Sexual Assault On College Campuses: What Do the Statistics Say?

Hannah Long, News Editor •

Between Title IX reform and the recent #MeToo movement, campus sexual assault seems like a constant topic in the news. Diagnoses vary, but what do the statistics tell us about the problem? An oft-quoted statistic, popularized by the New York Times, says “1 in 4 women experience sexual assault on campus.”

In fact, it’s more complicated. For one thing, any attempt to report on sexual assault is difficult. As Emory & Henry Project Coordinator for the Office on Violence Against Women Alana Simmons said, “People underreport [sexual assault] on college campuses for various reasons. Folks may not feel comfortable coming forward, they may not feel safe. It may be retraumatizing for them.” Using Bureau of Justice Statistics, the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network estimated that only 40% of rapes are reported to police.

Confidential surveys also struggle to obtain accurate statistics. Emory & Henry political science professor Krystin Krause has experience in shaping “victimization surveys” for crime, though not sexual assault.

Krause says it’s hard to get responses to such surveys for several reasons, most obviously because “people don’t want to reveal that to strangers, necessarily, and it’s scary to report it.”

This, she explained, can lead to “non-response bias,” which refers to when survey respondents do or don’t respond to a survey for a meaningful reason. This would cover victims not answering sensitive questions about assaults they may have suffered. Conversely, it could also refer to victims being more likely to respond.

The Association of American Universities (AAU) study responsible for the well-known “1 in 4” statistic noted this possibility in its research, finding “that certain types of estimates may be too high because non-victims may have been less likely to participate.” Krause said that “small changes” on victimization surveys she conducted on crime in Guatemala “would affect how many people said they were the victim of crime or not.” A control group exposed to articles about murder were more likely to report a crime against themselves than respondents not exposed to the articles, for instance.

Other methodological problems plague researchers, including low response rates and non-representative samples. In The Huffington Post, critic Brian D. Earp alleged that overbroad definitions misrepresent the severity of assaults at college. The AAU survey defined sexual assault as including “sexual touching,” which is, in turn, defined as everything from forcible penetration to “rubbing against the other in a sexual way, even if the touching is over the other’s clothes,” to kissing.

Krause isn’t worried by overly-broad definitions, at least as far as Title IX regulations go. She said, “recognizing the continuum is, at least in my opinion, really important,” and keeping to a strict definition that only forcible rape matters “minimizes the issue.” She added that “certain definitions of sexual assault have been dismissed for a really long time,” and that broadening the definition was a needed corrective measure, even though “we should take into account the severity” of the offense.
Above all, Krause emphasized that such survey questions are subjective, and sometimes reflect ideas in respondents’ heads at the moment more than actual experience.

She also said we should be wary of using such information to determine trends “even though it’s used that way a lot.”

Simmons said that Emory & Henry has several options open for students to report sexual assault. Besides Title IX staff, she added, “We have confidential reporters…[which] includes our chaplain, counselors in the Powell Resource Center, as well as our student nurse….Students can go to any of those three areas, talk about what’s happened, but those individuals aren’t required to disclose their name or any of that information to Title IX.”


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