There’s Been a Huge Increase in Campus Sex Assaults. Why?

It isn’t clear if the 205 percent increase in reported assaults, as cited in a new federal study, means there have been more actual assaults or just more reporting of assaults.

Protesters hold signs to raise awareness of sexual assault on campus

Elijah Nouvelage/Reuters

Reports of sexual assault on college campuses have surged dramatically in the past 15 years, according to a new federal study, while all other reported on-campus crimes have decreased.

But the 205 percent increase in reports of sexual assault—from 2,200 in 2001 to 6,700 in 2014—does not necessarily confirm the campus rape epidemic narrative perpetuated by high profile cases like that of convicted rapist Brock Turner and Alec Cook, who was recently expelled from the University of Wisconsin after being charged with sexually assaulting multiple women. (Cook will be tried in criminal court on June 5.)

In fact, the Education Department’s new study may indicate progress in combating the stigma of silence around sexual assault on college campuses.

“We cannot say whether the increases are a result of an increase in actual assaults, or as a result of more individuals coming forward to report assaults when they occur,” study co-author Lauren Musu-Gillette wrote in an email to the Daily Beast.

Conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics and the Justice Department, the new study looked at data collected under the Clery Act, a law which requires colleges and universities to report to the federal government all sex crimes on or adjacent to campus that are reported to school authorities.

Because sexual assault is one of the most underreported crimes, some advocates say that these figures likely underestimate the prevalence of sexual assault on campus.

“They’re similar to law enforcement statistics on sex offenses in that they’re not an accurate representation of the magnitude of the problem,” said Christopher Krebs, lead author of the National Institute of Justice's’ 2007 Campus Sexual Assault Study—the source of the widely cited “one in five” figure that has since been challenged. (Krebs himself has previously said that the number is “not a nationally representative statistic.”)

Krebs has since co-authored the Campus Climate Survey Validation Study (CCSVS), which surveyed 23,000 students at nine colleges from 2014 to 2015 and compared their findings to Clery Act data.

Released last January, the study found that participants reported 2,380 rapes compared to the 40 rapes reported under the Clery Act by the same nine schools during that 2014-2015 period.

“770 of these rapes occurred on campus, and only 160 of them were reported to authorities who would have been required to report them under the Clery Act,” said Krebs.

When weighing their data against Clery Act requirements, which only counts reported rapes that occured on or adjacent to campuses, the CCVS survey counted only 60 rapes—not a significant difference from the 40 rapes reported by the nine schools in Clery Act data.

According to Krebs, the discrepancy between the 2,380 rapes reported by CCVS survey participants at nine schools and the 40 rapes reported under the Clery Act by those schools shows that the law’s standards are too narrow.

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“To fully grasp the prevalence of campus sexual assault, you need survey data that are collected in a reliable and methodologically rigorous manner,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Association of American University Women (AAUW) recently analyzed federal data collected between 2014 and 2015—which comprises part of the latest government study—and found that 89 percent of college campuses reported zero incidents of rape during that time period.

“We’ve always emphasized that zero is a red flag, and we know that the reported incidents are just the tip of the iceberg,” said Anne Hedgepeth, the AAUW’s government relations manager. “Schools are out of touch with reality if they continue to claim that they have no sexual violence on their campuses,” she added. “It simply doesn’t square with a lot of research on campus sexual assault.”

Indeed, nearly 100 colleges and universities reported at least 10 incidents of rape in 2014, according to federal data, with four Ivy League schools—Brown, Dartmouth, Stanford, and Harvard—listed among the worst offenders.

Still, Hedgepath emphasized that the increased reports of sexual assault in the latest Education Department study—which included “fondling” in its definition of sexual assault for data collected between 2014 and 2015—suggests victims feel increasingly safer reporting campus sexual assault.

“There may still be a lot of ‘zero incidents’ on college campuses, but it’s a positive thing that more students are coming forward to report their assaults,” she said.

Both Hedgepath and Krebs stressed that climate surveys about campus sexual assault conducted by universities (or looking closely at specific universities) can shed light on the most effective methods of combat sexual violence within those communities.

“Asking students about their experiences can show schools where their Clery Act numbers may be falling short on what’s really happening on their campuses,” said Hedgepath.

Indeed, sexual assault statistics vary across universities just as they vary across in cities across the country. According to federal data, Brown University

“It’s really easy for media outlets to pick a number like the ‘one in five’ statistic” as indicative of campus sexual assault on a national scale, said Krebs. But that figure differs from school to school.

“Universities need to understand sexual assault in their individual communities to adequately address it, and rigorous survey data are the only thing that accurately reflect the scope of the problem.”