Summary of Results of May, 2017 Online Focus Group
Rationale and Objectives
Amherst College is a private liberal arts college located in Amherst, Massachusetts. Like many institutions of higher education, Amherst College regularly surveys its community to assess the campus climate on issues related to sexual respect and sexual misconduct. Both the 2014-2015 and the 2015-2016 surveys provided benchmark data for students’ views toward sexual respect and sexual misconduct and helped the college gauge the extent to which students are experiencing various forms of sexual misconduct.
This study was designed as a follow-up to Amherst College’s quantitative survey on sexual respect and sexual misconduct. The Amherst College Offices of Title IX and Sexual Respect Education retained Market Street Research in May of 2017 to conduct a focus group designed to explore students’ attitudes toward and perceptions of both sexual misconduct and Amherst College’s response to sexual misconduct. The goal of the focus group was to delve deeper into students’ attitudes and experiences to better understand why they hold various opinions about sexual misconduct, why they do or don’t report instances of sexual misconduct, and what the college can do to best support both students who have experienced sexual misconduct and those who perpetuate it.
The specific objectives were to assess students’:
- Understanding of and experiences with sexual misconduct at Amherst College, including the ways in which their unique identities influence their understanding and experiences
- Perceptions of the Amherst College Title IX Office
- Perceptions about fairness in Title IX processes at Amherst College
- Awareness of and willingness to use campus resources, including barriers to accessing those resources
Amherst College Students Reporting Experiences of Sexual Misconduct;
Relationship abuse (physical)
Relationship abuse (emotional)
Sexually touched without giving consent
Unwelcome comments about appearance
Sexually touched while unable to consent
Followed in uncomfortable/frightening way
Unwelcome, sexually suggestive comments
Why a Focus Group?
Amherst College’s Title IX Office, Sexual Respect Education Office, in collaboration with the Office of Student Affairs, retained Market Street Research to conduct an independent qualitative study to help the College understand students’ thinking and experiences regarding sexual respect and sexual misconduct.
For this study, Market Street Research conducted a three-day, online focus group with a diverse group of currently enrolled Amherst students. Focus groups are, by definition, a qualitative methodology in which relatively small numbers of people are brought together to discuss a topic in detail, beyond the extent possible in a closed-ended questionnaire. The point is to reveal underlying feelings, beliefs, attitudes, and perceptions that are held by a population—but because of the small number of focus group participants, any findings must be interpreted in general terms, as key themes, and not in terms of percentages.
This study helps us to understand what Amherst College students think about sexual respect and sexual misconduct—and the findings are consistent with the college’s quantitative surveys—but readers should be cautious in terms of projecting any specific focus group results onto the student body as a whole. While we do provide numerical references in this report, these are intended only to help readers visualize the scope of various findings as related to the specific students who participated in the focus group. We use unspecific terms like “most,” “some,” or “a few” deliberately, both to assure student confidentiality and as a reminder to readers that focus group results are qualitative in nature. The findings presented in this report may or may not be representative of all Amherst College students.
Focus Group Methodological Details
All aspects of the study methodology were reviewed and approved by Amherst College’s Institutional Review Board prior to the study. Students who participated in the study were guaranteed anonymity.
- A total of 30 current Amherst College students participated in the online focus group.
- Participants were recruited by Focus on Boston using a list of current students provided by Amherst College.
- All participants were screened to confirm their status as currently enrolled at Amherst College, and to ensure that participants represented the variety of demographics that comprise Amherst College’s student body with regard to: gender; race/ethnicity; class year; participation in Amherst College athletics; and students who identify as LGBTQ.
- Participants received an incentive of $100.
- The focus group began on May 2 and ended on May 4, 2017. The focus group was asynchronous which means participants were able to review and respond to questions at any point during the three-day period, at their convenience.
- Throughout this research, students’ identities were kept strictly confidential:
- Students were not able to see each others’ responses to the questions
- Students used an “alias” to sign in to the focus group
- Student identities have also been kept confidential from Amherst College.
