Study Challenges Notion That Risk of Sexual Assault Is Greater at College


A study of sexual assault released by the federal government on Thursday challenges conventional wisdom about the heightened danger on college campuses, finding that women there are less likely than nonstudents to be victims. College women are also less likely, the study found, to report the incidents to the police.

The rate of rape and other sexual assault over the past two decades was 1.2 times higher for nonstudents of college age than for students, according to the study, by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. It showed an average of 7.6 cases per 1,000 nonstudents, compared with 6.1 per 1,000 college women. For the most recent year, 2013, those rates were almost identical, according to the study, which focuses on women ages 18 to 24.

The incidence of rape and other sexual assault has declined for college students, to 4.4 per 1,000 in 2013 from 9.2 per 1,000 in 1997. The researchers who conducted the study, however, said that the decline was not statistically significant.

Data on sexual assault are crucial as colleges face sharp scrutiny over how they handle the problem, which experts have called an epidemic. Federal officials and lawmakers trying to hold colleges accountable have citedresearch showing that one in five female students will be sexually assaulted, suggesting that campuses are very dangerous places for young women. Victims’ advocates make similar arguments.

But some researchers say the numbers released this week show that the peril has been exaggerated.

"When a student has been a victim of rape or sexual assault, there are historically problems with the way they’ve been treated, but that doesn’t mean that colleges are these pits of violence," said Callie Marie Rennison, an associate professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Colorado at Denver who has studied sexual assault. "I am sad that parents feel afraid to send their children off to college, thinking they’re going to be victimized."

The federal study uses data from the National Crime Victimization Survey,which—according to the report—offers the only comparison of rates of rape and sexual assault among students and nonstudents of college age.

A report on the study, "Rape and Sexual Assault Among College-Age Females, 1995-2013," says that while college students experience lower rates of rape and other sexual assault than do nonstudents, women ages 18 to 24 still suffer a greater incidence than do females in any other age bracket.

The new report sheds light on a variety of aspects of sexual assault involving college-age women. The offender is known to the victim in about 80 percent of rape and sexual-assault cases, it says. Among nonstudent victims, 67 percent of rapes and other sexual assaults are not reported to the police, while among college victims, 80 percent do not go to the police. While some college students report assaults to campus authorities, many do not report such incidents to the police because the criminal-justice system has frequently failed to pursue the complaints.

Government Scrutiny

The new report comes at a time when the Obama administration hasstepped up enforcement of the gender-equity law known as Title IX, requiring colleges to take steps to prevent assault and to fairly adjudicate reported cases. The Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights is currently investigating 90 colleges and universities for possible violations of the law involving alleged sexual violence.

Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, a Democrat from New York, introduced a bill last summer aimed at protecting college women, the Campus Accountability and Safety Act. "We should never accept the fact that women are at a greater risk of sexual assault as soon as they step onto a college campus," she said. "But today they are."

"It is simply unacceptable," Ms. Gillibrand added, that colleges "have become havens for rape and sexual assault."

The senator’s office did not return telephone calls on Thursday requesting a comment on the new study. Her website cites a 2005 report from the National Institute of Justice, "Sexual Assault on Campuses: What Colleges and Universities Are Doing About It," which says "college women are at higher risk for sexual assault than their non-college-bound peers."

The authors of that report acknowledge that their data differ from those of the Bureau of Justice Statistics, explaining that "the discrepancy derives from very different survey methodologies." Their report does not elaborate on the differences.

Data can help educators and advocates understand the problem, develop effective prevention strategies, and measure progress. But commonly cited statistics on sexual assault provoke debate. For example, the study that found one in five college women are sexually assaulted was based on surveys at just two universities and counted such things as nonconsensual kissing, fondling, and rubbing up against a subject.

Victims' advocates as well as lawyers who represent accused perpetrators say there's a dearth of good research on campus sexual assault. Ms. Gillibrand’s bill would require campuses to conduct surveys measuring the incidence of sexual misconduct among students. The Education Department, in settling Title IX investigations of colleges, has required several of them to collect data on students’ experiences.

The Association of American Universities recently announced that it would conduct a sexual-assault survey on as many as 60 campuses. But scholars have raised doubts about that plan, questioning the expertise of those designing the survey and criticizing a proposal to provide the results for a specific university only to that university.

As for the new information that college campuses aren’t necessarily more dangerous places for young women, some activists say the relative incidence doesn’t matter. "I’m not surprised there are alternate outcomes to studies like this," said Ayushi Roy, who graduated from Columbia University this year and is working to develop a text-messaging rape hotline for college students. "I don’t think that really affects the cause at large. Whether it’s six people per thousand or seven or 20, at the end of the day, the fact that a violent crime like this is not being treated with the gravitas that plagiarism is at most colleges."

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