Overhyping sexual assault on college campuses By Vincent Carroll
The unraveling of a Rolling Stone article on an alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia is nearly complete. It's now evident, thanks to first-rate reporting by The Washington Post, that a story reverberating across the nation as a brutal watershed in violence against college women was not merely flawed. It appears substantially false.
But that still leaves the question of just how perilous it is to be a female college student these days. Both the president and vice president have cited an estimate that one in five women in college is sexually assaulted. Another paper suggests the rate may even be one in four. And advocates of a proposed federal Campus Accountability and Safety Act are wont to depict the average college as infested with violent criminals.
"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. But today they are," maintained Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.
Let's deal with that last claim first.
"Female college students are violently victimized overall at rates significantly lower than their nonstudent counterparts. Non-student females are victims of violence at rates 1.7 times greater than are college students," according to "Violence Against College Women," a scholarly paper published this year.
One of the two authors, Callie Marie Rennison, is an associate dean and professor at the University of Colorado at Denver, and she confirmed to me that "estimates put out by the [Bureau of Justice Statistics] and our work show that in general people who are attending college and university have lower risks of victimization than people who are not."
But what about sexual assaults specifically? According to data from the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) that Rennison and her colleague used, females between 18 and 24 who weren't in college from 1995 through 2011 were also at higher risk of rape and sexual assault. Of college students surveyed during that time, 0.6 percent said they had been raped or sexually assaulted, compared to 0.8 percent of non-students.
Of course, not only do those figures undermine the claim that campuses are especially violent, they also are stunningly lower than the percentages quoted so often in stories of sexual assaults on campus. Why the disparity?
Rennison says methodology, data and definitions differ across studies and involve everything from who is a college student to the nature of an assault.
"People criticize the NCVS," she also notes, "because it's a crime victimization survey, the thinking being that if someone doesn't view what happened to them as a crime they won't tell us about it. I think the criticism is a little bit overstated but there's some truth to it."
Even so, it would take more than a modest adjustment upward to bridge the chasm that separates her study's findings from the higher figures.
Emily Yoffe of Slate argues in a recent article that some of the higher estimates are deeply misleading. For example, one widely cited study relied on an online survey at just two schools, and defined sexual assault as "everything from nonconsensual sexual intercourse to such unwanted activities as 'forced kissing,' 'fondling,' and 'rubbing up against you in a sexual way, even if it is over your clothes.' "
Such a definition may be perfectly legitimate, but it's not what many people think of when they hear that a sexual assault has occurred.
Yoffe also explains that an oft-cited estimate that 1-in-4 college females will be raped is "not based on actual evidence" but rather on "several assumptions that ratchet up the risk." Even the authors, in a footnote, acknowledge, "These projections are suggestive."
Yoffe is scathing in her overall judgment: "The one-fifth to one-quarter assertion would mean that young American college women are raped at a rate similar to women in Congo, where rape has been used as a weapon of war."
Sexual assault at colleges and universities is indeed a problem, and there is little doubt that historically many institutions have been prone to sweep the problem under the rug — or simply not take the victims seriously. Still, the hunt for reliable statistics is important — most particularly for parents and students. Would you want your daughter going to a school where her chances of being raped were 25 percent?
The uncritical acceptance of the most lurid estimates is not in the interest of administrators and lawmakers, either, who are expected to respond. At an increasing number of schools — and in the state of California by legislation — that response takes the form of requiring "affirmative assent" at each stage of a sexual encounter.
And yet, as Shikha Dalmia at Reason.com notes, "The obvious problem with the law — which many other states are considering as well — is that it assumes that sexual assault, already a crime under multiple laws, is the result of miscommunication."
The even greater problem is that it treats college students as needing special instructions for sex — and exudes an almost totalitarian eagerness for regulating private bedroom behavior.
Rolling Stone's journalistic debacle has indeed got us talking about campus sexual assaults. But a good place to begin is with a close look at the nature of the data.