Alarming Figures

09.22.15 2:10 AM ET

Why the New ‘One in Four’ Campus Rape Statistic Is Misleading

‘One in four’ female undergrads in a new survey of 150,000 students at 27 colleges reported being a victim of sexual assault or misconduct. But read the fine print before you panic.

A new campus sexual assault survey (PDF) from the Association of American Universities finds that 23 percent of female undergraduates say they have been victims of sexual assault or misconduct.

But the new “one in four” figure from the AAU survey may mislead readers, many of whom will interpret “sexual assault” as rape or other strictly criminal offenses. A closer look at the survey reveals that 11 percent of female undergraduates said they were assaulted in a way that is consistent with criminal definitions of rape or sodomy. Half of these female undergrads said force was involved, while the other half maintained they were incapacitated by alcohol.

The AAU survey, one of the largest ever of campus sexual assault, collated responses from 150,000 students at 27 schools, including every Ivy League college except Princeton University and large public institutions like the University of Virginia and the University of Michigan. The new survey boosted the findings of previous studies—including a 2007 study cited by the Obama administration—which found that “one in five” female undergraduates had reported being victims of sexual assault.

The AAU’s “one in four” figure is already being used in alarmist news headlines and has prompted a response from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand. The New York Democrat is urging Congress to pass the bipartisan Campus Accountability and Safety Act (not to be confused with the Safe Campus Act), which was introduced this year.

“How many surveys will it take before we act with the urgency these crimes demand?” Gillibrand, who has been a leading voice on campus rape since the White House launched its campus rape task force in 2014, asked in a statement Monday.

The study clashes with data gathered by the Justice Department between 1995 and 2013, which found that college-age women who aren’t students are more likely to be raped or sexually assaulted than women who are students. The number of victims was significantly lower than those in other recent surveys: 7.6 of 1,000 non-students compared to 6.1 of 1,000 students.

AAU researchers acknowledged that their findings could reflect an inflated victimization rate at participating schools due to “non-response bias”; in other words, they determined that the hundreds of thousands of students who didn’t participate in their electronic survey (only 19 percent of those asked to take the survey did so) were less likely to have been sexually assaulted. The non-response bias further weakens the oft-recited “one in five” figure—the number of women who say they have been sexually assaulted during their college years—since AAU’s survey and others that preceded it are not representative of all college women.

Critics who took issue with vague questions and definitional language in previous college sexual assault studies will find AAU’s survey similarly problematic.

Indeed, AAU’s 23 percent figure should be interpreted within the survey’s broad definitional umbrella of sexual assault and sexual misconduct, which includes incidences of unwanted “sexual touching: touching someone’s breast, chest crotch groin, or buttocks—grabbing, groping or rubbing against the other in a sexual way, even if the touching is over the other’s clothes.”

While researchers wrote that the “sexual touching” behaviors they outlined fit with criminal definitions of sexual battery, it is impossible to know whether participants’ varying accounts of unwanted “sexual touching” would hold up in campus tribunals, let alone in criminal court.

Though the survey’s results are more nuanced in the fine print, the AAU researchers still lumped together varying degrees of “sexual assault and sexual misconduct.” This, too, could mislead readers, given that degrees of assault are generally categorized under the law and punished accordingly. And lumping assault and misconduct together may minimize more serious traumas.

Having one’s backside grabbed may feel icky and violating, but this kind of sexual misconduct doesn’t compare to being violently penetrated while sober or under the influence. If we group these offenses together on campus under a broad definition of sexual assault, campus officials and school administrators are more likely to mishandle individual cases.

Sexual misconduct is inexcusable, but a minor incident of unwanted touching should not be equated with rape. Indeed, we should educate college women to distinguish varying degrees of sexual assault while still understanding that they shouldn’t tolerate or be ashamed of speaking out about sexual assault or misconduct.

Despite the panic the AAU survey will inevitably engender among parents, the numbers yielded several positive takeaways that challenge conventional wisdom about campus rape. While advocates say most students don’t report their alleged assaults because they believe they’ll be met with skepticism, 63 percent of students who participated said they believed a report of sexual assault or sexual misconduct would be taken seriously by campus officials, and 56 percent said it was extremely likely that school officials would protect the safety of those reporting sexual assault or misconduct.

The survey is also among the first to determine incidents of sexual assault in the context of affirmative consent, the controversial “yes means yes” policy that schools across the country have been implementing since last year, when California became the first state to enact a law requiring state schools to adopt the policy. The survey found that 11 percent of undergraduate women had been penetrated or subjected to oral sex without their “active, ongoing voluntary agreement.”

One figure will likely contribute to the stereotype that elitism drives young men to take advantage of women: those at private universities were slightly more likely to be sexually assaulted than those at public universities (25.3 percent compared to 22.8 percent). Harvard has since released a statement to “Members of the Harvard Community” boasting that its 53 percent participation rate was among the highest of all participating universities, which President Drew Faust said she considered to be “a positive sign of our community’s recognition of just how serious these issues are.”

The AAU survey is surely the most nuanced and comprehensive research on campus sexual assault we’ve seen yet. But readers should closely examine the results before reciting alarmist statistics that perpetuate unfounded panic.