Questioning the Data on Sexual Assault

National Association of Scholars

How frequent are sexual assaults on campus? President Obama recently cited the estimate that one in five women enrolled in college suffer sexual assault by the time they graduate. The Bureau of Justice’s National Crime Victimization Survey, based on reported crimes, put the rate at 1 in 40. Reported crimes inevitably fall short of the actual incidence, but how much short?

The 1-in-5 statistic has prompted a lot of well-argued skepticism, and the figure indeed has a dubious pedigree. It is derived from opinion surveys in which those asking the questions took license to interpret some answers as implying that sexual assaults had occurred even if the respondents didn’t say so. To say the least, there is room for doubt about how good an estimate 1-in-5 really is.

Some who have given voice to those doubts have received outrage in return. After syndicated columnist George Will published such an article saying that the “rape culture” is largely a figment of the progressive left’s imagination, a petition demanding that the Washington Post fire him was circulated by a group called “Ultraviolet.” It garnered, we’re told, some 87,000 signatures.

I am among those who doubt the validity of the 1-in-5 claim, which is presented to evoke a campus in which males routinely use violence or the threat of violence to press unwanted sexual attention on females. But I don’t find it hard to imagine that as many as 1-in-5 recent female college graduates has absorbed the radical feminist narrative that almost any sexual interaction with a male can be interpreted as an assault. In that light, 1-in-5 sounds about right for the cohort of women graduates who have nursed grievances, disappointments, slights, and resentments to the point where, in the grim light of retrospect, they believe they were “assaulted” even when nothing happened that the law or common sense would regard as an assault.

Fortunately we have some independent data that bears on this question. But the source of the data will come as a surprise to many.

Regnerus Revisited

Mark Regnerus is the University of Texas at Austin professor of sociology who has been demonized by the academic left since his publication in July 2012 in Social Science Research of an article about adults who had grown up in households with at least one parent in a same-sex relationship. Regnerus had touched one of the third rails of the contemporary academy: his research suggested that children raised in this circumstance had significantly worse outcomes than children raised in intact opposite-sex parent households.

The data for Regnerus’ study came from a very large random sample: nearly 3,000 adults aged 18-39. But his conclusions ran counter to the beliefs of many social scientists as well as many gay activists, which resulted in a relentless campaign to discredit him. That campaign continues. In March, Judge Bernard A. Friedman, on the District Court in Detroit, added to this resolute attempt to discredit Regnerus. In his ruling striking down Michigan’s ban on same-sex marriage, Judge Friedman declared he found “Regnerus’s testimony entirely unbelievable and not worthy of serious consideration.”

The attacks on Regnerus, whether from academics, activists, or now a judge, have been, beginning to end, ad hominem. This is just what happens these days when a scholar has the temerity to present hard data that cuts against the dominant ideology.

But the story is about to get more complicated. While the flap over his earlier study has been playing out, Regnerus has been working on a new, very large survey project, “Relationships in America.” It is a nationally-representative study of 15,738 American adults, and it is just a few months old. Regnerus plans to use the data for a book he is working on about young adult sexual behavior. The book is a few years away and his data is unpublished at this point but, at my request, he pulled out of his data the respondents’ answers to a key question, “Have you ever been physically forced to have any type of sexual activity against your will?”

What the Women Say

The question doesn’t specify age or circumstance, but it tracks pretty closely with the issue of the hour. To get closer to the question of sexual harassment in college in the recent past, Regnerus focused the data on the 711 women in the study who have a four-year college degree and who are 33 or younger. In this group, 16.5 percent of the women (just about one in six) said yes.

Of course, some of those who said yes could be reporting a post-college sexual assault. To check that, Regnerus cut the sample to 156 women who had at least a four-year degree and were no older than 25. When he did this, the percentage who reported assault ticked up slightly to 18 percent.

Regnerus then went back and checked the data from his earlier study (the one that caused the ruckus over parents in same-sex relationships). He had asked the same question then and in the cohort of 116 women who had a four-year college degree and were no older than 25, he found 19 percent who said they been physically forced to have sexual activity against their will.

