The shocking statistic that 1 in 4 women will be sexually assaulted during their college career dominates headlines about sexual assault on college campuses.
Oftentimes, these headlines question the validity of the statistic, or worse yet, minimize the issue by speaking about “how far we’ve come.”
While we as a nation have made great strides in spreading awareness and information about sexual assault, movements like #MeToo cannot stop until the statistic has proven lowered and the issue is properly addressed by our society and our communities as a whole (where the solution lies in prevention of the crime in the first place, not in justice after the crime has taken place).
The 1 in 4 statistic has been a disappointingly stagnant number for the last few decades. But why? What caused such a counterintuitive shift in the number of women subjected to a terrible crime?
A possible answer lies in a number of factors, which could help to contextualize the numbers these studies publish, and shed light on the reality of the situation over time.
Where do these numbers come from, and what do they mean in our fight against sexual assault?
Since the Justice Department funded a study in 2007 which found that 19% of female students at two large universities had experienced sexual assault—either attempted or completed—the statistic has been a calling cry for the fight against sexual assault on campus. The statistic was then further cemented with a much larger study carried out by the Association of American Universities in 2015, which caused an even larger media outcry than the previous study. The A.A.U. reported the percentage of women surveyed at the 27 schools whom had been sexually assaulted was roughly 23%. This caused the headline statistic to jump from one in five, to one in four women. There was a decade, countless resources, and a tremendous effort from sexual assault prevention advocates, yet the percentage of women assaulted on college campuses appeared to increase.
The collection of the numbers themselves influenced the public outlook on sexual assault on campuses as a whole. The A.A.U. intentionally warned against using their statistic in a generalized sense—that is, they specifically asked that the number not be generalized to all college campuses across the United States. Within any survey, there will be response bias. No one was forced to take the survey. This resulted in a number of complications when trying to compile the data, as students who were not sexually assaulted were likely not motivated to answer the survey. There is a strong possibility that this could have inflated the number of students assaulted even after measures were taken to account for this kind of response bias, which the A.A.U. readily admits in the report’s executive summary.
This presents a dilemma for media outlets, because statistics are dependent upon their context. When they report that nearly one in four women are sexually assaulted, they inherently receive more attention for their article—and more attention is then paid to the issue. However, inflating numbers like this can cause a seriously demoralizing blow to organizations fighting to combat sexual assault, putting them under undue scrutiny and allowing blame to fall on them for not fixing an extremely complex issue.
How then do we use the A.A.U. report’s findings?
Compare the 2007 and 2015 studies. The former examined just two schools, the latter 27. In surveys, the larger sample typically returns numbers which more closely resemble the true statistics. So when the larger study returns a higher rate of sexual assault, it can be argued that this number—23%—is closer to the true number of women who experienced sexual assaults, but it also calls into question the thoroughness of the earlier study. With only two schools, the 19% which was found in the 2007 study shouldn’t be generalized far beyond the constraints in which the data was gathered, there’s just too much variation, too high a chance the study had gotten a bad apple, or even a good one.
In this case, the numbers suggest that the schools surveyed by the Justice Department may have had lower rates of sexual assault than the average American university. What this really tells us is that the harder we look for it, the more we find cases of sexual assault on campuses.
Why then do the numbers we uncover in studies conflict so strongly with the numbers which are found in government crime databases?
There is a fairly straight forward answer: sexual assault survivors don’t feel safe reporting the abuse.
Sexual assault is a horribly damaging crime which often leaves victims feeling unable, conflicted, or afraid to seek justice. Even worse are the cases where victims don’t know that they’ve been assaulted, allowing the crime to go essentially unnoticed. Only one in five women sexually assaulted report the crime to an authority, and even fewer report the crime to police according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network. RAINN derives much of this information from the same A.A.U. study conducted in 2015. Both the Justice Department and A.A.U. studies pointed to a number of issues which contributed to such low rates of reporting; the two most prominent were fear of backlash or reprisal for the report, or the belief that the matter was personal in nature, therefore not something to be made public.
Further complication of the collection of reliable data
Interestingly, though, lack of confidence in standard judicial channels—the belief that nothing will come of reporting sexual assault—makes up a larger percentage of responses from college students than women of the same age who do not attend higher education. While the lack of reporting to authorities doesn’t discount the findings of an anonymous survey, the hesitance of victims to report the crime does suggest there could be missing affirmations of sexual assault within the two surveys. This doesn’t necessarily mean more assaults happened than researchers thought, but it could further complicate the collection of reliable data.
Further issues with surveys can be found in their methodology, in the way that they ask questions within the survey. Spurred by a broad and often-changing definition of sexual assault, many researchers attempt to use language in their surveys which gathers data on forms of sexual assault which are less well-known as assault.
For instance, the Justice Department defines sexual assault as “unwanted sexual contact between a victim and an offender,” and it “may or may not involve force and includes grabbing or fondling” (11). In the very same document, the authors admit that the definition of sexual assault can be different depending on the jurisdiction where the crime is reported.
This affected the survey questions in both the 2007 and 2015 studies. Those researchers needed to find ways of asking the subjects about unwanted sexual contact in an abundance of ways, without explicitly stating it as sexual assault.
Suppose one school is in a state where sexual assault is defined by the letter of the law as being extremely broad, maybe including an unwanted kiss. Another school may have been in a state where the law defines sexual assault as repeated unwanted groping, but kissing is never mentioned. Asking students in the first state if they’d been sexually assaulted could potentially result in a higher response rate than the second state, so researchers chose to ask more questions about specific kinds of unwanted contact. The researchers then used a very broad definition of sexual assault for their percentages of sexual assault on college campuses. However, some of those students assaulted may not have been able to even pursue legal action following the crime.
The problem then becomes that there could still be jurisdictions where some forms of sexual assault are not formally recognized as a crime, a tragedy which makes the one in four statistic an even more frightening figure.
None of these reasons in any way diminish the power of the A.A.U. report. The statistic remains a powerful gauge for the pervasiveness of sexual assaults on those 27 college campuses. The definition of sexual assault is broadening (both for prevention advocates and legislations), growing efforts to destigmatize conversations allows for more accurate surveying, and increased efforts by researchers to gather more data result in the discovery of more occurrences of sexual assault than previous methods had been able to obtain.
The importance of contextualization
The statistic, while grim and disheartening, is actually a sign of greater awareness of the issue than has been present in the general awareness of the American public.
Rather than viewing the stagnancy of that statistic over time as the failure of countless resources and efforts to prevent sexual assaults on campus, the statistics should be seen as measures of improved efforts to identify and track sexual assault on college campuses.
Don’t allow quick facts and easy numbers to drive you into fear or complacency. Passion—strong emotional responses to the continued victimization of college students—is a powerful tool in the fight against sexual assault, but understanding the numerical trends of this same victimization must be a focus for those who want to make change happen on nationwide scale.
Research the statistics. Contextualize.
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