Rape is a serious matter. That is why it is unfortunate that a Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll, using a small student sample that does not distinguish between unwanted touching and rape, has concluded that 25 percent of college women are sexually assaulted every year.
On Sunday the Washington Post devoted half its front page and three full inside pages to this poll and sexual assault on campuses.
Yet if parents really thought that their daughters had a 25 percent chance of being assaulted when they went off to college, they would not place them in such danger. Living at home during university years would be more prevalent and single-sex colleges such as Bryn Mawr or Smith would be more popular than Yale or Harvard. Instead, women flock to coed universities, where they are awarded 58 percent of BA and MA degrees.
The Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll sampled 1,053 students aged between 17 and 26 at 500 colleges and universities across the country. This is a tiny fraction of the 21 million students enrolled in post-secondary education, not enough to be a representative sample.
As with a 2010 report by the Centers for Disease Control, which concluded that 18 percent of women have been raped at some time in their lives, the definition of sexual assault is overly broad and leads to misleading conclusions. As well as traditional definitions of rape, it includes “forced touching of a sexual nature.”
Of course, this kind of behavior is unwanted and unpleasant, but defining it as sexual assault confuses the issue.
Perhaps the loose definition of sexual assault is why the Post stated that “students do not put sexual assault atop a list of possible concerns about their school” and “more than two-thirds gave their schools an A or a B in their handling of complaints.” According to the poll, only 37 percent of students thought that sexual assault was a serious issue on the campus.
In most of the cases described by the reporters, women are assaulted while under the influence of alcohol. They wake up not knowing whether they were raped or not. That’s probably why well over half the students polled thought that alcohol and drug abuse were problems.
The 2010 CDC survey whittled an original list of 201,881 phone numbers down to 16,507, only 8 percent of the original sample, and then asked ambiguous questions to gauge whether the respondents were victims of sexual assault.
For example, the survey asks, “When you were drunk, high, drugged, or passed out and unable to consent, how many people have had vaginal sex with you?” To a typical respondent, it is not clear whether the condition of “unable to consent” applies to “drunk, high, drugged,” or if “unable to consent” is a separate condition.
After the questions are answered, it was the surveyors, rather than the respondents, who determined whether the respondent had been raped.
Both the Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation and the CDC results clash with the Bureau of Justice Statistics data, which publishes an annual Criminal Victimization survey. The latest data for 2013, released in September 2014, show rape/sexual assault rates of 1.1 per 1,000 people in 2013, down from 1.3 per 1,000 people in 2012, both reported and unreported rapes.
The popular view is that colleges are not doing an adequate job of protecting women on campus. The Office of Civil Rights of the Department of Education is requiring colleges to hire more administrators to investigate and stop sexual assault, adding to university bureaucracy and tuition costs. The Post calls for additional student training to encourage bystanders to step in when they perceive a problem.
In order to address the problem of rape it is important to have the right numbers. That’s why including unwanted touching and rape in the same category as sexual assault confuses the issue and prevents the development of real solutions.
The long Washington Post story included many interviews with women who had drunk too much and had sexual encounters that they regretted afterwards. Some others who were not drunk were attacked by unknown men. These are different problems calling for different solutions.
It is clear that excessive drinking is contributing to cases of sexual assault. The drinking age of 21 prevents open campus pubs or bars where students can drink together socially. Instead, students binge in their rooms before parties. Binge drinking is more of a problem in the United States than in Europe, where the drinking age is lower. Perhaps the drinking age needs to be reconsidered so drinking can come out of the closet.
Traditional feminists used to say that women are strong and intelligent, that they can look after themselves, and that they can move into male-dominated professions and aim for the CEO’s corner office. Curbing excessive drinking for both men and women is a good way to show strength and to avoid tragic occurrences.
The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation no doubt mean well with their survey. But their alarming results clash with reality. Young American women are neither naive nor foolish nor merely passive victims. They do not go to college to face a 25 percent likelihood of being raped. Nor do their parents place them in such situations.
Far fewer but still all too many women actually are raped each year. Some are on college campuses. Many are not. Their trauma and suffering are trivialized by reporting that conflates unwanted touching with rape. It is time the Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation focused on the real victims of criminal rape.