For years, we have heard that that 1-in-4 or 1-in-5 college women are victims of rape or sexual assault. The studies behind the statistic tended to be agenda-driven and unscientific, but now according to hundreds of news stories, there’s a new, more comprehensive survey that confirms epidemic levels of sexual predation on campus. Could these researchers be right?
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For years, we have heard that that 1-in-4 or 1-in-5 college women are victims of rape or sexual assault. But the studies behind the statistic tended to be agenda driven and unscientific. But now, according to hundreds of news stories, there’s a new, more comprehensive survey that confirms epidemic levels of sexual predation on campus. Could these researchers be right? That’s coming up next on the Factual Feminist.
Last month, the Association of American Universities released the findings of its massive new report on campus sexual assault. The authors surveyed students at 27 colleges across the US and found that 23 percent of female college seniors—nearly one in four—reported that they had experienced unwanted sexual contact since entering college.
First, the survey was offered to 780,000 students, but only 150,000 students filled it out. That’s a response rate of only 19%. The authors caution in the study that estimates may be too high because of “non-response bias”—that is, because students who have been sexually assaulted may be more likely to fill out a survey about sexual assault than those who have not. The authors also warn that their findings are “not representative” and should not be extrapolated to anything outside their frame.
Like past surveys on campus sexual assault, respondents were not asked whether or not they had ever been raped or sexually assaulted. Such direct questions are known to yield low numbers of victimization. Instead, the authors asked if students experienced a range of behaviors from forced penetration to kissing to unwanted touching or grabbing. If someone rubbed up against you in a sexual way at a party—that could count.
Using such definitions, the authors calculated the rate of college females experiencing unwanted sexual contact at each of the schools surveyed. The authors warn that it would be “over simplistic” or “misleading” to conclude that 20-25% of students are victims of sexual assault nationwide according to their findings. Well, that didn’t stop the media . “Unwanted sexual contact” became “sexual assault”—and the journalists were off to the races.
It’s far from perfect, but the best data we have on sexual assault comes from the Justice Department, Bureau of Justice Statistics. It find that approximately 1 in 53 women will be victims of rape or sexual assault while in college. That is still too many victims—but it’s vastly different from 1 in 4. And according to the latest data from the FBI, the US rape rate has been in a sharp decline for decades.
And even though politicians, journalists, and celebrities are fixated on the supposed campus rape epidemic, females are who are not enrolled in college are actually more likely to be victims of sexual violence than college women.
The Factual Feminist verdict? As its own authors admit, the new campus rape survey is flawed, it asked vaguely worded questions to a non representative sample of students who chose to participate. This is unfortunate, because even though activists tend to use unreliable statistics, sexual assault on campus is a serious problem. There are victims on campus who need protection. We badly need better policies and practices. Misleading research undermines that effort.
Do you think self-selecting surveys are a reliable way to measure an issue like sexual assault on campus? Let me know in the comments. And if you found this video useful, please show your support by subscribing to the series. Likes on Facebook are much appreciated. And please, follow me on Twitter. And thank you for watching the Factual Feminist.
Campus sexual assault: Bad statistics don’t help victims
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