- Quotes from students are presented throughout this report to illustrate key points. Quotes are only included, however, if possible to do so without compromising student confidentiality.
- To make the report as clear as possible for the reader, we have at times altered participants’ remarks slightly, such as capitalizing “Title IX Office” consistently, giving full names instead of acronyms for campus buildings and organizations, and correcting minor punctuation and spelling errors. Changes were only made when we felt it necessary to enhance readability; students’ word choices and descriptions are presented verbatim.
Referring to Student Demographics
- In this report, readers will find references to broad categories of students, such as “students of color” or “LGBTQ students.” The broad categories we refer to are designed to highlight the influences of identity on opinions about sexual misconduct, without compromising students’ identities.
- For race/ethnicity, students were asked to provide their own descriptors. In this report, race/ethnicity is distinguished with two categories: students of color and white students. “Students of color” includes those identifying as Black, Asian, Native American, Latinx or mixed/biracial.
- Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer students are identified as LGBTQ.
- Students were asked whether they are “a member of any Amherst College athletic teams.” Those who answered positively are referred to as “athletes” in this report. As a safeguard for confidentiality, we did not pursue additional information regarding which sports or teams the students belong to, including whether they are NCAA sports, club, or intra-mural.
- Images in this report are intended solely for the purpose of illustrating concepts and findings.
- Images are not intended for duplication or redistribution, electronically or otherwise, outside of this report.
- Copyright rules and regulations may apply.
Key Findings and Recommendations
Summary of Findings
Overall, the Amherst College students who participated in the online focus group have an understanding of what sexual misconduct entails, and most know there are resources on campus that can help them if they experience sexual misconduct. This overall finding is consistent regardless of students’ individual identities. Additionally:
- The students clearly recall the training they received during Freshman Orientation, and most thought the training was effective at imparting knowledge about sexual misconduct. Aspects of the training some students found less effective include:
- Informing students what will happen if they report sexual misconduct to the Title IX Office, in sufficient detail so they understand (and are less wary of) the process
- How the Title IX Office deals with perpetrators of sexual misconduct, and how victims’ needs are balanced against the needs of those accused of sexual misconduct
- Making it clear to perpetrators of sexual misconduct that they need to stop
- The students have an understandingof what sexual misconduct involves, although they not always sure their understanding is consistent with what Amherst College’s expectations are. The students identified some situations that they think Amherst College takes less seriously, including:
- Sexual misconduct at parties (harassment, unsolicited touching, unwanted sexual solicitation)
- Sexual misconduct committed while the victims and/or perpetrators are intoxicated
- Sexual misconduct perpetrated by female students against male students
- Most of the students think that the college is committed to addressing—and reducing—sexual misconduct, although their opinions about how effective the Title IX Office’s efforts have been are mixed. The students do know about the Title IX office, and while most haven’t visited the Title IX Office to report sexual misconduct, nearly all have heard stories about students who have done so.
A lot of the sexual misconduct students have experienced or heard about happens in non-academic contexts, such as parties. The biggest problems:
- Occur at parties either on- or off-campus, especially where alcohol is a key feature
- Occur in day-to-day situations that the college may not know about, such as through social media or stalking (following students around after class, contacting them repeatedly, soliciting sex even after being told “no,” etc.)
- Are so commonplace that the female students in the focus group have had to develop strategies for managing inappropriate sexual behavior by male students (such as walking together, only going with other female friends to parties, and pretending they have boyfriends so they won’t be groped)
These problems are faced mainly by female students.
Reporting Sexual Misconduct
Most of the students in the focus group have at least some idea of how they would go about accessing support resources if they needed help dealing with an experience of sexual misconduct.
