How many college students are the victims of sexual assault while they’re at school?
It’s a question that’s harder to answer than you might think. Conflicting data points have set off a firestorm of controversy about whether proponents of campus reforms — who emphasize that college rape is all too common — are intentionally misleading Americans about the real scope of the problem.
The argument has arisen again this week thanks to a new federal report released on Thursday by the Department of Justice, which estimates that about 0.6 percent of female college students have been sexually assaulted. That’s obviously a pretty low number, and considerably lower than the statistic that’s frequently cited by the White House in its new anti-rape campaign.
The Obama administration usually points to the results from a 2007 research project called the Campus Sexual Assault Study, which found that an estimated 19 percent of female students are victims of sexual crimes. That’s why the White House frequently asserts that “one in five women” is sexually assaulted while in college.
Critics have frequently complained that the White House’s numbers seem impossibly high. Emily Yoffe laid out the arguments against the “one in five” statistic in Slate this week, arguing that “bad policy is being made on the back of problematic research.”
But, as detailed by the Marshall Project’s Dana Goldstein, there’s a good reason for the huge gulf between the 0.6 percent and 19 percent figures. It’s really hard to figure out how to capture the scope of campus violence, so it’s not surprising that surveys with different questions and samples could arrive at drastically different results.
The Department of Justice’s National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), which is where the smaller number comes from, is a compilation of data from 160,000 American teens and adults across the country. It uses an expansive definition of “college student” that could include anyone from a full-time student living in a dorm to a full-time employee who’s taking one college class online. It asks participants whether they have been a victim of “rape” or “unwanted sexual activity” within the past six months.
The College Sexual Assault Survey (CSAS), on the other hand, focused on a few thousand female students attending two large public universities and asked questions about their entire college careers. It also asked much more specific questions, including whether participants had ever engaged in sex while they could not consent because they were intoxicated, incapacitated, or asleep.
There are trade-offs to each approach. To be sure, it’s important that the NCVS has a much larger and nationally representative sample size. But it’s also significant that the CSAS focuses more narrowly on the types of students we’re usually talking about in the context of the “campus rape crisis,” asks about a longer time period, and includes more detailed questions that could elicit a broader range of responses from people who aren’t ready to definitively say they were raped.
Struggling to figure out how to get an accurate picture of sexual crimes is hardly a new issue. Sexual assault is a notoriously underreported crime, which means it’s one that our national data from the NCVS — as well other federal reporting mechanisms, like the number of assaults that universities are required to publicize under the Clery Act — has never reflected well.
Last year, researchers from the National Research Council reviewed the way that the NCVS collects information about assault, and concluded that it needs to be overhauled in order to give us a better sense of how often rape happens.
Those researchers recommended creating a separate survey for sexual assault altogether so that it’s not lumped in with the rest of the crimes in the NCVS. They said that will help researchers target the populations most at risk for sexual assault — like residents of shelters for battered women — rather than relying on a completely randomized sample. They also suggested that NCVS interviewers should be trained specifically on issues related to sexual assault so they know how to most sensitively ask about it, and recognize that they may need to give participants privacy in order to make them feel safe enough to disclose.
There’s another way forward in this area that campus activists are pushing for: Online surveys that ask all outgoing college students about their experiences with sexual assault during their time in school. That way, colleges wouldn’t have to rely on the artificially low number of official reports that come through their disciplinary offices. And students may be able to provide a clearer picture of their experiences than federal researchers are able to capture.
The highest-profile school that has so far publicly released the results from this type of survey, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, reported that 17 percent of female students and 5 percent of male students said they’ve been sexually assaulted.
Other schools may soon fall in line. Rutgers University was chosen by the White House to pilot a climate survey to gauge students’ experience with sexual violence, and Ivy League institutions like Harvard, Yale, and Dartmouth, have already indicated that they’re planning to begin conducting similar surveys soon.
While there may not be definitive data points in this area yet, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence. Over the past several years, students at colleges across the country have come forward to say they were raped and accuse their schools of mishandling their cases. Groups like Know Your IX have united students at dozens of different schools who identify as survivors of assault, helping to spark a national movement and a renewed focus on these issues.
On the other hand, the recent fallout from the errors in a Rolling Stone report about an alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia has handed more ammunition to critics who argue that the campus rape epidemic is overblown. Those are the people who will likely latch onto the new 0.6 percent figure now that it’s been released.