Understanding campus sexual assault statistics

Henry Thornton

Junior Editor

Author’s Note: This article will delve into the terms used in the conversation about campus sexual assault but it will not use the word rape. Rape is a felony and an issue for law enforcement. This article deals within the campus administration level of authority

1 in 4 or 1 in 5. Those are the numbers most frequently cited concerning the percentage of undergraduate women who are sexually assaulted on college campuses in America. Those numbers are misleading. They have each been cited in trusted national newspapers like The New York Times and The Washington Post. President Obama, in the unveiling of his initiative against campus sexual assault last year, said, “An estimated one in five women has been sexually assaulted female undergraduates during her college years.”

My little sister in about to turn 18 and is working on her college applications right now. The idea that she has a 25% chance of being sexually assaulted during her four years in college terrifies me. For so many of the women I care about, college has been a wonderful experience. I don’t want my sister to be scared of the experience. To really understand what those numbers meant, I dove into the issue. I felt like my sister deserved the most honest version of what to expect on campus I mean, she’s my little sister, I love her, and I’ll always feel like it’s my job to protect her. If I’m even more honest, my pride was hurt as a privileged white male. Almost all of the assailants in the surveys are men.

I found that the surveys, especially the two most heavily cited ones, were misleading. However, by every account, the sexual conduct of undergraduate males is reprehensible. I feel like it is important to note some of the problems in these numbers. I think that it helps strengthen the discussion that must keep happening. The surveys, especially comparisons between them, are muddied by different definitions of what a violation is.

I want to say at this point how much I respect the bravery of any victim who comes forward, anonymously or publicly, about an incident. What I take objection to is the misleading stats that group the experiences of victims together in an attempt to get attention. Campus sexual misconduct is a huge problem. Even when discerned responsibly these statistics are mindbogglingly awful. They are so awful that the conversation around them demands integrity, not sensationalism and flip summation.

Sewanee, it should be noted, seems to have kept this in mind while formulating the current sexual misconduct policy. They were wise to go with ‘misconduct;’ that word allows for a more developed understanding of each incident. It lets more serious allegations exist on spectrum with other, still shameful infractions instead of every incident being labeled an assault.

There are lots of problems with the base term “sexual assault.” In its reporting on the issue the New York Times says, “studies have estimated that about one in five women are sexually assaulted while at college though comparisons are difficult because the studies use varying definitions of sexual assault.” When the term ‘assault’ becomes a catchall for every kind of misconduct there is a problem. It grounds every infraction within a very specific level of seriousness and amount of intention. In the unveiling of his initiative Obama said his program seeks to defend “anybody whose oncenormal, everyday life was suddenly shattered by an act of sexual violence.” That statement, when uttered immediately following the citation of the 1 in 5 statistic, is a problem. Notably, it makes it seem like every young woman is experiencing the same trauma.

First we need to back up and learn a little about those two stats. The 1 in 5 number comes from a 2007 Justice Department survey. Information was gathered from 5,446 responders to a 15minute online survey. It was conducted across two universities. Christopher Krebs, the lead author of the report, is quoted in Slate saying, “We don’t think 1 in 5 is a nationally representative statistic” and he emphasizes the poll only encompassed two schools.

The 1 in 4 statistic (which has also been cited as 1 in 5 by some news outlets) comes from a 300 page Association of American Universities (AAU) report that was published this spring. The survey was spread across 27 campuses and it included every Ivy League school except Princeton. The survey was distributed to 780,000 students and got 150,000 responses, a response rate of 19%. David Cantor, one of the principal investigators of the survey, admits that response rate is distressingly low and is quoted in Slate saying there is “some indication that people who did not respond were less likely to be victims.” The AAU study found 23% of experienced either completed or uncompleted nonconsensual sexual contact. Nonconsensual sexual contact, as defined by the study, ranges from kissing to penetration. That is my problem with these stats, the grouping of experiences. When you restrict something as ambiguous and threatening as sexual misconduct to a binary series of questions in a survey you lose an amount of understanding. I don’t want my sister to think this one bad thing is happening to all young women. I want her to confidently move into her college years knowing the range of danger that she might have to deal with. The danger that comes from, alarmingly, but probably, some guy that looks a lot like me.

Author’s Note 2: I received two timely warning emails detailing sexual misconduct from the Sewanee police during the writing of this article.

Author’s Note 3: A big thank you to Lam Ho and Alysse Schultheis for their invaluable support in shaping this piece.