Are 1 in 5 Women Really Sexually Assaulted on College Campuses?

Falsely Accused Duke Lacrosse Players
            If you were a university administrator and you wanted to know how prevalent a particular experience was for students on campus, you would probably conduct a survey that asked a few direct questions about that experience—foremost among them the question of whether the student had at some point had the experience you’re interested in. Obvious, right? Recently, we’ve been hearing from many news media sources, and even from President Obama himself, that one in five college women experience sexual assault at some time during their tenure as students. It would be reasonable to assume that the surveys used to arrive at this ratio actually asked the participants directly whether or not they had been assaulted. 

            But it turns out the web survey that produced the one-in-five figure did no such thing. Instead, it asked students whether they had had any of several categories of experience the study authors later classified as sexual assault, or attempted sexual assault, in their analysis. This raises the important question of how we should define sexual assault when we’re discussing the issue—along with the related question of why we’re not talking about a crime that’s more clearly defined, like rape. Of course, whatever you call it, sexual violence is such a horrible crime that most of us are willing to forgive anyone who exaggerates the numbers or paints an overly frightening picture of reality in an attempt to prevent future cases. (The issue is so serious that PolitiFact refrained from applying their trademark Truth-O-Meter to the one-in-five figure.) 

            But there are four problems with this attitude. The first is that for every supposed assault there is an alleged perpetrator. Dramatically overestimating the prevalence of the crime comes with the attendant risk of turning public perception against the accused, making it more difficult for the innocent to convince anyone of their innocence. The second problem is that by exaggerating the danger in an effort to protect college students we’re sabotaging any opportunity these young adults may have to make informed decisions about the risks they take on. No one wants students to die in car accidents either, but we don’t manipulate the statistics to persuade them one in five drivers will die in a crash before they graduate from college. The third problem is that going to college and experimenting with sex are for many people a wonderful set of experiences they remember fondly for the rest of their lives. Do we really want young women to barricade themselves in their dorms? Do we want young men to feel like they have to get signed and notarized documentation of consent before they try to kiss anyone? The fourth problem I’ll get to in a bit.

            We need to strike some appropriate balance in our efforts to raise awareness without causing paranoia or inspiring unwarranted suspicion. And that balance should be represented by the results of our best good-faith effort to arrive at as precise an understanding of the risk as our most reliable methods allow. For this purpose, The Department of Justice’s Campus Sexual Assault Study, the source of the oft-cited statistic, is all but completely worthless. It has limitations, to begin with, when it comes to representativeness, since it surveyed students on just two university campuses. And, while the overall sample was chosen randomly, the 42% response rate implies a great deal of self-selection on behalf of the participants. The researchers did compare late responders to early ones to see if there was a systematic difference in their responses. But this doesn’t by any means rule out the possibility that many students chose categorically not to respond because they had nothing to say, and therefore had no interest in the study. (Some may have even found it offensive.) These are difficulties common to this sort of simple web-based survey, and they make interpreting the results problematic enough to recommend against their use in informing policy decisions.

            The biggest problems with the study, however, are not with the sample but with the methods. The survey questions appear to have been deliberately designed to generate inflated incidence rates. The basic strategy of avoiding direct questions about whether the students had been the victims of sexual assault is often justified with the assumption that many young people can’t be counted on to know what actions constitute rape and assault. But attempting to describe scenarios in survey items to get around this challenge opens the way for multiple interpretations and discounts the role of countless contextual factors. The CSA researchers write, “A surprisingly large number of respondents reported that they were at a party when the incident happened.” Cathy Young, a contributing editor at Reason magazine who analyzed the study all the way back in 2011, wrote that

the vast majority of the incidents it uncovered involved what the study termed “incapacitation” by alcohol (or, rarely, drugs): 14 percent of female respondents reported such an experience while in college, compared to six percent who reported sexual assault by physical force. Yet the question measuring incapacitation was framed ambiguously enough that it could have netted many “gray area” cases: “Has someone had sexual contact with you when you were unable to provide consent or stop what was happening because you were passed out, drugged, drunk, incapacitated, or asleep?” Does “unable to provide consent or stop” refer to actual incapacitation – given as only one option in the question – or impaired judgment?  An alleged assailant would be unlikely to get a break by claiming he was unable to stop because he was drunk.