There are some students, however, that are not sure they would tell anyone about such an experience, let alone tell a mandated reporter or visit the Title IX Office. Students think the following groups are less likely to report sexual misconduct or to access Amherst College resources either because of their own self-limiting behaviors and attitudes or because of negative perceptions of the way Amherst College handles sexual misconduct:
- White, male-identified athletes, some of whom feel the odds are stacked against them in terms of defending against allegations of sexual misconduct
- Male-identified students who are victims of sexual misconduct (because they fear they will not be believed or taken seriously)
The focus group results are consistent with a key finding of the 2015-2016 student survey; namely, that a considerable amount of the sexual misconduct that occurs on campus is not reported by students. The students participating in the focus group gave examples of sexual misconduct they personally had experienced ranging from rape and sexual assault to aggressive, sexually-explicit behavior at parties. In terms of students’ perceptions of how the college responds to sexual misconduct:
- The students think Amherst College responds immediately and forcefully to serious sexual violence such as rape, but is less effective at dealing with:
- Sexual harassment (verbal or cyber)
- Catcalling and lewd commentary, which sometimes occurs with racist and homophobic overtones
- Non-consensual touching and “grinding” at parties
- Female students often said they think nothing would happen if they reported sexual misconduct to a mandated reporter or the Title IX Office—or they have no idea what would happen at the Title IX Office, so they imagine the worst (i.e., no clear response from the college and perpetrators remain on campus or aren’t punished appropriately)
The students tend to think student culture, rather than the college’s response, plays the largest role in perpetuating sexual misconduct on campus. Broadly speaking, student culture refers to the beliefs, social practices, and/or characteristics of student-to-student interactions on campus, rather than interaction between students and faculty or other college employees:
- Many said they think sexual misconduct is ubiquitous on campus, which makes it difficult for students to know what to do if they experience or witness it, especially in situations in which:
- Everyone in the vicinity is heavily intoxicated, including the victim or observer
- The student isn’t sure what he or she is witnessing qualifies as sexual misconduct and no one else seems perturbed by the behavior; or vice versa, the student is sure that sexual misconduct is happening, but the people involved don’t seem to be upset or bothered by it
- The student fears physical harm and/or social repercussions if he or she intervenes or reports sexual misconduct
In summary, the focus group results suggest that Amherst College students are very aware of sexual misconduct occurring on campus. Students see their behavior as reflective of campus culture—and the culture at large—and they are not sure how best to address sexual misconduct, because knowledge of it, in itself, has not prevented it from happening. They are aware of Amherst College resources for students who experience sexual misconduct. Some will use those resources; others may not, because they are not sure what will happen if they seek help.
Amherst College needs a broad, multi-faceted strategy for dealing with sexual misconduct on campus.
Recommendation 1: Focus on Campus Culture
The students who participated in the focus group often refer to “campus culture” or “student culture” as the reason why sexual misconduct persists here. They do not necessarily know how best to address the issue, but they are aware of—and generally appreciative of—the college’s responses. Within this context, we recommend that Amherst College:
- Continue to develop and offer training aimed at specific identity groups. Male and female students do not think about sexual misconduct in the same ways, for example, and messages that are effective for one group may not resonate with other groups.
- Continue to use the relationships students form with leaders on campus to forward more positive messages about women, racial/ethnic groups, and LGBTQ groups.
- Because some athletes are concerned about being stereotyped as perpetrators, continue to offer and/or enhance the opportunities given to student athletes to work with coaches, athletic staff and the Athletic Director to take leadership roles in fighting sexual misconduct on campus.
- Continue to provide alternatives to the alcohol- and sex-infused party culture on campus. Reducing alcohol consumption would probably go a long way toward eliminating some of the sexual behavior students engage in at parties, but changing college students’ drinking behavior is notoriously difficult. Offer other venues for social engagement.
- Sexism, racism, LGTBQ-phobia, and negative attitudes toward non-binary students are both ubiquitous in the culture at large, and fundamentally linked. A lot of the catcalling on campus is both sexist and racist, for example. We recommend that Amherst College continue to address both sexual misconduct itself and the intersectional nature of the problem.
