The Truth About Statistics of Sexual Assault in College

This is an excerpt from “The Hunting Ground: The Inside Story of Sexual Assault on American College Campuses”, a companion piece to the documentary film.

There’s been a great deal of debate around the statistics of the prevalence of sexual assault on college campuses, particularly the figure that 1 in 5 or more women are sexually assaulted while in college. Self-proclaimed experts, opinion writers, and even some professors have tried to cast doubt on these studies, claiming the science is flawed.

The truth is that nearly all of this debate has been unnecessary and distracting, since the 1 in 5 statistic has been repeatedly established in dozens of national and local studies. In fact, since 1987, six national studies – including one released in early 2016 by the Department of Justice – show that as many as 1 in 4 college women are sexually assaulted in college.

Koss, Gidycz, Wisniewski (1987)
3,187 women in 32 institutions
More than 25% of undergraduate women sexually victimized while in college

Fisher, Cullen, Turner (2000)
4,446 women in two and four year institutions
16% of women sexually victimized during the current academic year

Ford, Soto-Marquez (2015)
2,345 women in 21 institutions
25% of women sexually assaulted while in college

Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation (2015)
514 women in several hundred institutions
20% of undergraduate women sexually assaulted while in college

Association of American Universities (AAU) (2015)
89,115 women in 27 institutions
23% of undergraduate women sexually assaulted while in college

National Institute of Justice (NIJ) (2016)
15,000 women in 9 institutions
25% of undergraduate women sexually assaulted while in college (2106)

Another criticism that pundits like to put forward is that the category for sexual assault is too broad, and includes everything from forced kissing to rape. They claim by including these “lesser assaults” in the study results the statistics regarding the prevalence of sexual assault is inflated. What they neglect to say is that these “lesser assaults” are only a small portion of the total assaults. In fact, national studies show the majority of these assaults are for rape and attempted rape.

Koss, Gidycz, Wisniewski (1987) – Rape 16%

Fisher, Cullen, Turner (2000) – Rape or attempted rape 12%

Kilpatrick, Resnick, Ruggiero, Conoscenti, McCauley (2007) – Rape or attempted rape 12%

Association of American Universities (2015) – Rape 11%

National Institute of Justice (2016) – Rape – 4% (in one academic year only)

In other words, according to nearly every national study, an undergraduate woman has between a 1 in 10 and 1 in 6 chance that she will experience rape or attempted rape while in college.

Some commentators respond by claiming that the lower response rate of some of the studies invalidates their findings. They argue, without evidence, that people who’ve been assaulted will be more likely to respond to a sexual assault survey than people who haven’t been assaulted. But an equally strong argument can be made that people who are assaulted would be less likely to take the survey because answering dozens of questions about sexually assault would be emotionally re-traumatizing for them.

In fact, that the four national studies with very high response rates (Koss – 98.5%, Fisher – 86.5%, Ford 100%, and NIJ – 54%) show the highest rates of assault.

Jennifer Freyd, a highly regarded researcher at the University of Oregon, confirmed this correlation again when she analyzed the 26-school AAU study and demonstrated that schools with higher response rates had slightly higher rates of sexual assault.

There is one outlier study that opinion makers invariably point to – the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), which found a much lower rate of sexual assault. What they never disclose is that this study has been severely criticized by the National Academies of Sciences, which – in a 278-page report – unequivocally concludes that the NCVS sexual assault numbers are unreliable.

The National Academies of Sciences report lists more than twelve ways in which the NCVS study fails to employ best practices, including:

  • Not counting sexual assault while incapacitated, which in some surveys account for more than 50% of sexual assault on college campuses.
  • Erroneously basing its calculations on an average student attending college for 3.5 years, when in fact the average student now takes nearly six years to graduate, resulting in a potential undercount up to 40%.
  • Contacting students primarily using land lines and not cell phones, which are much more commonly used by college students.
  • Conducting interviews in the home, often within earshot of family members, which discourages students responding to questions about sexual assault.

Why has every opinion writer who has based their argument on the NCVS study failed to mention the critique by the National Academy of Sciences? Either they are unaware of the report, in which case they haven’t the most basic due diligence, or they are aware of it and have deliberately chosen not to inform their readership because it would undermine their argument. Either way, their omission discredits the conclusions of these writers.

This cynical attempt to manipulate public opinion and convince the public that the problem is overblown is very reminiscent of the debate around global warming. For decades, scientists have shown that human activity is contributing to a rapid rise in the earth’s temperature, yet climate denying pundits continue to claim this untrue and that we have nothing to be concerned about. In fact, one of the most prominent of these rape-denying pundits, Emily Yoffe, is also a climate change denier. Writing in an article about “The Inconvenient Truth,” an Academy Award winning documentary about global warming, Yoffe writes that it is “hard to believe assertions that the science on the future of our climate is settled when climate scientists can’t agree about the present” and “just because something can be plotted on an X and Y axis does not make it the whole truth.”

The truth is that we can, and must, rely on scientists to analyze human behavior on college campuses, and denying their expertise is a sure path to tragedy. Those who attempt to discredit the work of these scientists do much more than mislead the public; by encouraging our country to ignore this crisis, they contribute to the continuation of the problem. It’s time we come together to move beyond these harmful misinformation campaigns, acknowledge this problem, and create real and effective change for the sake of our nation’s college students.

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