For years, advocates for colleges to do more to prevent and punish sexual assault on campus have cited a 2007 federal statistic that one in five female students experience sexual assault in college. President Obama and members of Congress have used the statistic, as have many others. But the statistic has been questioned for as long as it has been around. It is based on a survey of only two colleges and includes a definition of sexual assault so broad that, critics say, an unwanted kiss is effectively counted the same way as a rape.
Other studies (typically with different definitions) have offered conflicting data. A 2014 report by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics found that 6.1 female students per thousand were raped or sexually assaulted in college, and that the rate was higher for nonstudents. Some activists for victims of sexual assault have stopped using the one in five figure.
But the 20 percent figure received renewed backing on Friday when The Washington Post released a new national survey of college students, conducted with the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and avoiding some of the shortcomings of the 2007 study. The Post's finding? One in five female college students experience sexual assault while in college. The survey also found that 5 percent of college men experience sexual assault.
Unlike the 2007 study, The Post's sample is national. Further, it defined sexual assault more narrowly than did the 2007 survey (although not narrowly enough for some critics).
While people may agree that sexual assault is terrible if it happens to even 1 percent of female students, the validity of the 20 percent figure is an important issue. Those who want colleges to toughen their rules and those who want new legislation from Congress or state legislatures have a stronger case when they are talking about a widespread problem. Many of those who argue against new legislation or new rules have repeatedly expressed doubt about the 20 percent figure -- so debates over the magnitude of the problem are linked directly to debates over policy questions.
In explaining the methodology of the Post/Kaiser survey, the newspaper said that it avoided simply asking students if they had been sexually assaulted because students would use different definitions. Instead, the survey findings are based on asking students if they had experienced any of five incidents that were counted as sexual assault: forced sexual touching, oral sex, sexual intercourse, anal sex and sexual penetration with a finger or object.
For any of the above to count as sexual assault, the incident had to involve either physical force (including threats of force) or incapacitation (typically due to alcohol or drugs) past the point where consent could be given. In the survey, 9 percent of women reported physical force and 14 percent reported incapacitation. Those numbers add up to more than 20 percent, because 3 percent of female students reported being sexually assaulted both with physical force and through incapacitation. For male students, the figures were 1 percent involving physical force, 4 percent involving intoxication and less than 1 percent reporting both.
The figures do not count "unwanted" but not forced sexual contact, or attempted but not completed sexual assaults, although the survey asked about and reported on such incidents.
The survey asked a series of questions about behaviors of female students who reported being sexually assaulted. Eighty-nine percent said that no one was held responsible for the assault. That figure may reflect the relatively small percentage of women who report assaults to the college or local police -- only 12 percent.
Sixty-two percent of women who report being sexually assaulted said that they had been drinking alcohol shortly before the incident. And 47 percent reported that their attacker was someone they knew very well or fairly well. Only 28 percent said it was someone that they did not know at all.
In the last two years, students on many campuses and many politicians have repeatedly criticized colleges for not doing enough to deal with sexual assault issues. But the Post/Kaiser survey found that more than two-thirds of students gave their colleges an A or a B for the way they handle sexual assault complaints. Only 8 percent gave a D or an F.
The Post/Kaiser survey is not the only new research that has suggested the assault of female college students is all too common.
A study released last month found that 18.6 percent of women at a university in upstate New York who started there in 2010 experienced either rape or attempted rape in their freshman year. The study was published in The Journal of Adolescent Health. Numerous studies on campus sexual assault -- with varying definitions of sexual assault -- have prompted much debate over how prevalent rape and sexual assault are on campus. This study used a narrow definition of rape as “vaginal, oral or anal penetration using threats of violence or use of physical force, or using the tactic of victim incapacitation.”
Will the New Study Change the Debate?
The Post/Kaiser survey attracted immediate attention in the traditional press and social media. But will it draw more support for the view that 20 percent of college women are sexually assaulted?
Some critics of the 2007 study were quick to criticize this one as well.
Via email, Cathy Young, a contributing editor at Reason who has written extensively about sexual assault on campus, said she was concerned about basing totals in part on those who experienced certain behaviors while intoxicated. "The question about incapacitated sex is prefaced by an introduction in which respondents are told that 'drunk' equals incapacitated and unable to consent, so it's really difficult to know how many respondents were talking about actual incapacitation (i.e., being passed out or severely disoriented) and how many about impaired judgment," she said. "This is particularly true since many colleges now have training programs that define all drunk sex as incapacitated."
David French, a writer for National Review, published a piece calling the new study "bogus" because it asked both about sexual assault and various forms of unwanted sexual conduct that may not be illegal. (The survey does note this and reports separately on unwanted sexual behavior that it does not classify as sexual assault.)
He also noted that the poll found students more concerned about alcohol and drug use on campus than sexual assault, and said he feared that the survey would create more pressure on colleges to adopt unwise policies on sexual assault rather than focusing on what he considers more widespread problems.
"The sexual revolution has failed America’s college students," he write. "In their quest to create a campus sexual utopia, administrators and professors instead preside over an alcohol-soaked hookup culture where very large numbers of students have regrettable sexual experiences -- including experiences that can be completely lawful while still inflicting lasting psychological harm. Yet even in this atmosphere, serious sex crimes -- thankfully -- are on the decline, and college students are safer from true predators than nonstudents."
Others, however, were more impressed with the findings.
John Foubert is professor of higher education and student affairs at Oklahoma State University and president of a group called One in Four, which gets its name 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. He has been critical of the one in five figure that has been widely used based on the 2007 report.
He said that while he prefers peer-reviewed studies, he was impressed with the Post/Kaiser poll and that it seemed sound. He said he thought the definitions of sexual assault, going beyond rape, were appropriate.
Kevin Kruger, president of NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, said via email that he thought the numbers sounded "about right" and consistent with other surveys he considers reliable.
In terms of impact, he said he didn't think it would be huge on campuses. "This issue is already the number-one issue for virtually every campus. Increased staffing, more training with boards, students and staff have been implemented. Everywhere I go, this is still a major focus for every campus and student affairs division," he said.
There may be more of an impact off-campus, Kruger said. "I do think this Post research will create more energy from external stakeholders -- to increase compliance and regulatory expectations for campuses. Unfortunately, the public still feels that campuses are more concerned with reputation than addressing the problem and supporting victims -- an opinion… that I do not support."