Warning: This editorial includes detailed descriptions of acts labeled as sexual misconduct, some of which are graphic and unwanted sexual situations. All of these descriptions have been pulled from Baylor’s Social Climate Survey.
Baylor University distributed a social climate survey to randomly selected students through their Baylor email addresses on Oct. 15. A follow-up email was sent out to those same students as a reminder to take the survey on Oct. 22.
Many parts of the survey prompted the recall of traumatic or harmful personal events. Due to the graphic and specific nature of many of the questions asked, the survey should have featured a warning for students so they could prepare for the survey or just not take it if necessary.
Within the second sentence of the email, the voluntary survey is described as “a way to share your voice, your perspective, and your experiences around interpersonal relationships and campus safety at Baylor University.” This description does not adequately describe or even indicate the topics to come: harassment, stalking, dating and sexual violence.
Students who voluntarily take the time and effort to contribute to the research Baylor conducts deserve to know what they are about to experience. Many participants, despite having personal traumatic experiences, may still be willing to answer the questions. Being informed can help them better prepare for the experience — psychologically and physically. For example, finding a more private or quiet place to take the survey could support a calmer state of mind.
At the beginning of the survey, the introduction lists a few things for students to keep in mind while taking the survey: confidentiality and the definition of sexual misconduct.
Although the definition is informative, it is not sufficient to warn students the manner of the questions asked and degree of detail that would be included. It also should have been disclosed before a participant agreed to even begin the survey at all.
Some of the questions asked would not warrant a trigger warning, such as asking one to recall moments they spoke up against sexist jokes.
A warning shows up preceding more personal questions: “The following questions concern sexual experiences that you may have had that were unwanted. We know that these are personal questions, so we did not ask your name or other identifying information.”
This section of the survey began to ask participants to recall past sexual experiences they have had on or off campus since attending Baylor University.
It asked how many times “someone fondled, kissed, or rubbed up against the private areas of my body (lips, breast/chest, crotch or butt) or removed some of my clothes without my consent (but did not attempt sexual penetration) by,” and then lists things like, “threatening to physically harm me or someone close to me,” as well as “taking advantage of me when I was too drunk or out it to stop what was happening.”
The survey asks the participants to remember how many times “someone had oral sex with me or made me perform oral sex on them without my consent by…” and lists different situations where consent could not be provided or was refused.
It continues with similar questions about non-consensual penetration as well as attempts to perform any of these sex acts without consent.
The survey, later, asks more details if the student picked any number of times other than zero. “Now think about the ONE SITUATION that had the greatest effect on you and answer the following questions,” the survey asks. Then it asks the gender of the person involved in the situation as well as the relationship the participant had with them.
All of these situations can be highly traumatic. Asking someone to think about memories of these kinds of situations without warning is not OK. By recollecting or reliving these situations in detail, students can undergo stress, anxiety, fall into depression as well as a number of mental health issues that can be linked to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and coping with sexual assault or harassment.
The American Psychological Association (APA) holds an ethics code for research which mandates that “individuals are voluntarily participating in the research with full knowledge of relevant risks and benefits,” which includes “reasonably foreseeable factors that may influence their willingness to participate, such as potential risks, discomfort or adverse effects.”
A study conducted by the University of Stellenbosch said, “Because of the sensitive nature of the inquiry in trauma research, participants should be informed that they may refuse to answer any questions should they choose and that they may terminate participation at any time.”
It found that research interviews that “elicit traumatic memories and exacerbate symptoms of acute stress,” comparable to the social climate survey, may worsen psychological distress.
The social climate survey should have taken the precaution to ensure that students were giving informed consent. While describing participation as “completely confidential” and “voluntary,” it was not explained that any questions could be skipped out of discomfort or that discontinuing the survey was acceptable.
In Baylor’s social climate survey from spring of 2017, out of the 15,754 Baylor students the survey was shared with, only 4,523 responded.
In the past, the survey has helped inform the university and inspired new efforts to protect its students.
The survey itself is justified for an important purpose and will provide a deeper look at Baylor students’ views on and experiences with harassment, stalking, dating and sexual violence so that the university is aware of its social climate and how they should change it. Baylor statistics are important but should not be gathered at the cost of someone’s emotional well-being.
All we need is a warning. When releasing the “Avoid. Deny. Defend.” active attack training video in September, Baylor sent out a campus wide email 24 hours in advance to warn potential viewers about its sensitive material, including resources with the counseling center and office of spiritual life. Having a similar protocol for this survey would have made a real difference to the experiences of participants.
We even included one before this editorial, and it didn’t take long to write. It only takes a few sentences to prevent or minimize harm.