February 20, 2014
Re: Last week’s Spectator Sex Survey and Results
Earlier this week, the student body received an email from The Spectator, with a survey promising a hint about the upcoming issue. Curiously, I clicked the link. What I found was at first intriguing, but increasingly worrisome and, in my opinion, inappropriate.
To be clear, I don’t mean that I was offended by the survey’s focus on sexual activity. As a SAVES-trained peer advocate and current member of Yes Means Yes, I have intentionally immersed myself within issues of sexuality at Hamilton. I applaud The Spectator for working toward increasing transparency about Hamilton’s hookup culture, as the article states. However, the execution of the survey was deeply troubling.
Several of my objections to the sex survey stem from its methodological design. Although I don’t claim to be an expert in quantitative research, having conducted some survey-based research myself, and learning from professors, I know that when a survey asks about emotionally sensitive issues, it’s important to warn participants ahead of time, to avoid potential psychological harm.
Although the IRB’s* guidelines are fuzzy regarding who is required to receive approval, I assume that as part of a student media publication, this survey was exempt. However, there was not even a warning that the survey asks for deeply personal information–including a question about sexual assault–and no guarantee of anonymity, aside from a reference in the printed article. Additionally, some of the questions were poorly worded, and appeared to lack basic editing. I am aware that this was a voluntary survey, but I believe that The Spectator could have avoided these issues by using data from previous surveys conducted by SAVES.
However, there is a deeper issue than just the technical flaws. Most of the survey’s questions are personal though fairly innocuous ones about (presumably) consensual, recreational sexual encounters. Then the survey goes on to ask, “During your time at Hamilton, have you experienced any form of sexual assault?” This question is embedded in the middle of the survey, surrounded by other opinion or experience-related questions about Hamilton’s hookup culture. Putting aside the potentially harmful effects this could have on the respondent should he/she be in a position to answer “Yes” or “No—but I know people who have,” I believe that this sets a dangerous precedent.
The survey conflates issues of voluntary sexuality with violation and criminal assault. Although there are ongoing efforts to raise awareness about and lower instances of sexual assault at Hamilton, assault still plagues our campus, just as it does the vast majority of colleges across the country. This survey, and the way it so poorly handled a very delicate and important issue, feels to me like a step backwards.
Although I have no great solution to the larger issue, my hope is to bring problems like this to the forefront of the campus consciousness, so that in the future, we may be more sensitive to issues of assault and better prepared to conduct ourselves in a way that respects and protects everyone’s experiences.
—Andrea Bucciarelli ’14
*The Institutional Review Board approves all materials related to research projects involving human subjects.