In both studies, the data do not allow us to distinguish between assaults that happened in college and assaults that happened at home, in high school, or elsewhere.

These statistics are not bent around anyone’s effort to prove a point. They are available by happy accident. In their light, President Obama’s figures appear to be a slight exaggeration, but close enough.

What the Numbers Mean

Raw data, however, is tricky. The real question is, “What do these numbers mean?” This is not to say that those who are skeptical about the alleged epidemic of sexual assault ought to get busy looking for frailties in Regnerus’ data. That’s what happened to Regnerus’ earlier work, and it isn’t beyond imagination that others will resume the game. There are pertinent questions which his data cannot answer. What did “physically forced” really mean to the women who reported it? How many of those reporting in retrospect reported it at the time? How we do know the respondents were telling the truth? What counts as “sexual activity?”

I would not want to use such questions to discredit the data. There is something important on the face of it that a substantial cohort of college-educated women claim to have been sexually assaulted. Those of us who are skeptical about how well the 1-in-5 estimate matches the actual incidence of sexual assault need to respond to that estimate in a sensible way—which means something other than saying that many of the respondents are liars or delusional.

Skeptics ought to allow that there could be a substantial problem, even if it isn’t exactly the problem that President Obama says it is. Taking Regnerus’ data at face value, we need to know much more about the victims, the circumstances, and the perpetrators. To what degree are sexual assaults the result of binge drinking? How deeply is the problem connected to the abandonment by colleges and universities of any meaningful role in fostering self-restraint among students? Is the idea that “mutual consent” is the only valid consideration in sexual relations a guardrail or a fuse?

What to Do

We ought to approach the issue of sexual assault and sexual harassment in the spirit of improving college life for all students, male and female, by getting serious about character development and moral self-governance. At the moment, the federal government and most colleges and universities seem intent on responding to the “crisis” by laying down more rules and enforcing them more rigorously. After an era in which too many colleges swept the problem under the rug, a switch to drumhead courts-martial has a certain appeal, but it is an appeal to be resisted. We need fairly-enforced rules but we also need something more.

And we need to realize that young men and women thrown together on campuses ruled mostly by urge and appetite are headed for trouble. Figuring out how to teach students the decencies of living in community will be harder than ever in a culture that celebrates autonomy over self-control. But until colleges and universities take on that task, sexual assaults will be a significant problem.

The rules that are now emerging compromise the presumption of innocence and frequently cast away due process for the accused males. The problem is substantial and growing. United Educators, an insurance company owned by 1,160 member colleges and universities, says that 54 percent of the claims it receives come from students who say they were falsely accused of sexual assault. Many of these end in settlements: 72 percent of UE’s payouts go to students who were falsely accused.

One organization, “Stop Abusive and Violent Environments” has been tracking lawsuits filed by male college students accused of assault against their colleges and universities for violations of due process. Some of these cases, such as that of Adam Lack at Brown University, have been widely reported and appear to involve clear mistreatment of the accused men by the universities. At the very least, the universities appear to have stacked the deck against defendants.

But we shouldn’t rush to the opposite pole of thinking that just because many accusations are unwarranted, there is no sexual assault problem at all. Perhaps what we have is not so much a sexual assault problem as a decay of social mores problem that implicates young women as well as young men, and also the older women and men who are responsible for creating a campus climate that fosters that well-being of all the students.

If we can work up the courage to say that, we still face the deeper problem of the readiness of so many young women to “interpret” sexual assaults into existence as they look back over their college years. The rise of what might be called undergraduate postmodernism is the signal difficulty here. So many students have come to accept that facts are fluid and inherently ambiguous and what really counts is the ideological lens one chooses to adopt.

The truth is that life is often ambiguous and we can, by an act of will, emphasize one sense of things and cast another aside. But that’s exactly why we need conscientious and independent efforts to get at the truth, and why we must not give preeminent place to our personal narrative. No one is a perfect judge of his or her own case.

The 1-in-5 statistic is a measure of how fragile the sense of reality has become in a culture that elevates the search for meaningful narratives above the search for truth.


  • Peter Wood

    Peter Wood is president of the National Association of Scholars and author of “1620: A Critical Response to the 1619 Project.”

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