The often-debunked statistic on campus sexual assault, that one in five women can expect to be attacked, has reappeared, inflated once more–this time to 23 percent–in a survey by the Association of American Universities (AAU), with the expected headlines from the expected quarters, such as The New York Times.
The general critiques of previous campus surveys apply to this one as well. First, if these numbers are true, it indicates an unprecedented wave of violent crime, yet neither the Obama administration nor college leaders are urging an increased law enforcement presence on campus. For instance, Harvard administrators called the survey “distressing” and expressed anguish—yet made no sign of calling in the Cambridge Police Department to deal with what these same administrators purport to believe is a campus crime wave.
Second, as Ashe Schow has repeatedly, and correctly, observed, framing questions in such a way to get a banner headline means the result will get a banner headline. That is, rather than asking students whether they had been sexually assaulted, this survey asked them a variety of questions that didn’t use the phrase, and then imputed sexual assault to the responses, to get the top-line figure. One of the data points from the survey revealed the problem with this approach. Of those who fit the researchers’ definition of sexual assault but didn’t report the offense, around 60 percent said they didn’t think what had happened to them was serious enough. (This number dwarfed the other reasons that students said they didn’t report, such as shame, a fear of being disbelieved, or a desire not to be re-traumatized.)
It’s simply inconceivable that a huge percentage of college women from some of the nation’s best universities don’t consider actual sexual assault to be serious enough to report—suggesting that whatever happened to these students, it wasn’t sexual assault.
The AAU survey has another significant problem, in that it appears to have dramatically oversampled one particular campus constituency—female students who reported a claim of sexual assaults to their campus. According to the latest Clery Act data, 5096 such students did so in 2013 (that number, of course, would include any males who made a sexual assault claim). Table 6 of the AAU survey informs us that, of the female undergraduates who responded to the survey, about 11 percent said they had been penetrated without consent—either due to incapacitation or force—and about one-fifth of these students had reported that offense to their college or university. (The precise reporting figures are 25.5 percent of those who said they had been penetrated without consent by force, and 14.4 percent of those who said they had been penetrated without consent due to incapacitation.)
As my colleague Stuart Taylor pointed out in a piece for washingtonpost.com, this survey data (conservatively assuming that students graduate in five years) would expect somewhere around 44,000 reported sexual assaults annually. Yet the most recent year’s Clery Act figures show 5096 reported sexual assaults. This massive disparity raises the likelihood that in a low-response survey (19 percent) that was already skewed 3:2 toward female respondents, those who considered themselves victims of sexual assault were far more likely to respond than non-victims. To their credit, the researchers concede the possibility of this over-reporting—just before they suggest that victims might not have wanted to participate in the survey, although none of the AAU’s internal data supports the latter conclusion.
One final point. Of the non-reporters, just under 25 percent said they didn’t report because the incident didn’t happen at school or that it had to do with school, presumably because the alleged perpetrator was a non-student. The Washington Post series from this summer also featured several students who said they had been sexually assaulted off-campus by non-students. Both data points are reminders that a non-trivial number of college students—even at primarily residential colleges, much less at non-residential institutions such as CUNY or some of the California state schools—are assaulted by people outside the campus community. The Obama administration and campus rape groups like Know Your IX, which champion a parallel, campus-based justice system, will do nothing for these students.
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