Led by Dr. Kate Carey, who’s a professor at the Brown University School of Public Health, researchers surveyed nearly 500 female students throughout their first year attending a large private university located in upstate New York. By the end of their freshman year, 18 percent of participants reported that they had experienced at least one completed or attempted sexual assault.
For the purposes of this study, which was published online in the Journal of Adolescent Health this week, the researchers opted for a slightly narrower definition of rape. They focused on vaginal, oral, or anal penetration compelled either through the use of threats and physical force against the victim (“forcible rape”) or through the use of substances to render the victim incapable of resisting (“incapacitated rape”).
That means the 18 percent number doesn’t account for some forms of sexual misconduct — like unwanted groping, or being verbally pressured into sex — often included in surveys of this nature. “If we were to include all the categories of sexual assault, we would have ended up with much higher numbers, honestly,” Carey explained in an interview with Al Jazeera.
The decision to exclude some forms of sexual misconduct is perhaps intended to address the criticism that’s been leveled against previous studies in this area, some of which have been called into question for using broad definitions of rape. Many critics say that “forced kissing,” for instance, should not be grouped into the same category as forced penetration. Other skeptics say it’s misleading to equate incapacitated rape with forcible rape.
This debate speaks to bigger issues swirling around the effort to quantify the sexual assault epidemic, which has captured national headlines over the past several years amid a wave of student activism pressuring schools to stop sweeping rape under the rug. How do you accurately define assault? Who “counts” as a rape victim? And is it possible to extrapolate college-specific data to paint an meaningful picture of a national problem?
It makes sense that Americans want hard data on the subject. Particularly now that President Obama has formed a White House Task Force to focus on the issue of college sexual assault, people want to get a sense of the real scope of the problem. But the quest for hard numbers comes with its fair share of potential pitfalls.
For decades, it’s been evident that it’s very difficult to get an accurate sense of how many people experience rape. Sexual assault is a vastly underreported crime, which means that official police reports don’t provide a good metric. Self-reported surveys have become the norm, but researchers can still run into issues when it comes to getting an unbiased sample size and landing on an acceptable definition of assault.
At a basic level, it’s hard to define rape. Trying to figure out which forms of misconduct should be considered “serious” enough to count as sexual assault carries the risk of downplaying or erasing some crimes. It wasn’t until 2013, for instance, that the Justice Department finally revised its decades-old definition of rape, which used to classify the crime as “the carnal knowledge of a female, forcibly and against her will.” There’s evidence that the old definition was allowing thousands of assaults to go unrecorded.
So it’s perhaps unsurprising that, as the Marshall Project’s Dana Goldstein detailed last year, it’s possible for studies on campus sexual assault to arrive at widely different data points depending on how they structure their questions. For example, asking more specific questions that don’t necessarily use the terms “rape” or “assault” — like asking whether participants have ever engaged in sex while they could not consent because they were intoxicated, incapacitated, or asleep — can elicit more responses from people who otherwise would not have labeled their experience as rape.
The stakes are particularly high for researchers and public policy officials trying to crunch the numbers on sexual assault. One of the central critiques of the way that colleges currently handle rape cases is centered on the idea that a pervasive rape culture — essentially, a society that downplays the prevalence of assault and normalizes the sexual behaviors that can result in rape — leads people to mistrust victims’ stories. This dynamic is lurking under the surface in discussions about how to conduct accurate surveys, too. When issues arise with the data in this area, critics are quick to declare that the rape epidemic doesn’t exist at all.
Carey says that, even though it’s difficult for a single study to provide the definitive answer about how many college students experience rape, it’s important to continue collecting data in this area. She told New York Magazine that she hopes adding to the body of research on rape can facilitate a “chipping away at the social norms of acceptance” of sexual assault.
Campus activists agree. They’ve been pushing for more widespread data collection through instituting campus climate surveys that ask all outgoing college students about their experiences with sexual assault during their time in school. 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.