One in Five?

It's been used to galvanize a growing movement against campus sexual assault, but critics say an often-cited statistic about the prevalence of campus sexual assault is not very reliable.

December 15, 2014

If there's a conversation taking place about the prevalence of campus sexual assault in the United States, the phrase "one in five" is usually within earshot.

"It is estimated that one in five women on college campuses has been sexually assaulted during their time there," President Obama said in January. Obama has cited the statistic multiple times throughout the last few years, as have Vice President Biden and the U.S. Department of Education. Senators use the statistic when writing legislation or holding hearings. Pundits and columnists have opened many an editorial with it, and it's a favorite of student activists, frequently appearing on hand-written signs at protests and marches.

For many it's a number that has helped galvanize a movement -- an encapsulation of just how large the problem of campus sexual assault is. But for others, including some sexual assault prevention advocates and some who question the current focus on sexual assault on campus, the statistic can be a distraction, a lightning rod that generates more arguments than solutions and overshadows other research on the topic.

And many question just how accurate the figure is. John Foubert, founder of the sexual assault prevention group One in Four, said the proliferation of one in five “drives him nuts.”

“It’s so widespread because the of the Obama administration’s use of it,” he said. “I think they probably got some bad advice about which stat to cite because there are more reliable stats out there. The one in five statistic, it’s from reputable researchers and a reputable study, but you can’t really use those findings to generalize the whole United States.”

That’s because the statistic comes from a 2007 study that is based on a survey of just two colleges. Funded by the National Institute of Justice, the "Campus Sexual Assault Study" summarizes the online survey results of male and female students at two large public institutions. Nineteen percent, or about one in five, of the female respondents said they had experienced an attempted or completed sexual assault since starting college.

Defining Sexual Assault

Other critics have focused not so much on the limited scope of the survey, but rather its broad definition of sexual assault, which includes kissing and groping. The study's definition of sexual assault includes both rape -- described as oral, anal, and vaginal penetration -- and sexual battery, which was described as "sexual contact only, such as forced kissing and fondling." Some argue that an unwanted kiss should not be conflated with other kinds of more severe sexual assault or rape.

A version of that debate recently appeared on ABC’s "This Week with George Stephanopoulos" during a discussion about Rolling Stone’s article about sexual assault at the University of Virginia. When CNN’s Van Jones mentioned the one in five statistic, Rich Lowry, editor of the National Review, interrupted her to call the stat “bogus.”

“That statistic is based on a survey that includes attempted forced kissing as sexual assault,” Lowry said. “That is not a real number.”

“Can I kiss you?” Jones replied. “Can I kiss you here against your will? That’s an assault. That is a sexual assault.”

Laura Dunn, executive director of sexual assault prevention group SurvJustice, said the fact that some people still balk at the idea of unwanted kissing being considered sexual assault is a result of the criminal justice system frequently focusing on only the worst kinds of sexual violence. It’s caused a particular image of sexual assault to form in people’s heads, she said, and it's an image that denies a much broader expanse of offenses.

“People who deny this issue don’t believe something like an unwanted kiss is harmful, but it is,” Dunn said. “I think there’s an idea in our society that says if a man’s not using a gun or beating a woman, then it’s O.K. to be pushy and aggressive, or to wait until she’s drunk. We really think of some sexual aggression as really not that bad, and that mentality extends to the survivors as well. In these surveys, if you use broader legal terms, you actually get less reporting.”

Indeed, when a survey doesn’t include specific examples of what researchers mean by rape and sexual assault, the rate of sexual assault is much lower because many survey respondents, she said, don't immediately recognize the seriousness of what has happened.

A report released last week by the Bureau of Justice Statistics and based on the National Crime Victimization Survey, found that the rate for sexual assault among college women is 6.1 in 1,000. If one in five is considered by some to overestimate the rate of sexual assault, the opposite is true for the NCVS numbers. Even the bureau itself has expressed doubts about the survey's ability to accurately count cases of sexual assault, and earlier this year it asked the National Research Council to look into the matter.

The council's conclusion: by using "ambiguous" words and phrases like "rape," the bureau is likely undercounting rape and sexual assault. Studies have repeatedly shown that many young women who are survivors of rape and sexual assault have trouble identifying it as such. 

Similar Findings

Another point of confusion that surrounds “one in five,” is what it’s actually referring to. The original study suggests that one in five college women have experienced a completed or attempted sexual assault, again with a definition that covered just about any unwanted physical interaction of a sexual nature. The percentage of women in the study who specifically experienced completed sexual assaults was 13.7 percent. That some of the assaults were not actually completed is often omitted by pundits and politicians, but it’s an important distinction, Dunn said.

“Only about one-third of campus rapes are completed,” she said.

Despite the Campus Sexual Assault Study’s shortcomings as a national barometer of the issue, other research has yielded similar findings – though with some caveats. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey found that the rate of women who experience sexual assault is one in five, though that rate is for all women instead of just those going to college. That survey, too, has been questioned for its classification of having sex while intoxicated in any way as a sexual assault.

Then there’s the statistic that gives John Foubert’s organization its name: one in four. That comes from a Justice Department survey of 4,000 college women in 2006 that found that nearly one-quarter of college women have survived rape or attempted rape in their lifetime. While the study is of college women, the rape could have occurred at any point in their lives.

“I think it helps to have reliable statistics as it helps people understand how massive a problem this is,” Foubert said. “It helps people realize that this is not just happening two or three times a year on a particular campus. This is widespread. I hope people would be concerned if this was even just happening once a year, but that fact is that it’s happening far more than that, and we need reliable research to demonstrate that.”

A national survey conducted by the Medical University of South Carolina in 2007 found that more than 12 percent of college women had been raped, not just sexually assaulted, which is about the same percentage of women in the one-in-five study who said they were raped. The researchers calculated that about 5 percent of college women are raped annually, an estimate that is backed up by separate research by the American College Health Association. That’s about 300,000 female students raped every year, a vastly larger number than what the Bureau of Justice Statistics calculates. According to its new report, 30,000 college women were raped in 2013.

While 30,000 is a much smaller number than 300,000, many advocates say colleges should view even 30,000 as a terrible figure, representing far too many female students whose rights have been violated and whose well-being has been endangered, and one that should not be viewed as acceptable.

More research still needs to be done to get a better sense of just how prevalent campus sexual assault truly is, Dunn said, but she believes the few available numbers are already painting a bleak and clear enough picture.

“I believe in the one in five statistic wholeheartedly because I am a survivor and I remember how many of my friends disclosed that it had happened to them too,” she said. “Most women don't doubt this statistic because we are aware in our conversations how common sexual violence is in our experience.”


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