This type of confusion is why it’s important to design survey questions carefully. That the items in the CSA study failed to make the kind of fine distinctions that would allow for more conclusive interpretations suggests the researchers had other goals in mind.

The researchers’ use of the blanket term “sexual assault,” and their grouping of attempted with completed assaults, is equally suspicious. Any survey designer cognizant of all the difficulties of web surveys would likely try to narrow the focus of the study as much as possible, and they would also try to eliminate as many sources of confusion with regard to definitions or descriptions as possible. But, as Young points out,

The CSA Study’s estimate of sexual assault by physical force is somewhat problematic as well – particularly for attempted sexual assaults, which account for nearly two-thirds of the total. Women were asked if anyone had ever had or attempted to have sexual contact with them by using force or threat, defined as “someone holding you down with his or her body weight, pinning your arms, hitting or kicking you, or using or threatening to use a weapon.” Suppose that, during a make-out session, the man tries to initiate sex by rolling on top of the woman, with his weight keeping her from moving away – but once she tells him to stop, he complies. Would this count as attempted sexual assault?

The simplest way to get around many of these difficulties would have been to ask the survey participants directly whether they had experienced the category of crime the researchers were interested in. If the researchers were concerned that the students might not understand that being raped while drunk still counts as rape, why didn’t they just ask the participants a question to that effect? It’s a simple enough question to devise.

The study did pose a follow up question to participants it classified as victims of forcible assault, the responses to which hint at the students’ actual thoughts about the incidents. It turns out 37 percent of so-called forcible assault victims explained that they hadn’t contacted law enforcement because they didn’t think the incident constituted a crime. That bears repeating: a third of the students the study says were forcibly assaulted didn’t think any crime had occurred. With regard to another category of victims, those of incapacitated assault, Young writes, “Not surprisingly, three-quarters of the female students in this category did not label their experience as rape.” Of those the study classified as actually having been raped while intoxicated, only 37 percent believed they had in fact been raped. Two thirds of the women the study labels as incapacitated rape victims didn’t believe they had been raped. Why so much disagreement on such a serious issue? Of the entire incapacitated sexual assault victim category, Young writes,

Two-thirds said they did not report the incident to the authorities because they didn’t think it was serious enough. Interestingly, only two percent reported having suffered emotional or psychological injury – a figure so low that the authors felt compelled to include a footnote asserting that the actual incidence of such trauma was undoubtedly far higher.

So the largest category making up the total one-in-five statistic is predominantly composed of individuals who didn’t think what happened to them was serious enough to report. And nearly all of them came away unscathed, both physically and psychologically.

            The impetus behind the CSA study was a common narrative about a so-called “rape culture” in which sexual violence is accepted as normal and young women fail to report incidents because they’re convinced you’re just supposed to tolerate it. That was the researchers’ rationale for using their own classification scheme for the survey participants’ experiences even when it was at odds with the students’ beliefs. But researchers have been doing this same dance for thirty years. As Young writes,

When the first campus rape studies in the 1980s found that many women labeled as victims by researchers did not believe they had been raped, the standard explanation was that cultural attitudes prevent women from recognizing forced sex as rape if the perpetrator is a close acquaintance. This may have been true twenty-five years ago, but it seems far less likely in our era of mandatory date rape and sexual assault workshops and prevention programs on college campuses.

The CSA also surveyed a large number of men, almost none of whom admitted to assaulting women. The researchers hypothesize that the men may have feared the survey wasn’t really anonymous, but that would mean they knew the behaviors in question were wrong. Again, if the researchers are really worried about mistaken beliefs regarding the definition of rape, they could investigate the issue with a few added survey items.

