College Girls Are Less Likely to Be Raped Than Non-Students

Despite the focus on sexual assault on campus, a government study suggests college-age women are more likely to be attacked if they are not students.

Alessandro de Leo/Getty Images

Most recent coverage of sexual assault and rape has focused on women in college, mainly thanks to a number of high-profile news reports, including the infamous Rolling Stone feature that described a brutal rape at the University of Virginia and a Lena Dunham essay on her sexual assault while at Oberlin College.

This singular attention to rapes on campus wasn’t only in the press, though. This week, the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism held a hearing on sexual assault specifically on university campuses. In remarks, Senator Gillibrand, (D-N.Y.) urged congress to “fix a broken system,” that allows sexual assaults to go unreported on college campuses. And this fall, the White House launched “It’s On Us,” an awareness campaign with the goal of preventing sexual assault in schools.

We often focus on colleges when it comes to rape. Maybe because women with more education or higher incomes are provided more of a voice to speak in the media, or perhaps because schools as institutions are expected to rise above the criminal element—especially such a violent and barbaric one as rape. Still, many more women are facing such attacks far from college campuses and at a higher rate, according to a new report, Rape and Sexual Assault Among College-Age Females, 1995–2013, released today by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS).

In the past, women’s advocates have said the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) the source of the report’s data, undercounts rape and sexual assault victims and have criticized the survey’s questioning as flawed. These critics argue the BJS methodology excludes a number of women who aren’t clear about what rape and sexual assault is as well as victims who do not classify themselves as such due to shame, or what they consider mitigating factors like intoxication—things this survey doesn’t take into consideration.

Still, as the only survey among several to compare rape and sexual assault by college enrollment, it tells us several things about the pervasiveness of these kinds of crimes both on and off campuses:

1. Young women—whatever the setting—are most at risk.

In 2013 women age 18 to 24, were more likely to be the victims of rape or sexual assault (about 4.3 victimizations per 1,000), than any other age group (the rate for women ages 12 to 17 and 25 or older was 1.4 victimizations per 1,000). These rates are the same as they were in 1997.

2. Non-college women are more likely to be victims.

Women in college are less likely to be victims of any violent crime, according to the survey, and women 18 to 24 who don’t go to college were 1.2 times more likely than their college counterparts to become victims of sexual assault. Non-students (65,700 on average per year) were the victim of roughly double the number of rape and sexual assaults as students (31,300). The differences in overall victimization are driven mainly by the incidences of completed rape. Non-students (at 3.1 per 1,000) were 1.5 times more likely to be a victim of a completed rape than students (2.0 per 1,000).

Another oft-cited national survey from 2000, the Sexual Victimization of College Women, found the opposite to be true: that college women are more likely to experience rape or sexual assault. This study uses behaviorally specific questions (“When you were drunk, high, drugged, or passed out and unable to consent, how many people ever had vaginal sex with you? By vaginal sex, we mean…” as opposed to the NVCS’s “has anyone attacked or threatened you with any rape, attempted rape, or other type of sexual attack?) This behaviorally specific questioning method generally results in higher incidence rates than the ones used in the BJS report.

3. Rape and sexual assault may be less of an epidemic than other studies suggest.

This study uses the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), which is really a tool that tracks crimes. Rape and sexual assault in this survey includes completed and attempted rape, completed and attempted sexual assault, and threats of rape. There are other surveys that study rape and sexual assault in college-age women, including the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS) and the Campus Sexual Assault Study (CSA), both of which report higher rates of victimization, (2 to 14 percent, respectively).

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This difference matters. These other surveys that show higher much higher rates include unwanted sexual contact that a victim may or may not consider to be crimes. This survey also doesn’t ask respondents about situations where a respondent might not have been able to consent.

4. Men can be victims, too.

Though fewer college-age men are raped or sexually assaulted than women, it happens to about 9,400 men annually. Men ages 18 to 24 enrolled in college were more likely to become a victim. Men in college were raped or sexually assaulted at a rate of 1.4 per 1,000, almost five times the rate of non-students (0.3 per 1,000). Men made up 17 percent of rape and sexual assault victims in college and just 4 percent for nonstudents.

5. Women usually know their attacker.

In results that the study’s author, statistician Lynn Langton, told me were “important but not surprising,” more than three in four college-age women, regardless of enrollment status knew the person who committed her rape or sexual assault. Non-students (34%) were more likely than students (24%) to be raped or sexually assaulted by a current or former boyfriend or spouse, while students (50%) were more likely to be friends or acquaintances with their attackers than non-students (37%).

6. Victims aren’t reporting.

Rape and sexual assault, whatever the setting, goes largely unreported. A staggering 80 percent of college women do not report the crime to police, compared to 67 percent of non-students. About a quarter of all women who didn’t report said the incident was a “personal matter,” and student victims (12%) were more likely to call the rape or sexual assault, “not important enough to report”, compared to nonstudent victims (5%).

Read the full report here.