After a sensational magazine story about a brutal gang rape at the University of Virginia became largest discredited, the debate surrounding sex assault on campus took on political tones.
Rocky Mountain PBS I-News reviewed existing national research on the topic to try to determine the broad parameters of what is accurate. One finding of the analysis is that two often cited study projects came up with vastly different results.
Because sexual assault and rape are vastly underreported, as almost all sources acknowledge, it’s difficult to measure how often it happens.
The number most frequently cited is that one-in-five college women is sexually assaulted. President Obama has used the number when introducing initiatives aimed at tackling sexual assault on campus, and it’s frequently used in the press.
But that statistic has lately become a lightning rod.
The number is based on a 2007 Campus Sexual Assault (CSA) study conducted by non-profit research organization RTI International and funded by the Institute of Justice. An online survey from 6,800 students at two large public institutions found that roughly one in five senior women had experienced a completed sexual assault since starting college. A 2009 follow-up to the study found similar numbers.
Controversy over the study has focused on its relatively small scope; with only two schools surveyed, it’s not nationally representative, by definition. Christopher Krebs, the lead author of the study, says it was never meant to be.
“When you want to create a national estimate, which was never our goal, you take a much larger sample (of schools), and you would actually have to survey many fewer people at that school,” says Krebs. “We produced estimates for those schools, and shared them as such.”
Rich Lowry, of the conservative National Review, has called the number “bogus” because it includes things like attempted forced kissing.
That’s not true, says Krebs, and reflects a common misreading of the data. The one-in-five number includes only completed sexual assaults, not attempted sexual assault.
If you look at only completed rapes, notes Krebs, the headline from the CSA study is that one in seven of the college seniors in the study were raped, still a stunning figure.
Other surveys have come up with a prevalence that is in the same ballpark. A 2014 survey conducted by Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for example, found that 17 percent of its undergraduate women reported having been sexually assaulted while attending college. And a CDC study on intimate partner violence found that one in five women is raped in her lifetime.
It should be no surprise that studies with substantially different scopes and methods have come up with substantially different results. Most recently, a December 2014 analysis of the National Crime Victimization Survey conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics estimated the rate of rape and sexual assault among college women (from 1995 to 2013) at around 6.1 per 1,000 in the prior 12 months.
So why the big discrepancy? There are some glaring methodological differences between these two studies.
The first obvious one is the time span. The NCVS study measures victimization rate per 12 months, versus the entire four or five year span of college assessed in the CSA study.
Second, the NCVS is focused on assessing rates of crime, so its approach is different. Its survey is intended to measure all kinds of criminal victimization, and it’s couched that way to its respondents. Callie Rennison, a criminologist at the University of Colorado Denver and a former staffer with the Bureau of Justice Statistics who has worked extensively with the NCVS data, says that means the survey probably misses some sexual assaults and rapes.
“The fact that it’s a crime survey means that if you don’t think what happened to you is a crime,” says Rennison, “you may not be willing to tell me about it.”
If a victim doesn’t think it’s a crime, why is it worth measuring? Why not only measure acts that the victim finds troubling enough to categorize as a crime?
The problem, says Rennison, is that misperceptions about rape – that it’s an act committed by a stranger with a weapon, for example – are common even among its victims.
“Say you’re on a date and the individual you’re on a date with assaults you,” says Rennison. “A lot of people think, that’s not really a sexual assault because I knew that person.”
A third difference is that the CSA study was an online survey, versus the NCVS’ in-person and telephone interviewing. Because of the stigma still associated with being a sexual assault victim, respondents might be less comfortable talking about it with an actual person.
Finally, the NCVS study asked respondents directly whether they had been raped or experienced unwanted sexual contact. The CSA survey, by contrast, went into graphic detail about particular acts and asked whether the students had experienced these acts. The CSA method was intended to cue people who might not recognize what happened to them as sexual assault or rape because, for example, it happened when they were very drunk and unable to give consent.
Rennison has argued that the focus on sexual assault of college students has distracted from the higher rates of victimization of lower-income women.
“College campuses compared to other places are relatively safe,” says Rennison, while her dig into the NCVS data shows that women in the lowest income bracket face around six times the risk of victimization as do high-income women.
Still, she adds, questions about the rates of assault shouldn’t detract from efforts to fight it, wherever it occurs: “This is a violent crime, it’s bad and it’s happening.”
The Bottom Line: We don’t know how many college students are raped or sexually assaulted each year, or during their college careers. It may be lower than one in five college women, but it’s also likely to be higher than what’s captured in the NCVS. Researchers agree that it happens far more frequently than is reported, that it exacts huge tolls on its victims in the form of physical and emotional trauma, and that it’s a crime that goes largely unpunished. Lower-income women are likely to be more often victimized than college students.
Follow-up studies are intended to address some of the critiques of previous large-scale studies, and to get closer to the true rate of sexual assault among college students. At RTI, Krebs is planning to launch a survey at 10 to 15 universities this spring, with the idea of testing a survey that could be replicated at any college or university. And the NCVS is being redesigned, and future iterations may incorporate behavioral cues, according to Michael Planty, who heads the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ victimization statistics unit.