The huge discrepancies between incidences of sexual violence as measured by researchers and as reported by survey participants becomes even more suspicious in light of the history of similar studies. Those campus rape studies Young refers to from the 1980s produced a ratio of one in four. Their credibility was likewise undermined by later surveys that found that most of the supposed victims didn’t believe they’d been raped, and around forty percent of them went on to have sex with their alleged assailants again. A more recent study by the CDC used similar methods—a phone survey with a low response rate—and concluded that one in five women has been raped at some time in her life. Looking closer at this study, feminist critic and critic of feminism Christina Hoff Sommers attributes this finding as well to “a non-representative sample and vaguely worded questions.” It turns out activists have been conducting different versions of this same survey, and getting similarly, wildly inflated results for decades.

            Sommers challenges the CDC findings in a video everyone concerned with the issue of sexual violence should watch. We all need to understand that well-intentioned and intelligent people can, and often do, get carried away with activism that seems to have laudable goals but ends up doing more harm than good. Some people even build entire careers on this type of crusading. And PR has become so sophisticated that we never need to let a shortage, or utter lack of evidence keep us from advocating for our favorite causes. But there’s still a fourth problem with crazily exaggerated risk assessments—they obfuscate issues of real importance, making it more difficult to come up with real solutions. As Sommers explains,

To prevent rape and sexual assault we need state-of-the-art research. We need sober estimates. False and sensationalist statistics are going to get in the way of effective policies. And unfortunately, when it comes to research on sexual violence, exaggeration and sensation are not the exception; they are the rule. If you hear about a study that shows epidemic levels of sexual violence against American women, or college students, or women in the military, I can almost guarantee the researchers used some version of the defective CDC methodology. Now by this method, known as advocacy research, you can easily manufacture a women’s crisis. But here’s the bottom line: this is madness. First of all it trivializes the horrific pain and suffering of survivors. And it sends scarce resources in the wrong direction. Sexual violence is too serious a matter for antics, for politically motivated posturing. And right now the media, politicians, rape culture activists—they are deeply invested in these exaggerated numbers.

So while more and more normal, healthy, and consensual sexual practices are considered crimes, actual acts of exploitation and violence are becoming all the more easily overlooked in the atmosphere of paranoia. And college students face the dilemma of either risking assault or accusation by going out to enjoy themselves or succumbing to the hysteria and staying home, missing out on some of the richest experiences college life has to offer.

            One in five is a truly horrifying ratio. As conservative crime researcher Heather McDonald points out, “Such an assault rate would represent a crime wave unprecedented in civilized history. By comparison, the 2012 rape rate in New Orleans and its immediately surrounding parishes was .0234 percent; the rate for all violent crimes in New Orleans in 2012 was .48 percent.” I don’t know how a woman can pass a man on a sidewalk after hearing such numbers and not look at him with suspicion. Most of the reforms rape culture activists are pushing for now chip away at due process and strip away the rights of the accused. No one wants to make coming forward any more difficult for actual victims, but our first response to anyone making such a grave accusation—making any accusation—should be skepticism. Victims suffer severe psychological trauma, but then so do the falsely accused. The strongest evidence of an honest accusation is often the fact that the accuser must incur some cost in making it. That’s why we say victims who come forward are heroic. That’s the difference between a victim and a survivor.

Trumpeting crazy numbers creates the illusion that a large percentage of men are monsters, and this fosters an us-versus-them mentality that obliterates any appreciation for the difficulty of establishing guilt. That would be a truly scary world to live in. Fortunately, we in the US don’t really live in such a world. Sex doesn’t have to be that scary. It’s usually pretty damn fun. And the vast majority of men you meet—the vast majority of women as well—are good people. In fact, I’d wager most men would step in if they were around when some psychopath was trying to rape someone.