assaults on college campuses have been a topic of national interest recently, in large part because of the explosive allegations,
and subsequent inconsistencies, from a student at the University of Virginia. Photo by Flickr user Phil
If there’s a conversation taking place about the prevalence of campus sexual assault in the United States, the phrase
“one in five” is usually within earshot.
“It is estimated that one in five women on college campuses has been sexually assaulted during their time there,”
President Obama said
in January. Obama has cited the statistic multiple times throughout the last few years, as have Vice President Joe Biden
and the U.S. Department of Education. Senators use the statistic when writing legislation or holding
hearings. Pundits and columnists have opened many an editorial with it, and it’s a favorite of student activists,
frequently appearing on hand-written signs at protests and marches.
it’s a number that has helped galvanize a movement — an encapsulation of just how large the problem of campus
sexual assault is. But for others, including some sexual assault prevention advocates and some who question the current focus
on sexual assault on campus, the statistic can be a distraction, a lightning rod that generates more arguments than solutions
and overshadows other research on the topic.
And many question just how accurate the figure is. John Foubert, founder of sexual assault prevention group One in Four,
said the proliferation of one-in-five “drives him nuts.”
“It’s so widespread because the of the Obama administration’s use of it,” he said. “I think they probably got some bad
advice about which stat to cite because there are more reliable stats out there. The one in five statistic, it’s from reputable
researchers and a reputable study, but you can’t really use those findings to generalize the whole United States.”
That’s because the statistic comes from a 2007 study that is based on a survey of just two colleges. Funded by the National
Institute of Justice, the “Campus Sexual Assault Study”
summarizes the online survey results of male and female students at two large public institutions. Nineteen percent, or about
one in five, of the female respondents said they had experienced an attempted or completed sexual assault since starting college.
Defining Sexual Assault
Other critics have focused not so much on the limited scope of the survey, but rather its broad definition of sexual assault,
which includes kissing and groping. The study’s definition of sexual assault includes both rape — described as
oral, anal, and vaginal penetration — and sexual battery, which was described as “sexual contact only, such as
forced kissing and fondling.” Some argue that an unwanted kiss should not be conflated with other kinds of more severe
sexual assault or rape.
A version of that debate recently appeared on ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos” during a discussion
about Rolling Stone’s article about sexual assault at the University of Virginia. When CNN’s Van Jones mentioned the one in
five statistic, Rich Lowry, editor of the National Review, interrupted her to call the stat “bogus.”
“That statistic is based on a survey that includes attempted forced kissing as sexual assault,” Lowry said. “That is not
a real number.”
“Can I kiss you?” Jones replied. “Can I kiss you here against your will? That’s an assault. That is a sexual assault.”
After reporting on a horrific case of sexual assault at the University of Virginia, Rolling Stone magazine acknowledged
discrepancies in the victim’s story, saying their trust in her was “misplaced.”
Laura Dunn, executive director of sexual assault prevention group SurvJustice, said the fact that some people still balk
at the idea of unwanted kissing being considered sexual assault is a result of the criminal justice system frequently focusing
on only the worst kinds of sexual violence. It’s caused a particular image of sexual assault to form in people’s heads, she
said, and it’s an image denies a much broader expanse of offenses.
“People who deny this issue don’t believe something like an unwanted kiss is harmful, but it is,” Dunn said. “I think there’s
an idea in our society that says if a man’s not using a gun or beating a woman, then it’s O.K. to be pushy and aggressive,
or to wait until she’s drunk. We really think of some sexual aggression as really not that bad, and that mentality extends
to the survivors as well. In these surveys, if you use broader legal terms, you actually get less reporting.”
Indeed, when a survey doesn’t include specific examples of what researchers mean by rape and sexual assault, the rate of
sexual assault is much lower because most survey respondents, she said, only include rapes and not other forms of assault.
A report released
last week by the Bureau of Justice Statistics and based on the National Crime Victimization Survey, found that the rate
for sexual assault among college women is 6.1 in 1,000. If one in five is considered by some to overestimate the rate of sexual
assault, the opposite is true for the NCVS numbers. Even the bureau itself has expressed doubts about the survey’s ability
to accurately count cases of sexual assault, and earlier this year it asked the National Research Council to look
into the matter.
The council’s conclusion: by using “ambiguous” words and phrases like “rape,” the bureau
is likely undercounting rape and sexual assault. Studies have repeatedly shown that many young women who are survivors of
rape and sexual assault have trouble identifying it as such.
Another point of confusion that surrounds “one in five,” is what it’s actually referring to. The original study suggests
that one in five college women have experienced a completed or attempted sexual assault, again with a definition that covered
just about any unwanted physical interaction. The percentage of women in the study who specifically experienced completed
sexual assaults was 13.7 percent. That some of the assaults were not actually completed is often omitted by pundits and politicians,
but it’s an important distinction, Dunn said.
“Only about one-third of campus rapes are completed,” she said.
Despite the Campus Sexual Assault Study’s shortcomings as a national barometer of the issue, other research has yielded
similar findings – though with some caveats. A Centers
for Disease Control and Prevention survey found that the rate of women who experience sexual assault is one in five, though
that rate is for all women in instead of just those going to college. That survey, too, has been questioned for its classification
of having sex while intoxicated in any way as a sexual assault.
Then there’s the statistic that gives John Foubert’s organization its name: one in four. That comes from a Justice Department
survey of 4,000 college women in 2006 that found that nearly one-quarter of college women have survived rape or attempted
rape in their lifetime, a figure that doesn’t account for sexual assaults that are not rape. While the study is of college
women, the rape could have occurred at any point in their lives.
“I think it helps to have reliable statistics as it helps people understand how massive a problem this is,” Foubert said.
“It helps people realize that this is not just happening two or three times a year on a particular campus. This is widespread.
I hope people would be concerned if this was even just happening once a year, but that fact is that it’s happening far more
than that, and we need reliable research to demonstrate that.”
A national survey conducted by the Medical University of South Carolina in 2007 found that more than 12 percent of college
women had been raped, not just sexually assaulted, which is about the same percentage of women in the one-in-five study who
said they were raped. The researchers calculated that about 5 percent of college women are raped annually, an estimate that
is backed up by separate research by the American College Health Association. That’s about 300,000 female students raped every
year, vastly larger number than what the Bureau of Justice Statistics calculates. According to its new report, 30,000 college
women were raped in 2013.
While 30,000 is a much smaller number than 300,000, many advocates say colleges should view even 30,000 as a terrible figure,
representing far too many female students whose rights have been violated and whose well-being has been endangered, and one
that should not be viewed as acceptable.
More research still needs to be done to get a better sense of just how prevalent campus sexual assault truly is, Dunn said,
but she believes the few available numbers are already painting a bleak and clear enough picture.
“I believe in the one in five statistic wholeheartedly because I am a survivor and I remember how many of my friends disclosed
that it had happened to them too,” she said. “Most women don’t doubt this statistic because we are aware in our conversations
how common sexual violence is in our experience.”
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