Recommendation 2: Explore Options for Institutional Response to Title IX
Many of the students in the focus group—both female-identified and male-identified—share the perception that the Title IX Office is biased against perpetrators of sexual misconduct, who they tend to think are men, although many noted that this is not always the case. In other words, they think the Title IX Office’s emphasis is on helping students who have experienced sexual misconduct, while assuming that those accused of sexual misconduct are guilty no matter what the circumstances. This perception has caused at least some of the students (typically white, male athletes) to distrust the Title IX Office, because they fear they may be targeted unfairly.
On the other hand, some of the students think the Title IX Office is primarily interested in protecting Amherst College’s image (i.e., “nothing happens” when students report sexual misconduct), and is therefore biased against victims. Overall, students tend not to think of the Title IX Office until they want to report an incident, and even then, their top-of-mind resource is the Counseling Center. Given these perceptions, Amherst College may want to:
- Review the college’s website to see if there are ways to address students’ concerns that they don’t know what the process would be if they report sexual misconduct to the Title IX Office. We briefly reviewed the website and the Title IX information appears to be easy to find, but students may have suggestions for adding content and/or changing the format that will address their concerns. For example, the college might want to add more stories or scenarios to help students understand on a more personal level what the reporting process is and what they can expect from the Title IX Office.
- On the website, consider including specific information about what students should do if they are accused of sexual misconduct, what resources are available to help if this happens, and where students should go if they are accused of sexual misconduct or are concerned whether their behavior constitutes misconduct.
- Continue to work toward a close relationship between the Counseling Center and the Title IX Office, because many students first think of the Counseling Center when they experience or witness sexual misconduct.
We also recommend continuing to research how other institutions similar to Amherst College have dealt with these perceived—and often contradictory—imbalances in responses to sexual misconduct. There may be structural ways of dealing with both perpetrators and victims of sexual misconduct that work better for students or will help build trust that the Title IX Office has all students’ best interests in mind.
Amherst College staff who are tasked with addressing sexual respect and sexual misconduct may believe that the college is already doing many of the things we recommend in this report. This is undoubtedly the case, but students still consider the problem to be serious and widespread, so continued efforts to address it (either more of the same, or new approaches) are warranted.
Recommendation 3: Bystanders and Sexual Misconduct
Even though the students in the focus group understand (at least intellectually) what sexual misconduct is, they do not always have the skills needed to respond positively as bystanders. The training Amherst College provides on the issue of active bystanders is a good start, but the students in the focus group indicated they need more training and/or practice dealing with:
- What to do if the observed sexual misconduct doesn’t seem to be bothering the people involved.
- What to do if the situation seems vague or borderline (especially likely to happen in situations where everyone at a party is intoxicated, for example).
- How to manage social repercussions if a student does intervene as a bystander.
Recommendation 4: Training on Sexual Misconduct
Most of the students in the focus group remember the training they received about sexual misconduct during their Freshman Orientation, and most have seen Title IX posters, table tents, etc. around campus. There is some evidence that the training, while clearly remembered by students, is not always engaging them to the extent they may need to be engaged in order to pay attention to the material and take the issue seriously. Based on students’ feedback about the sexual misconduct training, the college may want to consider, either through Title IX or other training venues:
- Finding ways to actively engage students in participating in the training. For example, students might benefit from actually practicing how to react if they witness sexual misconduct—this is hard for adults of any age, and practicing what to do might help embolden more students to take action.
- Changing the format or content of the training to meet different students’ needs (e.g., some think all of the training they receive at Amherst College around sexual respect and sexual misconduct “looks the same” and, thus, is boring or not engaging).
Finally, the students want Amherst College to go beyond what to do if they are victims of sexual misconduct. They want the college to emphasize not engaging in sexual misconduct in the first place. They would like to see more information about healthy, respectful relationships, how not to perpetrate sexual violence, and how to engage their peers in conversations about it.