them no matter how difficult it is to read or hear, but others may find this too intense. The spokesman for University of Michigan has made it clear that students can opt of questions, but if the questions provoke that behavior then they are missing out on exactly the information the survey is attempting to gather.
A balance needs to be struck. The survey undoubtedly has laudable intentions, but these can be lost in the experience of staring at computer screen with questions worded in detached, emotionless language. Perhaps surveys of this type should, rather than listing out all of the ways sexual assault can happen in such clinical terms, have less description and more opportunities for students to describe their experiences in their own words. This would provide both a sense of agency and a place for everyone to use language they feel comfortable with. Yes, it’s more work for those assessing the responses, but it would prevent the participants from feeling as though their varied, personal experiences been boiled to a number. The potential to receive important information is too large, and the problem it’s addressing is too grave, to waste the opportunity by losing out on participants.
Originally posted on Bustle